Iraqi forces pressed a counter-attack on Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit Sunday as Russia delivered Sukhoi warplanes to aid Baghdad in what diplomats warn is an existential battle against Sunni militants.
Alarmed world leaders have urged a speeding up of government formation following April elections, warning the conflict driven by sectarian divides cannot be resolved militarily.
And while beleaguered Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has conceded a political solution is necessary to end the crisis, his security spokesman has for days touted the Tikrit operation, which could be crucial not only tactically, but also for morale in the security forces.
"The security forces are advancing from different areas" around Tikrit, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta told reporters. "There are ongoing clashes."
Atta said troops had detonated bombs planted along routes into the city, which militants took more than two weeks ago.
Witnesses reported waves of government air strikes in various areas of central Tikrit and Saddam's palace compound in the city.
The Iraqi forces, according to Atta, are coordinating with recently-arrived U.S. military advisers in "studying important targets."
Iraq took delivery Sunday of the first batch of Sukhoi warplanes from Russia, with the newly-purchased Su-25s expected to be pressed into service as soon as possible.
An Iraqi official said pilots from Saddam's air force would fly the planes.
Su-25s are designed for ground attack, meaning they would be useful for Iraqi forces trying to root out ISIL-led militants from a string of towns and cities they have seized.
Maliki on Thursday announced Baghdad was buying more than a dozen Sukhoi aircraft from Russia in a deal that could be worth up to $500 million (368 million euros).
Washington, which has pushed for political reconciliation in the face of what Secretary of State John Kerry has described as an "existential" threat, has sent military advisers to help Iraqi commanders but has so far not acceded to Baghdad's appeal for U.S. air strikes.
The U.S. has stopped short of calling for Maliki to quit but has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in late 2011.
American officials have also said a proposed $500-million plan to arm and train moderate rebels in neighboring Syria could also help Iraq fight ISIL, which operates in both countries.
Maliki's security spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the insurgent offensive was launched on June 9, while the U.N. puts the overall death toll at over 1,000, mostly civilians.
International organizations have urged the establishment of humanitarian corridors to provide aid amid the fighting, with 1.2 million people having been displaced by unrest this year in Iraq.
World leaders have insisted on a political settlement among Iraq's various communities and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered among the country's Shiite majority, has urged political leaders to quickly form a government after parliament convenes on Tuesday.
Maliki has acknowledged political measures are necessary, but politicians have nevertheless cautioned that naming a new cabinet could still take a month or more.
Despite unity calls, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani has said Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other areas from which federal forces withdrew as the insurgents advanced.
Kurdish forces moved into areas vacated by Iraqi federal soldiers, putting them in control of disputed areas that they have long wanted to incorporate into their three-province autonomous region, a move Baghdad strongly opposes.
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