and Glen Carey
BAGHDAD: Russian military advisers landed in Iraq to prepare its air force to use newly delivered Russian fighter jets in its campaign against Sunni militants, as government forces pressed their offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit.
Iraq received five used Russian Sukhoi combat aircraft, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Sunday. Russian advisers are helping to put the “logistical procedures in place” to use them, air force commander General Anwar Ameen said on state-run Iraqiya TV.
“In three to four days, the Sukhoi will enter service, and we will attack these terrorists,” he said.
As Iraq boosted its air force capabilities, a government official claimed gains in Tikrit, where ground forces backed by helicopter gunships have embarked on their first concerted effort to repel armed men from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda breakaway.
Troops cleared Tikrit University of ISIL militants, killing 70 fighters in ongoing battles, Qassem Ata, an Iraqi security spokesman, said in a news conference.
“Progress is better than expected,” he said of efforts to retake the northern city, which ISIL seized after capturing Mosul this month. The group, which first made headlines in its fight to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, also holds territory along the borders with Jordan and Syria.
Iraqi forces have killed a total of 142 ISIL militants in three provinces, Ata said.
Concern that ISIL’s advances may reignite a sectarian civil war in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ No. 2 producer has roiled the region’s stock markets and global energy markets.
Critics of the Shiite-led government, including the U.S., say sectarian rifts have helped ISIL consolidate its control over areas of Iraq. They’ve pressed Iraqi leaders, whom they accuse of sidelining the country’s Sunni minority, to form a more inclusive government, saying military might alone won’t resolve the crisis.
On June 27, Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged politicians to agree on a new government, saying that picking a prime minister, president and speaker when the legislature meets Tuesday will lead to the “desired solution.”
Amid the appeal for political solutions, a massive Russian cargo plane unloaded the Sukhoi fighter bombers at night.
Iraqi military personnel watched at an undisclosed airport, a video broadcast by Iraqiya showed.
“One day after the Russian deputy foreign minister said that Moscow would not stand by idly, the Kremlin delivered the first of 25 Sukhoi fighter jets to Iraq,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“The delivery is to illustrate the Kremlin’s quick action to help the Iraqi government fight the opposition,” Karasik said.
“The move is also part of guaranteeing that any future government in Baghdad will be tied to Moscow for military equipment. It is smart business as usual,” he said.