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Iraq forces launch push for insurgent-held city

  • Smoke rising in the skyline after airstrikes by the Iraq military in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. The Iraq military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul early Saturday. One of the air raids hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said. (AP Photo)

    Smoke rising in the skyline after airstrikes by the Iraq military in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. The Iraq military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul early Saturday. One of the air raids hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said. (AP Photo)

  • Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

    Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

  • Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint outside of Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

    Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint outside of Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

  • Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China's official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

    Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China's official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

  • Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China's official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

    Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China's official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

  • A displaced Iraqi Christian man who fled from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, lies on the ground at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

    A displaced Iraqi Christian man who fled from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, lies on the ground at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • Displaced Iraqi Christian boys who fled with their parents from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, wear masks at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

    Displaced Iraqi Christian boys who fled with their parents from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, wear masks at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • Displaced Iraqi Christian girls who fled with their parents from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, play by their balloons at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

    Displaced Iraqi Christian girls who fled with their parents from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, play by their balloons at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • In this Friday, June 27, 2014 photo, an Al-Qaida-inspired Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) flag and a banner reading "the Emirate of Ninevah welcomes you," is seen on the top of Mosul Hotel in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. The Iraq military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul early Saturday. One of the air raids hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said. (AP Photo)

    In this Friday, June 27, 2014 photo, an Al-Qaida-inspired Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) flag and a banner reading "the Emirate of Ninevah welcomes you," is seen on the top of Mosul Hotel in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. The Iraq military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul early Saturday. One of the air raids hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said. (AP Photo)

  • Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

    Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

  • Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

    Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

  • Smoke rising in the skyline after airstrikes by the Iraq military in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. The Iraq military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul early Saturday. One of the air raids hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said. (AP Photo)
  • Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
  • Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint outside of Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
  • Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China's official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
  • Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China's official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
  • A displaced Iraqi Christian man who fled from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, lies on the ground at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
  • Displaced Iraqi Christian boys who fled with their parents from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, wear masks at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
  • Displaced Iraqi Christian girls who fled with their parents from the Christian village of Hamdania near Mosul province in Iraq, play by their balloons at a temporary shelter for the displaced Christian families in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, with a majority Christian population, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Around 2,000 Christians had entered the Kurdish city of Irbil by Thursday morning, June 26. A Christian official there said the Kurdish region is the only part of Iraq where Christians are protected from violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
  • In this Friday, June 27, 2014 photo, an Al-Qaida-inspired Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) flag and a banner reading "the Emirate of Ninevah welcomes you," is seen on the top of Mosul Hotel in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. The Iraq military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul early Saturday. One of the air raids hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said. (AP Photo)
  • Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
  • Iraqi federal policemen patrol in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib suburb, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

The Iraqi government launched its biggest push yet to wrest back ground lost to Sunni militants, as soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships began an offensive yesterday to retake the northern city of Tikrit.

There were conflicting reports as to how far the military advanced in its initial thrust toward Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Residents said militants were still in control of the city by nightfall, while Iraqi officials said troops had reached the outskirts and even pressed deep into the heart of Tikrit itself.

What was clear, however, was the government’s desire to portray the campaign as a significant step forward after two weeks of demoralizing defeats at the hands of insurgents led by the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The militants’ surge across much of northern and western Iraq has thrown the country into its deepest crisis since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011, and threatens to cleave the nation in three along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Iraq’s large, U.S.-trained and equipped military melted away in the face of the militant onslaught, sapping morale and public confidence in its ability to stem the tide, let alone claw back lost turf. If successful, the Tikrit operation could help restore a degree of faith in the security forces – as well as embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to keep his job.

Yesterday’s fighting began before dawn with helicopter gunships carrying out airstrikes on insurgents who were attacking troops at a university campus on Tikrit’s northern outskirts, Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. The government forces had established a bridgehead on the university’s sprawling grounds after being airlifted in the previous day.

Sporadic clashes continued throughout the day at the university. At the same time, several columns of troops pushed north toward Tikrit from Samarra, a city along the banks of the Tigris River and home to an important Shiite shrine, a senior security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

By sundown, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef, a commander in the Salahuddin Operational Command, said a column of troops had reached the edge of Tikrit, while another had secured an air base that previously served as a U.S. military facility known as Camp Speicher.

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