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Iraq Launches Military Offensive in Tikrit

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Members of Iraqi security forces take their positions during a patrol looking for militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) west of Kerbala, June 29, 2014.

Members of Iraqi security forces take their positions during a patrol looking for militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) west of Kerbala, June 29, 2014.

The Iraqi army has launched what it calls a major offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni ISIL extremists.

Military officials say the main ground operation started Saturday with heavy fighting in the city between Sunni militants and Iraqi special forces attempting to regain control of a university campus. Iraqi helicopter gunships fired on the area to repel the militants as Iraqi tanks rumbled from the south to attack.

Casualties are unclear at this time.

Meanwhile, Iraq says it has received several secondhand Russian fighter jets to use in the fight against the militants.

The operation comes shortly after U.S. officials said its military is flying armed drones in Iraqi airspace to protect U.S. military advisers sent to help counter insurgents.

U.S. President Barack Obama sent 300 military personnel to Iraq earlier this month to strengthen government security forces and help establish joint operation centers to combat ISIL.

Human Rights Watch said Friday analysis of photographs and satellite imagery "strongly indicates" that ISIL extremists conducted mass executions in Tikrit after seizing control of the city.

The rights group says the extremists killed between 160 and 190 men in at least two locations between June 11 and 14.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Middle East to encourage regional leaders to tackle the Islamist militant threat posed by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The White House has announced it wants to send $500 million to train Syrian rebels fighting ISIL and the Syrian president's forces.

Kerry met Thursday in Paris with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, in an effort to rally regional unity against ISIL.

On Friday he held talks with Saudi King Abdullah. Reuters reports that Abdullah pledged to use Saudi influence to encourage Iraqi Sunni Muslims to join any new inclusive government that might replace the administration of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been criticized for stoking sectarian tensions in Iraq.

The prime minister has rejected forming any new emergency government saying that would go against the country’s constitution and the results of the April 30 parliamentary election.

Some material in this report was provided by Reuters.

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