Iraqi soldiers killed in clashes in the north

Five Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish volunteers killed in fighting in Salaheddin that also left seven IS fighters dead.

Iraqi government forces have opened several fronts against the IS group in the country's north [Reuters]

At least five Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish armed volunteers have been killed in clashes with the IS group in northern Iraq, as the government continues its offensive against the armed Sunni group, sources have told Al Jazeera.

The clashes on Thursday also killed seven IS fighters in the Yenkoujah district of Tuz Kharmatu, in the province of Salaheddin, between the capital Baghdad and Kirkuk

The location of the latest fighting is just north of Amerli, where mostly Kurdish fighters and Shia armed volunteers drove out IS fighters on Sunday following US air strikes. 

Since the retaking of Amerli, the IS fighters have retreated to various directions south and north, including in Yenkoujah, where the latest deadly clashes took place.

The news comes as IS fighters reportedly abducted 50 men and confiscated 15 vehicles in the village of Tel Ali, which is part of the Sunni city of Hawijah, about 65-km southwest of Kirkuk.  

Government forces have opened several other fronts against the IS group, pushing forward in strategic cities including Tikrit and Mosul, where an air strike reportedly killed a senior commander of the rebel group.

Iraqiya TV, Iraq’s state-run channel, on Thursday identified the commander as Abu Hajar al-Suri, a senior aide to the self-proclaimed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al Jazeera is unable to confirm the death or Suri’s rank.

Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that government forces are also facing resistance from the IS-controlled city of Tikrit, the hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein.

Pictures viewed by Al Jazeera showed the aftermath of a reported attack by IS fighters on government soldiers in Tikrit.

Witnesses said “heavy clashes” continue on the main highway between the cities of Samarra and Tikrit. The road is considered as strategic by the Iraqi army to secure military supply lines.

Arraf said that while there have been reports of government forces reaching the centre of the city, it is unlikely that Tikrit would fall soon as many of its residents belong to Sunnis sympathetic to the IS.

In the past, government forces have tried and failed twice to retake Tikrit from rebel hands, indicating an “extremely complicated” challenge for the military, she said, adding that Shia-dominated government forces are “not trusted” in Sunni areas like Tikrit.

Sunni tribal leaders have told Al Jazeera that until their demands are met by the government, that they will keep on fighting.

Among the demands are an end to what they say is the persecution of Sunni communities, and the marginalisation and exclusion of Sunnis from the government.

Sectarian divisions

Meanwhile, Arraf reported that the families of hundreds of Shia army recruits reportedly killed at the Speicher airbase near Tikrit by the IS group have vowed revenge against Sunni tribal groups in the area who they say are protecting the IS group.

Arraf said that incidents like the killing of the soldiers only deepened the secretarian divide, and further complicated the government’s effort to defeat the IS.

As violence across the country’s northern region continues, negotiations also went on in Baghdad on the composition on the new government of Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi, which is expected to be announced in the coming days.

Shia blocs in parliament have said they are willing to submit the names of the candidates for Abadi’s cabinet.

Negotiations are ongoing between the dominant Shia blocs and the Sunni and Kurdish alliance.

The US and other Western allies have pinned their hope of a victory against the IS group on a unified government emerging in Baghdad.

But with Iraq splintered, there is no guarantee that Abadi will prove more effective against the IS group, which has been on a rampage across swathes of territories in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Source: Al Jazeera