Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday Iraqi security forces have begun clearing cities of "terrorists" who seized swathes of territory and brought the military to the point of collapse.
Security forces "began their work to clear all our dear cities from these terrorists," Maliki said in a statement.
Maliki spoke from the embattled city of Samarra where he arrived Friday for a security meeting.
Militants attacked the city, located 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Baghdad, earlier in the week, and witnesses said they were readying for another assault on Friday.
The city houses the revered Shiite al-Askari shrine, which was bombed by militants in 2006, sparking a bloody Sunni-Shiite sectarian war that killed tens of thousands.
A major militant offensive, spearheaded by powerful jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has overrun all of one province and chunks of three more since Monday.
Security forces have so far failed to halt the push, with some abandoning their vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms.
Earlier on Friday, Iraqi forces clashed with militants advancing on the city of Baquba, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad.
Security forces were battling militants on the outskirts of Muqdadiyah, 35 kilometers (23 miles) northeast of Baquba, police and army officers said.
Baquba is the capital of Diyala province, whose mixed Arab, Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite population has made it a byword for violence ever since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
The militants have already captured two provincial capitals this week -- Tikrit in Salaheddin province and second city Mosul in Nineveh.
President Barack Obama said Washington was examining "all the options" to help Iraq's beleaguered security forces resist the offensive, spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which began in Mosul late on Monday.
Washington has found rare common cause with its longtime foe Tehran, with both voicing dismay at the Sunni extremists' advance and pledging to boost aid to the Shiite-led government.
ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani vowed its fighters would press on to the capital and, further south, to the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, visited by millions of pilgrims from around the world each year.
Iraq has meanwhile bolstered Baghdad's defenses as militants near the capital pressing an assault launched in second city Mosul, the interior ministry spokesman said on Friday.
"We put in place a new plan to protect Baghdad," Brigadier General Saad Maan told AFP.
"The plan consists of intensifying the deployment of forces, and increasing intelligence efforts and the use of technology such as (observation) balloons and cameras and other equipment," Maan said.
He said coordination between security forces had also been increased.
"We have been in a war with terrorism for a while, and today the situation is exceptional," Maan said.
Security forces have so far failed to halt ISIL's drive, with some throwing away their uniforms and abandoning vehicles and positions to flee.
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