The Iraqi military faltered Sunday in its push to retake the tinderbox city of Tikrit from insurgents who declared that they had established a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the areas they control in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, announced in an audio recording posted online that it was re-branding itself as simply the Islamic State because it had broken down national boundaries by virtue of its quick seizure of land in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq over the last year.
“Congratulations on this clear victory, congratulations on this great triumph,” the organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad Adnani, said in the 34-minute speech. It was part of the group’s attempt to cement itself as the world’s leading organization for Islamic militants, which has caused a rupture with Al Qaeda’s main leadership.
The propaganda campaign came as the Sunni Muslim militants were fiercely resisting the Iraqi military’s push to retake Tikrit. The battle underscored the difficulties facing government forces as they attempt to wrest control of key areas back from the determined insurgency.
A day earlier, Iraqi officials claimed to have entered Tikrit, 80 miles north of the capital, Baghdad, but residents said Sunday that there was no sign of government troops or allied militias and that the city remained largely in insurgent hands.
Army commandos airlifted last week to a university on the city’s outskirts raised the Iraqi flag over the 200-acre campus in a symbolic boost to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is desperately trying to secure a third term amid growing opposition to his authoritarian government.
Lawmakers were due to convene Tuesday to begin the process of selecting a prime minister amid signs that Maliki’s support within his Shiite Muslim coalition was slipping.
Reached by phone, residents in the predominantly Sunni city of Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein and a center of the anti-American insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, said militants damaged at least two Iraqi army helicopters transporting troops to the university. Iraqi state television initially reported that commandos had regained control of the provincial headquarters building, but residents disputed that account.
The push into Tikrit is the first major counteroffensive by Iraqi forces since insurgents led by ISIS seized the northern city of Mosul and much of northern and western Iraq this month. The army operation began just as the first of up to 300 U.S. military advisors arrived in Baghdad to help combat the insurgency.
Three teams of about a dozen U.S. soldiers each have begun assessing Iraqi forces and established an operations center at the sprawling U.S. Embassy compound in central Baghdad. President Obama is said to be weighing airstrikes, but any such action is likely to occur only after the assessment teams have had more time to study intelligence and observe the fighting in Iraq, officials have said.
Dozens of unarmed U.S. Global Hawk drones are flying over the country, collecting intelligence that is being shared with Iraqi forces. The information helped the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militias in recent days clear the highway connecting Baghdad and Tikrit, including the town of Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine that the insurgents have tried to attack.
American officials are urging Iraqi security forces not to rush into attempting to retake cities, which would risk bogging the army down in dangerous urban warfare, just as U.S. forces were a decade ago. Without such a push, however, analysts believe the insurgents are consolidating their hold on captured territory and plotting ways to strike Baghdad.
Iraqi army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta said government forces killed 142 terrorists in the last 24 hours and destroyed 51 vehicles. The claims could not be immediately verified.