Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by U.S. aircraft battled Sunni extremists in northern Iraq Tuesday, as the United Nations prepared a massive aide operation for hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees.
A day after retaking control of the country's biggest dam near Mosul, Iraqi forces pressed toward the northern city of Tikrit, where witnesses said they met stiff resistance from Islamic state fighters. Authorities said the Iraqi advance stalled by mid-afternoon Tuesday.
Authorities say the U.N. relief operation will target an estimated 1.2 million displaced Iraqis. The operation is set to start with a four-day airlift from neighboring Jordan into the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil. It is designed to supply tents, water, fuel and other critical supplies to refugees holed up in schools, mosques and other facilities.
The United States, Britain, Germany and France are taking part in the relief effort.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces halted an advance designed to retake the hometown of executed former dictator Saddam Hussein after facing fierce resistance from Islamic State militants, officers in the operations room told Reuters.
Iraqi forces came under heavy machinegun and mortar fire south of Tikrit, while to the west landmines and snipers undermined efforts to get closer to a town they have tried to retake several times, said the officers.
Resident of central Tikrit said by telephone Islamic State fighters were firmly in control of their positions and were running patrols along main streets.
Officials said the offensive began early Tuesday.
Success in Mosul
Monday, the U.S. military helped Iraqi and Kurd forces recapture a strategic dam in the north from the Sunni extremists.
U.S. President Barack Obama said if the militants had breached the Mosul Dam, it would have brought "catastrophic" floods to northern Iraq, killing thousands.
Obama said the U.S. is seeing important progress in Iraq, helping push back the militants and providing arms and aid to Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency said it is preparing a massive operation to provide aid to 500,000 people displaced in northern Iraq.
The agency said tents and other supplies will be airlifted to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, starting Wednesday.
The U.N. estimates that 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced by fighting this year, since the Islamic State group took over large parts of northwestern Iraq.
The Pentagon said it carried out 15 more airstrikes Monday against Islamic State militants near the dam, destroying more of their fighting positions and weapons.
The Mosul Dam is crucial to northern Iraq, providing electricity and irrigation for much of the region.
The United States first launched airstrikes earlier this month against the insurgents, in part to prevent the killing of thousands of minority Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
About 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq since the Islamic State's rapid advance began in June. Displaced Iraqis settle at this new camp, in Feeshkhabour town, Iraq, Aug. 19, 2014.
Displaced Iraqis receive clothes provided by a charity, in Feeshkhabour town, Iraq, Aug. 19, 2014.
Iraqi lawmaker Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, center, speaks as lawmakers listen during a press conference in Baghdad, Aug. 19, 2014.
Displaced Iraqis carry clothes provided by a charity at a refugee camp, in Feeshkhabour town, Iraq, Aug. 19, 2014.
Germany's armed forces began sending aid supplies to northern Iraq where thousands of people have fled Islamic State militants, in Alt Duvenstedt, northern Germany, Aug. 15, 2014.
A tank belonging to Kurdish peshmerga troops fire at Islamic State militant positions from the frontline in Khazer, Aug. 14, 2014.
Women and children from the minority Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar walk to a refugee camp in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, Aug. 14, 2014.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.