Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, fell a
fortnight ago to Sunnis led by fighters from the Islamic State in
Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which split from al Qaeda.
A rights group said analysis of photographs and satellite imagery
"strongly indicate" that ISIL staged mass executions in Tikrit after
seizing it on June 11 early in their offensive.
ISIL killed as many as 190 men in at least two locations over three
days, Human Rights Watch said. Numbers may be much higher but the
difficulty of locating bodies and getting to the area had prevented
a full investigation, it added.
Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on Tikrit on Thursday,
flying commandos into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of
which crashed after coming under fire from insurgents.
"My family and I left early this morning. We could hear gunfire and
helicopters are striking the area," said Farhan Ibrahim Tamimi, a
professor at the university who fled Tikrit for a nearby town.
Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United
States, largely evaporated in the north after the Sunni Muslim
fighters led by ISIL launched their assault with the capture of the
north's biggest city Mosul on June 10.
ISIL emerged after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader a group then
called the Islamic State in Iraq, defied the al Qaeda leadership by
moving into neighboring Syria more than a year ago to join the civil
war against President Bashar al-Assad.
The group is now fighting in both Iraq and Syria, seeking to erase
the frontiers and create an Islamic caliphate stretching from the
Mediterranean Sea to Iraq.
In Washington, President Barack Obama asked the U.S. Congress on
Thursday to approve $500 million to train and equip moderate Syrian
rebels, who have been largely upstaged by the more effective ISIL
In Iraq, the fighters have been halted about an hour's drive north
of Baghdad and on its western outskirts. However, they have pressed
on with their advances in areas including the religiously mixed
Diyala province and are consolidating their gains in northwestern
Militants took control of six villages populated by the country's
Shi'ite Shabak minority southeast of Mosul after clashing with
Kurdish "peshmerga" forces who secure the area, according to a
lawmaker and Shabak leader.
[to top of second column]
A new Iraqi parliament elected two months ago is set to meet on
Tuesday to begin the process of forming a government that the United
States and other countries hope will be inclusive enough to blunt
Fighters from ISIL - which says all Shi'ite Muslims are heretics who
should be killed - have been helped in their advance by other, less
radical groups who share their view that Sunnis have been persecuted
under the Shi'ite-led government.
Washington hopes that armed Sunni tribal groups, which turned
against al Qaeda during the U.S. "surge" offensive of 2006-2007, can
again be persuaded to switch sides and back the government, provided
that a new cabinet is more inclusive.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led State of Law coalition
won the most seats in the April election but needs allies to form a
Maliki confirmed this week that he would abide by the constitutional
deadlines to set up a new government, after pressure from U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Baghdad for crisis talks
earlier this week.
Under the official schedule, parliament will have 30 days from when
it first meets on Tuesday to name a president and 15 days after that
to name a prime minister.
In the past the process has dragged out, taking nine months to seat
the government in 2010. Any delays would allow Maliki to continue to
serve as caretaker.
The 64-year-old Shi'ite Islamist is fighting for his political life
in the face of an assault that threatens to dismember his country.
Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shi'ite groups have demanded he leave
office, and some ruling party members have suggested he could be
replaced with a less polarizing figure, although close allies say he
has no plan to step aside.
(Writing by Isabel Coles; editing by David Stamp)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.