Iraqi forces in push to drive IS fighters from Saddam's town Tikrit
Iraqi forces launched an offensive yesterday to drive Islamic State (IS) fighters out of Tikrit, home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, while the militants warned they would attack Americans "in any place".
In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency announced a major aid operation to get supplies to more than half a million people displaced by fighting in northern Iraq.
Buoyed by an operation to recapture a strategic dam from the jihadists after two months of setbacks, Iraqi army units backed by Shi'ite militias fought their way towards the centre of Tikrit, a city 80 miles north of Baghdad which is a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim minority.
"Our forces are advancing from two directions with cover from army helicopters, mortar and artillery shelling the positions of Islamic State fighters in and around the city," an army major in the operations room said.
Sunni Muslim fighters led by IS swept through much of northern and western Iraq in June, capturing the Sunni cities of Tikrit and Mosul as well as the Mosul Dam, a fragile structure which controls water and power supplies to millions of people down the Tigris River valley.
However, fighters from Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region said they had regained control of the hydro-electric dam with the help of US air strikes. US President Barack Obama also announced that the dam had been retaken.
The Iraqi major said fierce fighting was under way near Tikrit's main hospital, 2.5 miles from the city centre. "Helicopters are pounding the bases of the terrorists to prevent them from regrouping," he said.
As well as a push from the south, Iraqi forces were only advancing slowly from the west due to landmines and roadside bombs planted by the militants, he added.
IS has concentrated on taking territory for its self-proclaimed caliphate both in Syria - where it is also fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad - and across the border in Iraq. Unlike al-Qa'ida, the movement from which it split, it has so far steered clear of attacking Western targets in or outside the region.
However, a video posted on the internet warned Americans, in English, that "we will drown all of you in blood" if US air strikes hit IS fighters. The video also showed a photograph of an American who was beheaded during the US occupation of Iraq that followed Saddam's overthrow in 2003.
The UNHCR refugee agency said a four-day airlift of tents and other goods would begin today to Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, from the Jordanian port of Aqaba.
This would be followed by road convoys from Turkey and Jordan and sea shipments from Dubai via Iran over the next 10 days, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
"This is a very, very significant aid push and certainly one of the largest I can recall in quite a while," he told a news briefing in Geneva.
"This is a major humanitarian crisis and disaster. It continues to affect many people."
Coinciding with the Iraqi and Kurdish advances, Damascus government forces have stepped up air strikes on IS positions in and around the city of Raqqa - its stronghold in eastern Syria. Analysts believe Assad - who is firmly in control in the capital more than three years into the civil war - is seizing the moment to show his potential value to Western states that backed the uprising against him, but are now increasingly concerned by the IS threat.
"The Syrians are meeting the US half-way in the question of fighting terrorism" said Salem Zahran, a Middle East expert last night.