Kadhim Ajrash
Bloomberg News

Iraqi military helicopters are bombing the hometown of former President Saddam Hussein to dislodge an al-Qaeda breakaway group, whose advance against government troops this month has raised the risk of civil war.

“We’ve been hearing the bombardment since dawn,” Khaled al-Samarraei, 45, said by phone from his home in Tikrit, 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Baghdad. “We’re hearing helicopters hovering above and the thud of mortar rounds landing.”

Iraqi forces, backed by helicopters, began an assault to retake Tikrit yesterday and have already taken control of the city’s university, state-sponsored Iraqiya television said today. Tikrit fell to ISIL this month after the group captured Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city. The militants executed as many as 190 men in at least two locations in Tikrit between June 11-14, Human Rights Watch said, citing analysis of photographs and satellite imagery.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking to regain the initiative in the fight against ISIL amid pressure from opponents to step aside to allow the formation of a unity government that could address the demands of marginalized Sunnis. U.S. President Barack Obama, while agreeing to send military advisers to help the Iraqi military, has refrained from ordering air strikes against the gunmen, putting the onus on Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government.

Maliki said he had to buy used fighter jets from Russia and Belarus after long delays in the delivery of F-16 planes from the U.S. left troops without air support.

U.S. Response

“We shouldn’t have just bought U.S. jets, we should have bought British, French and Russian jets to provide air support. If we had air support, none of this would have happened,” he said in an interview with BBC Arabic, according to excerpts e- mailed yesterday.

The U.S is delivering the first F-16 aircraft “as quickly as possible” and has said all along that they’ll be handed over in the fall, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in Washington yesterday. He also said that the remaining 200 of 500 Hellfire missiles approved for delivery to Iraq will be sent in the coming weeks.

Iraq’s parliament is set to convene on July 1 to start choosing a president and prime minister after April elections. The process of forming a government took eight months after the previous vote four years ago.

Maliki has been criticized for sidelining Iraq’s Sunni minority, some of whom have supported ISIL in the largely Sunni areas it has overrun. The premier has blamed Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, for fomenting unrest.