(Adds Iranian general statement, additional quotes)
* Iraq army launched assault on Tikrit on Saturday
* Shi'ite political bloc gives no hint on PM choice
* Senior cleric has called for swift government formation
By Ahmed Rasheed and Alexander Dziadosz
BAGHDAD, June 29 Iraq's army sent tanks and
armoured vehicles to try to dislodge insurgents from the
northern city of Tikrit on Sunday, the second day of a pushback
against a Sunni militant takeover of large stretches of Iraq.
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 jeopardising Iraq's future as a unitary state.
They are racing against time as Sunni insurgents led by the
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda
offshoot that loathes Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's
Shi'ite-led government, consolidate their grip on the north and
Maliki's political future after eight years in power will be
the most contentious issue.
Troops backed by helicopter gunships began an 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.
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
helicopter gunned down over northern Tikrit, reports not
possible to immediately verify independently.
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,
just hours after Russia delivered five Sukhoi jets.
"Yes, there has been a delay from the Americans in handing
over 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.
In the latest sign of diplomatic one-upmanship over the
crisis, the five Russian Sukhoi jets were delivered to Baghdad
late on Saturday, which state television said "would be used in
the coming days to strike ISIL terrorist groups".
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.
Iraqi army spokesman 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.
FIGHTING TAKES ITS TOLL
Iran has also supported Iraq's government against the
onslaught. An Iranian general said on Sunday his country was
ready to help Iraq fight the revolt using the same methods it
deployed against rebels in Syria.
"With Syria, too, we announced we would not allow terrorists
in the hire of foreign intelligence services to rule and dictate
to Syrian people. We will certainly have the same approach with
Iraq," Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of
staff of the armed forces and a senior Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps officer, told Iran's al Alam television.
On Saturday, Iraqi troops began the 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
Atta, the military spokesman, said on Saturday militants
were struggling because "their morale has started to collapse,"
but insurgents, backed by some local Sunni tribes, 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.
"Families were gathering to start a wedding party and
rockets started to hit houses ... The wedding became a funeral
after the death of innocent people. My cousin was among those
killed," Hatam Ali, a government employee working in Tikrit
university, told 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, 53
miles(83 km) south of Baghdad.
The local government and security commanders have asked for
backup from Baghdad to face what they estimate are several
hundred ISIL fighters, police sources and the province's
The militant group, which al Qaeda disowned this year, vows
to re-create a medieval-style caliphate erasing borders from the
Mediterranean to the Gulf and they deem all Shi'ites to be
heretics deserving death.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground
forces back to Iraq, where they were for eight years after
invading to oust Saddam.
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
PARLIAMENT UNDER PRESSURE
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 assemble 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
But the 21-seat bloc of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a
secular Shi'ite, said it would skip the session, arguing more
time was needed to avoid the previous government's mistakes.
Politicians from the National Alliance, parliament's biggest
bloc, said they would join the session and seek to follow the
timetable for the formation, but were tight-lipped about who
they would back for prime minister. A senior member of the
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Adnan Mufti, said it would attend.
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, and pressure for
a quick process this time could hasten the end of his rule.
In a stunning political intervention on Friday, Iraq's most
senior Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, made 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 say he still
aims to stay, but senior State of Law figures have said he could
be replaced with a less polarising 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."
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker and Alexander Dziadosz
in Baghdad, Isabel Coles in Arbil, Mehrdad Balali in Dubai and a
reporter in Tikrit, Sylvia Westall in Beirut and; Writing by
Alexander Dziadosz; editing by Philippa Fletcher)