BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi military and witnesses say government helicopter gunships have conducted airstrikes in the northern city of Tikrit.
Tikrit is the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein and one of two major cities to fall in recent weeks to the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and allied Sunni militants.
Chief Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi says the air raids targeted Sunni insurgents attacking army troops, who have established a bridgehead at a university campus on the city’s northern outskirts.
Government troops were ferried in by helicopter to the sprawling campus early Friday morning.
A Tikrit resident confirmed that air raids took place at the University of Tikrit around dawn Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
Iraq’s feuding political leaders are under mounting pressure to set aside their differences after a call by the country’s most revered Shiite cleric for an agreement on the next prime minister before parliament meets next week.
The appeal by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Friday came as the country seems increasingly in danger of falling apart, with the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant having seized much of northern and western Iraq and the Kurds asserting control over long-disputed territories outside their autonomous region.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc won the most seats in April’s election, but he is now fighting for his job, with even fellow Shiite allies and key patron Iran exploring alternatives to replace him. Critics have charged al-Maliki with monopolizing power and failing to address long-festering grievances by the Sunni minority.
But al-Maliki, who has governed the country since 2006, has proven to be a savvy and hard-nosed politician, and so far he has shown no willingness to step aside.
Less than three years after the last American troops left Iraq, Washington has found itself being pulled back in, with drones now flying over Baghdad to protect American civilians and newly deployed U.S. military forces.
Washington has stopped short of demanding al-Maliki step aside, but in what is widely seen as veiled criticism of his divisive leadership, has called for a more inclusive government.
Al-Maliki personally won the most votes in April, and his State of Law bloc won the most seats by far, but he failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone, leaving him in need of allies to retain his post.
That has set the stage for what could be months of arduous coalition negotiations. After 2010 elections, it took Iraqi politicians nine months to agree on a new prime minister. Now, unlike four years ago, the territorial cohesion of Iraq is at stake.
Seizing on the sense of urgency, Sistani called on politicians to agree on the next prime minister, parliament speaker and president by the time the new legislature meets on Tuesday, a cleric who represents him said in a Friday sermon.
Doing so would be a “prelude to the political solution that everyone seeks at the present,” the cleric, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie told worshippers in the holy city of Karbala.
The reclusive al-Sistani, the most revered figure among Iraqi Shiites, rarely appears or speaks in public, instead delivering messages through other clerics or, less frequently, issuing edicts.
In Washington, the Obama administration backed al-Sistani’s call for Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government “without delay.”
“It’s my understanding he was calling for a process that’s in line with the constitution, just to do it very quickly,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. “Which we certainly agree with because we think the situation is so serious that they need to move with urgency.”
Still, the probability that Iraq’s deeply divided political class can mend its differences in the span of days is unlikely.
The United States and other world powers have pressed al-Maliki to reach out to the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Sunnis have long complained of being discriminated against and unfairly targeted by the security forces.
The Islamic State has taken advantage of Sunni discontent to fuel its rise. The group’s stunning advance earlier this month, in which it seized Iraq’s second largest city Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, was made possible in part because Iraqi security forces melted away in the face of the onslaught.
The United States has already deployed 180 of 300 troops promised by President Barack Obama to assist and advise Iraqi troops. The U.S. also has started flying armed Predator drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. interests in the Iraqi capital, a Pentagon official said Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the new flights on the record.
On Friday, al-Maliki warned army commanders in televised comments that militants were likely to try to undermine security in the Iraqi capital ahead of Tuesday’s parliamentary session.
But he struck an upbeat tone about the military situation, saying the armed forces have regained the initiative and are now on the offensive, citing a Thursday raid on the militant-held city of Tikrit as an example.
Two Iraqi security officials, meanwhile, said several secondhand Sukhoi fighter jets the government purchased from Russia will arrive within days at an air base in southern Iraq. Iraq’s air force, which has been decimated over the past two decades, had Sukhoi jets in its fleet before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
Associated Press writer Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad and Pauline Jelinek and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.