Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Fighting continued to rage in the city of Tikrit on Tuesday between government forces and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters as Iraqi lawmakers failed to elect a new government to confront the militant group.
In the first meeting of Iraq’s new parliament, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers walked out of the session before a vote could be held in response to Shi’ite calls for agreement on a speedy formation of a new government to confront the new Islamic State announced by ISIS on Sunday.
Lawmakers stood at the arrival of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to the session—Maliki has faced fierce criticisms from both Sunni and Shi’ite political rivals over his handling of Iraq’s security dossier. Mehdi Al-Hafidh, the oldest member of parliament, led the session as acting speaker—Iraq’s parliament needs to choose a new prime minister and speaker.
The Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers who walked out of the parliamentary session after the first break are united in strongly rejecting a Maliki third term. Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya bloc completely boycotted the parliamentary session having earlier called for the establishment of a National Salvation government, something Maliki has rejected.
Spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command and the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, claimed that Iraqi security forces had apprehended a number of terrorist cells in the capital. “Iraqi security forces, acting on intelligence, successfully dismantled a number of terrorist cells planning attacks on Baghdad residents and planning for ‘zero hour’,” Maan said during a special press conference on Monday.
“Zero hour” has been the term used by anti-Maliki Sunni Arab tribesmen to describe their advance into Baghdad to topple the Shi’ite-led government.
A senior Iraqi official, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, said military reinforcements had arrived at Speicher military base north of Tikrit, including tanks and artillery. “[Iraqi] forces recaptured all roads leading to Tikrit and all that remained is to storm the city,” the official said.
Local media on Tuesday reported that Iraqi forces had killed more than 60 ISIS fighters and destroyed more than 70 vehicles in operations around Tikrit.
Sheikh Abdel-Wahab Salem, a prominent tribal figure in Tikrit, told Asharq Al-Awsat that an increasing number of Tikrit residents were fleeing the city due to the escalating violence.
“I am staying in Tikrit in the hope that the situation improves in the city, which no longer knows who the enemy is due to the heavy bombardment, as well as the weapons being used by the insurgents,” he said.
Salem added that services such as water, electricity and fuel had been suspended. He said: “When the insurgents entered the city they said everything would remain the same, but they had no understanding of the infrastructure at all.”
Moutazz Mouhyedine Abdelrahman, security expert and director of the Baghdad Republican Center for Strategic Studies, told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS was seeking to expand the battle-front against government forces, but he added that this plan could work against the Islamist militants.
“The balance of power could change in the coming period giving the international military assistance being afforded to Baghdad, such as the arrival of American military advisers and the purchase of Russian fighter jets,” he said. Iraq took delivery of five Sukhoi-25 jets last week, which officials hope will help turn the tide against the ISIS advance.
“However the effectiveness of this aircraft in deciding a war relies on the ability of Iraqi forces to hold territory, which is still undecided because of the defection of many soldiers, and even officers,” Abdelrahman added.