BAGHDAD — The Iraqi army on Saturday drove Islamic extremists from the center of a major city in central Iraq, for the first time mounting a concerted assault against insurgents who had charged to within 50 miles of Baghdad.
Independent sources, including local officials and witnesses, confirmed that an Iraqi army counteroffensive had driven militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, from the center of Tikrit, including from government buildings as well as from major roads and other positions throughout the city.
But fighting was still continuing, with Iraqi war planes bombing targets inside the city late in the afternoon.
Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, with a largely Sunni population of 250,000, is in the Tigris River valley, 100 miles north of Baghdad. It has long been a stronghold of anti-government Sunnis in Iraq, and losing it would sever the insurgents’ lines of communication to Mosul and Syria. It could also strand some of their fighters in pockets south of Tikrit.
Some Iraqi military analysts said they thought it was no coincidence that the army’s counteroffensive was launched now, with 180 of the 300 U.S. advisers ordered to Iraq by President Barack Obama arriving over the past three days, but Iraqi officials denied that there was any American role.
If the advances by the Iraqi army are sustained, and even built upon, it would provide a much needed morale boost for an army that lost as much as a fourth of its soldiers and equipment when ISIL overran Mosul, and has lurched from one embarrassment to another since then. It has given up the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to Kurdish forces. And it has lost all of its border crossing points with Syria and Jordan to the militants, ceding to them control of most of four major provinces extending more than 200 miles from north to south.
A spokesman for the Iraqi military, Gen. Qassim Atta, claimed that ISIL militants were withdrawing and that they had buried their dead on the grounds of a former Hussein palace in Tikrit. “Reports and surveillance show that ISIS leaders have ordered a retreat,” he said, using another acronym for ISIL, which is also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Atta also said the government forces had killed Abu Abdul Hadi Baqiya, the ISIL commander for northern Tikrit.
Reports from medical officials at the provincial hospital in Tikrit said that ISIL had begun evacuating its wounded from the site on Friday.
ISIL, however, claimed a victory over government forces at the southern gates of the city, in postings on Twitter accounts associated with the extremists.
In other clashes, like the battle for control of the important Baiji refinery in Salahuddin province, both sides have sometimes traded control of contested territory on an almost daily basis.
“The signs of success are clear, and there is a very big change in the performance of the security forces, and now we can say the initiative is in the hands of the Iraqi forces,” said Ahmed al-Sheraifi, a former air force pilot and now a professor at Baghdad University.
Sheraifi attributed the improved performance to intelligence support contributed by U.S. drones, which have begun flying over Iraq, as well as to American advice on tactics. “The security forces began relying on their airborne division, and this is a trademark of U.S. tactics,” he said.
The Iraqi army’s counteroffensive began Thursday with an airborne assault on the campus of Salahuddin University, which drove the militants out of that site. Early Saturday morning, after two days of fighting around the university, in downtown Tikrit, the Iraqi army launched a three-pronged attack, with a large body of ground troops driving into the city from the south and east, joined by troops garrisoned in Camp Speicher, north of the city, an Iraqi air force training base that never fell to the insurgents.
It appeared that the offensive in Tikrit was costly to both sides, with ISIL planting bombs along the highways leading to the city, and sending suicide bombers against Iraqi armored vehicles. The militants, in their Twitter posts, admitted to losing 30 fighters, but also claimed to have destroyed eight Iraqi tanks with suicide attacks. Atta claimed that Iraqi forces had killed 29 of the extremists in Tikrit.
There were also numerous reports of violence elsewhere in the country on Saturday, with unidentified aircraft bombing militant positions in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, while the Sunni militants blew up two Shiite mosques in Mosul and shelled a Shiite neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad, Sabaa al-Bour, killing four civilians, according to the police and medical officials.
In western Anbar province, nine members of an Iraqi police SWAT team were killed when a roadside bomb blew up their convoy near Ramadi, security officials there said. And nine civilians were killed when ISIS shelled the center of Ramadi, according to hospital officials and witnesses.
In a news conference Saturday, Atta confirmed that U.S. advisers had arrived in the country and were in touch with their Iraqi counterparts, but he said they had no active role in current military operations.
“Until now the Iraqi forces are carrying out the plan, there is full control of the ground operations,” he said. “We are still coordinating with the American side in relation to the study of important targets. Soon it will be clear what they are going to be doing.”
Aside from its importance as a stronghold for hard-line Sunnis, Tikrit has a more immediate resonance with Iraqis. Early in its advance toward Baghdad, ISIL boasted that it had killed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, many of them air force recruits who tried to flee from Camp Speicher, while other Iraqi soldiers stayed there to defend it.
The group posted numerous photographs said to show mass killings of the prisoners there, and Human Rights Watch described the events as clear evidence of war crimes committed by the insurgents.
There were numerous reports of fighting Saturday throughout the area where ISIL has been active, including Anbar, Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces, and also on the outskirts of Kirkuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Witnesses reported seeing aircraft bombing four sites around insurgent-held areas of Mosul, although there was no confirmation of the aircrafts’ origin. Iraqi officials said their aircraft had flown 96 sorties against the militants in the past day, but did not mention Mosul.
“The Iraqi security forces really need to gain a clear and big victory in order to boost morale and restore confidence in their combat abilities,” said Amad Below, a retired Iraqi general and military analyst. He, too, said it was clear that intelligence information had started to flow to Iraqi officials, which, he said, “has been reflected in the troops’ performance in the last two days.”
Ahmed Saadi, a university student from Salahuddin province, fled the fighting because of his wife’s pregnancy and came to Baghdad; now he plans to return home Sunday. “When I follow the news on TV and my friends call me from Salahuddin, I feel that our forces are on the right track, now we believe in them and they can protect us,” he said.