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Thursday 18 September 2014

Islamic State fighters halt Iraqi offensive to recapture Saddam's home town

* Jihadists still control central Tikrit - residents
* Islamic State warns Americans will "drown in blood"
* U.N. launches major aid operation by air and land
* Assad steps up air strikes on Islamic State in Syria
* Militants are "enemy number one of Islam" - Saudi cleric

Ahmed Rasheed and Michael Georgy

Published 19/08/2014 | 14:14

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Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. REUTERS/Stringe
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. REUTERS/Stringe

Iraqi forces halted a short-lived offensive to recapture Tikrit, home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, due to fierce resistance from Islamic state fighters who have also threatened to attack Americans "in any place".

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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 launched their offensive shortly after dawn on Tikrit, a city 130 km (80 miles) north of Baghdad which is a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim minority.

But officers in the Iraqi forces' operations room said by mid afternoon that the advance had stopped.

South of Tikrit, the government side came under heavy machinegun and mortar fire from the militants, a group of Arab and foreign fighters hardened by battle both in Iraq and over the border in Syria's civil war, the officers told Reuters.

To the west, landmines and snipers frustrated efforts to get closer to the city centre in the latest in a series of attempts to drive out the militants. Residents of central Tikrit said by telephone that Islamic State fighters were firmly in control of their positions and patrolling the main streets.

Sunni Muslim fighters led by the Islamic State 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.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk Province, August 10, 2014. Displaced families from Iraq's minority Yazidi sect crossed the border into Syria on Sunday to escape violence in the town of Sinjar, according to Firat news agency. Islamic State militants have killed hundreds of Iraq's minority Yazidis, burying some alive and taking women as slaves, an Iraqi government minister said on Sunday, as U.S. warplanes again bombed the insurgents and a political deadlock dragged on. Picture taken August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT SOCIETY)
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk Province, August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk Province, August 10, 2014. Displaced families from Iraq's minority Yazidi sect crossed the border into Syria on Sunday to escape violence in the town of Sinjar, according to Firat news agency. Islamic State militants have killed hundreds of Iraq's minority Yazidis, burying some alive and taking women as slaves, an Iraqi government minister said on Sunday, as U.S. warplanes again bombed the insurgents and a political deadlock dragged on. Picture taken August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal (IRAQ- Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT SOCIETY)
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk Province, August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Tech. Sgt. Lynn Morelly, 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, C-17 Globemaster III loadmaster, watches bundles of halal meals parachute to the ground during a humanitarian airdrop mission over Iraq in this August 9, 2014 photo released on August 10, 2014. To date, in coordination with the government of Iraq, U.S. military aircraft have delivered more than 52,000 meals and more than 10,600 gallons of fresh drinking water, providing much-needed aid to the displaced Yazidis, who urgently require emergency assistance according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Picture taken on August 9, 2014.  REUTERS/Vernon Young Jr./U.S. Air Force/Handout  (IRAQ - Tags: MILITARY CONFLICT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Tech. Sgt. Lynn Morelly, 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, C-17 Globemaster III loadmaster, watches bundles of halal meals parachute to the ground during a humanitarian airdrop mission over Iraq in this August 9, 2014 photo released on August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Vernon Young Jr./U.S. Air Force/Handout

However, on Monday fighters from Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region said they had regained control of the hydro electric dam with the help of U.S. air strikes. U.S. President Barack Obama also announced that the dam had been retaken.

The Islamic State 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 in Iraq. Unlike al Qaeda, 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 U.S. air strikes hit Islamic State fighters. The video also showed a photograph of an American who was beheaded during the U.S. occupation of Iraq that followed Saddam's overthrow in 2003.

MAJOR AID PUSH

The UNHCR refugee agency said a four-day airlift of tents and other goods would begin on Wednesday to Arbil, 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.

Displaced people, who fled from the violence in the province of Nineveh, arrive at Sulaimaniya province August 7, 2014. The United States began to drop relief supplies to beleaguered Yazidi refugees fleeing Islamist militants in Iraq, but there was no immediate sign on Friday of U.S. air strikes to halt the sweeping advance of Islamic State fighters. Picture taken August 7, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT MILITARY)
Displaced people, who fled from the violence in the province of Nineveh, arrive at Sulaimaniya province August 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
Displaced people, who fled from the violence in the province of Nineveh, arrive at Sulaimaniya province August 7, 2014. The United States began to drop relief supplies to beleaguered Yazidi refugees fleeing Islamist militants in Iraq, but there was no immediate sign on Friday of U.S. air strikes to halt the sweeping advance of Islamic State fighters. Picture taken August 7, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT MILITARY)
Displaced people, who fled from the violence in the province of Nineveh, arrive at Sulaimaniya province August 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
A member of the Kurdish peshmerga forces sit with a weapon during an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in Makhmur, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh August 7, 2014. The United States began to drop relief supplies to beleaguered Yazidi refugees fleeing Islamist militants in Iraq, but there was no immediate sign on Friday of U.S. air strikes to halt the sweeping advance of Islamic State fighters. Picture taken August 7, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT MILITARY)
A member of the Kurdish peshmerga forces sit with a weapon during an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in Makhmur, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh August 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

"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 Kurdish advances, Damascus government forces have stepped up air strikes on Islamic State 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 Islamic State threat.

"The Syrians are meeting the Americans, or the West, halfway in the question of fighting terrorism, and are presenting themselves as a partner in combating terrorism," said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist with close ties to the Syrian government.

The Islamic State added new fighters in Syria at a record rate in July, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict. About 6,300 men - 80 percent of them Syrian and the rest foreigners - joined last month, Rami Abdelrahman, founder of the Observatory, told Reuters.

TRYING TO TURN THE TIDE

Iraqi government forces put up little serious resistance when Islamic State staged their June offensive, while Kurdish fighters also suffered setbacks until Obama ordered the U.S. air strikes earlier this month.

Obama said he acted to protect Americans and prevent a genocide in a conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, including from the Yazidi and Christian religious minorities.

The stalled Tikrit offensive marked a setback in Baghdad's attempts to turn the tide after the Kurds said they had taken the dam, easing fears that the militants could cut off electricity and water supplies, or even breach the structure, causing huge loss of life and damage down the Tigris.

The Islamic State's successes since June have alarmed governments both in the West and in the region.

Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the country, said on Tuesday that the Islamic State and al Qaeda were "enemy number one of Islam" and not in any way part of the faith.

Efforts are underway in Baghdad to form a new government that will unite the majority Shi'ites with the Sunnis and Kurds in halting the Islamic State insurgency that threatened to tear the country apart.

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