Iraq's army sent tanks and armored vehicles on Sunday to try to dislodge insurgents from the northern city of Tikrit, which Sunni militants had overtaken on June 11.
It was the second day of a major pushback by Iraq’s military against the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which announced the establishment of a caliphate, stretching from Iraq's Diyala province to Syria's Aleppo.
ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said the group's chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the new leader, or caliph, of the Islamic state. He called on those living in the areas under the organization's control to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and support him.
In Baghdad, which is threatened by the rebel advance, top Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers scrambled to agree cabinet nominations before parliament meets on Tuesday to try to prevent the rebel advance jeopardizing Iraq's future as a unitary state.
Lawmakers are racing against time as Sunni insurgents led by ISIL, an al-Qaida offshoot that loathes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government, consolidate their grip on the north and west.
Maliki's political future after eight years in power will be the most contentious issue.
Troops backed by helicopter gunships began the assault on Tikrit, the birthplace of former President Saddam Hussein, on Saturday, to try to take it back from insurgents who have swept to within driving range of Baghdad.
Battle for Tikrit
The army sent in tanks and helicopters to battle ISIL militants near the University of Tikrit in the city's north on Sunday, security sources said. Two witnesses said they saw a military helicopter gunned down and crash near a market, Reuters reported.
There were conflicting reports as to how far the military advanced in its initial thrust toward the northern city, the Associated Press reported.
Iraqi army spokesman Major General Qassim Atta told reporters in Baghdad security forces had killed 142 “terrorists” over the last 24 hours across Iraq, including 70 in Tikrit, and said the armed forces were in control of Tikrit's university.
Both claims were impossible to immediately verify.
“Our security forces have taken complete control of the University of Tikrit and they have raised the Iraqi flag on top of the building,” Atta said.
The offensive was the first major attempt by the army to retake territory after the United States sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, and drones to help the government take on ISIL.
Earlier on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani, one of Iraq's most senior politicians, faulted the U.S. for not doing enough to bolster the country's military.
“Yes, there has been a delay from the Americans in handing over the contracted arms. We told them, 'You once did an air bridge to send arms to your ally Israel, so why don't you give us the contracted arms in time?’ ” he told al-Hurra television.
U.S. officials have disputed similar statements from Iraqi officials in the past and say they have done everything possible to ensure the country is equipped with modern weaponry.
His comments came a day after Iraq received several secondhand Russian fighter jets to use in the fight against the militants.
A Reuters photographer saw the jets unloaded from a transport plane at a military airport in Baghdad as Russian and Iraqi soldiers stood on the tarmac. Iraq has relied largely on helicopters to counter militants and has few aircraft that can fire advanced missiles.
On Saturday, Iraqi troops launched an assault on Tikrit from the direction of Samarra to the south, where the military has drawn its line in the sand against the insurgents' advance toward Baghdad.
Atta, the military spokesman, said on Saturday militants were struggling because “their morale has started to collapse,” however, the insurgents seemed to be showing resilience with the backing of some local Sunni tribes.
Insurgents retained control of the city on Sunday.
The clashes have taken their toll on civilians.
At least four people were killed, including two women, when helicopters struck a gathering of people preparing for a wedding ceremony in Al Bu Hayazi, a village east of Tikrit on Saturday evening, witnesses and relatives of the victims said, as reported by Reuters.
The military did not immediately respond to request for comment on the incident.
On Sunday, intermittent clashes broke out from the early morning between militants and government forces in the northeastern outskirts of the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 83 kilometers south of Baghdad.
Forming new government
Politicians are under pressure to speed up the normally sluggish process of selecting a new government to face the crisis. A parliament elected in April is due to be seated on Tuesday to begin the process.
In a statement on Sunday, the United Nations mission in Iraq urged all representatives to attend the session on Tuesday and move forward with selecting a new government.
“Faced with a national crisis, the political leaders of Iraq should put the interests of the country and its people before everything else,” Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Iraq Nickolay Mladenov said in the statement.
But already, there was evidence some would resist calls for a quick government formation process. The 21-seat bloc of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, announced it was skipping the session in two days.
The bloc said more time was needed to avoid the mistakes of the last government.
Politicians from the National Alliance, parliament's biggest bloc, said in a statement they were committed to joining the session and following the legal timetable for the formation, but were close-lipped about who they would back for prime minister.
Under Iraq's governing system put in place after Saddam's overthrow, the prime minister has always been a Shi'ite, the largely ceremonial president a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. None of those groups has made a clear decision about who to put forward for the posts.
It took nearly 10 months for Maliki to build a coalition to stay in office after the last election in 2010, but officials say it can ill-afford such delays this time around.
Divided over Maliki
In a stunning political intervention on Friday, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, added his voice to the fray, making it clear politicians could not delay the process at a moment of crisis.
Maliki, whose State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election, was positioning himself for a third term before the ISIL offensive began. His closest allies said he still aims to stay, but senior State of Law figures have said he could be replaced with a less polarizing figure.
“It's a card game and State of Law plays a poker game very well,” an official from the premier's alliance said. “For the prime minister, it will go down to the wire.”
Elsewhere on Sunday:
Israeli support: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for Kurdish statehood on Sunday, taking a position that appeared to clash with the U.S. preference to keep sectarian war-torn Iraq united.
Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, seeing in the minority ethnic group a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.
Christians return: Thousands of Christian Iraqis were returning to their homes in an area known as Hamdaniya on Sunday, after an artillery offensive by Sunni militants sent them fleeing to Irbil in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq earlier in the week.
Many attended Sunday mass conducted by the Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church, Ignatius Joseph III, at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Irbil before boarding buses back to Hamdaniya, 75 kilometers from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.
The Christians were forced to flee, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave following the shelling of a cluster of villages on Wednesday.
Workers evacuated: Also, more than 1,200 Chinese workers have been relocated from conflict-torn northern Iraq to Baghdad, state media said on Sunday.
The report added that eight Iraqi armored vehicles escorted the workers from the city of Samarra, where they had been working at a construction site of a local power plant.
The employees of the state-run China Machinery Engineering Corp (CMEC) were successfully evacuated late last week and are due to return to Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
China is the largest foreign investor in Iraq's oil industry and has more than 10,000 workers in the country, officials say, although most are in the south and far from the current fighting.
Crucifixions: Across the frontier in Syria, ISIL fighters crucified eight men in the northern Aleppo province, a monitoring group said. ISIL accused them of being "Sahwa" fighters, a term it uses for rival fighters it says are controlled by Western powers.
The men were crucified in the town square of Deir Hafer in eastern Aleppo and would be left there for three days, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.