Iraq forces ready counter-offensive against militants north Baghdad
BAGHDAD - Iraqi security forces readied a counter-offensive against militants north of Baghdad on Saturday, an army colonel said, after the prime minister announced the cabinet granted him "unlimited powers."
The colonel from the military command responsible for Samarra, a city 110 kilometres (70 miles) north of the capital, said reinforcements from the federal police and army arrived on Friday.
The officer said the reinforcements were for a drive against areas north of the city, including Dur and Tikrit, that militants seized in a spectacular assault this week.
Security forces were awaiting orders to begin, the colonel said.
The offensive, spearheaded by jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant but also involving supporters of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, has overrun a large chunk of northern and north-central Iraq since Monday.
Security forces have generally performed poorly, with some abandoning their vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms.
On Friday, police and residents expelled militants from the Dhuluiyah area, just 90 kilometres (60 miles) north of Baghdad, where they had set up checkpoints, witnesses said.
"Residents are now firing into the air" in celebration, witness Abu Abdullah said.
Further north in Salaheddin province, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki travelled to Samarra for a security meeting on Friday, also visiting a revered Shiite shrine in the city, which was bombed by militants in 2006, sparking a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis that killed tens of thousands.
Maliki, a Shiite, said that "the cabinet granted the prime minister, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, unlimited powers" to combat the militants, in a statement posted late Friday on his website.
He called for all Iraqis to "fight this war against the enemies of righteousness and faith, who recently tried to target this holy shrine."
Witnesses said militants were gathering in the Samarra area on Friday for another attempt to seize the city, after being repulsed earlier in the week.