IRBIL, Iraq — The battle for Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit stretched into a third day Sunday with both the Iraqi government and Islamist insurgents reporting heavy loss as five jet fighters Iraq purchased from Russia arrived.
The head of Iraq’s nascent air force said the jets would soon enter the fight to push back the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that have seized much of central and northern Iraq in the past three weeks.
“In the coming three or four days the aircraft will be in service to support our forces in the fight” against ISIS and other Sunni rebels, said Gen. Anwar Hama Ameen, the commander of the Iraqi Air Force in a Baghdad briefing.
The fight in Tikrit represents the first major effort by the Iraqi government to reclaim territory lost to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in a surprise takeover of much of central and northern Iraq that began June 10 in Mosul and quickly spread throughout the country. Thousands of Iraqi Army forces backed by Shiite militias are now trying to to battle up Iraq’s main central highway to enter Tikrit, a city of 200,000 that fell to ISIS and its Sunni Muslim tribal allies on June 11.
Both sides claimed the momentum, and there was little independent information on which to judge the likely outcome.
The Iraqi government insisted the operation in Tikrit was going according to plan, while militants and tribal leaders claimed that the government’s main advance from the nearby town of Samarra had bogged down as it encountered roadside bombs the insurgents have planted over the last two weeks.
"The security forces are advancing from different areas" around Tikrit, Lt. Gen. Qassem Atta told reporters in Baghdad. "There are ongoing clashes."
Twitter accounts associated with ISIS claimed that several hundred government troops had been killed and a dozen tanks and armored vehicles destroyed in the battle, but both sides commonly exaggerate both progress and casualties inflicted and neither account could be confirmed.
The handful of residents who have remained in Tikrit _ as much as 70 percent of the town’s population reportedly has fled the government advance _ told local television there was little sign of government forces in the city center but described a number of helicopter attacks that use rudimentary barrel bombs to flatten large parts of the city center ahead of the government advance.
With both sides claiming momentum in the fight, the arrival from Russia of five Su-25 fighter bombers late Saturday night with two more expected to arrive on Sunday could provide an important boost to both Iraqi Army morale and firepower. Twelve Russian technical advisers also arrived with the shipment.
Iraqi news media called the arrival of the Russian equipment _ U.S. F16s are not expected until September _ a warning to the Obama administration over its reluctance to grant an Iraqi government request to begin air strikes against the insurgents. Iraq has virtually no air force and until the arrival of the Russian planes, no jet fighter aircraft in the country.
The quick Russian delivery also underscores the complexity of the Iraqi developments, where the United States finds itself allied with Russia and Iran fighting to preserve Iraq’s central government even as the three countries are on the opposite side of the civil war in Syria, where ISIS is also fighting to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, whose departure from power has become almost a condition for U.S. support, signed a $500 million deal with Russia for the delivery of at least 12 fighter bombers.
Iran and Iraq have also discussed returning as many as 20 aircraft that Saddam’s regime flew to Iran for safety before the 1991 Gulf War with the United States and other allies after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Iran later refused to return the outdated jet fighters, claiming they were reparations for Iraq’s aggression in the 1980 to 1989 Iran-Iraq war.
Substantial questions about the effectiveness of such aircraft remain after 23 years out of service.
The United States has said it will send as many as 300 U.S. advisers to assist the Iraqis and is flying as many as 35 reconnaissance flights over the country daily. Iran also has provided advisers to the Iraqi government and is reported to be flying drones over the country, while the Syrian air force also reportedly has struck ISIS positions inside Iraq.
How the various efforts will be coordinated is uncertain. The Pentagon has said it will not coordinate with Iran.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mitchprothero