Iraq forces preparing for counter-offensive: officer

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 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 major offensive this week.


Security forces were awaiting orders to begin, the colonel said. 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."


A major offensive spearheaded by powerful group 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 performed poorly, with some abandoning their vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms.


Witnesses said on Friday that militants were gathering in the Samarra area for another attack on the city, after being repulsed earlier in the week.

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