JUNE 5, 2014
In Brazen Strike, Sunni Militants Storm Central Iraqi City
By KAREEM FAHIM
BAGHDAD -- Hundreds of Sunni militants stormed the central Iraqi city of Samarra early Thursday, taking control of neighborhoods and government buildings in a siege that provoked a panicked government counteroffensive to prevent the loss of the town.
The army rushed troops, backed by helicopters, to Samarra, and by Thursday evening, government officials claimed that the gunmen had largely been routed. Residents, though, said that at least two neighborhoods remained at least partly under control of the militants, who raised the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over several government buildings.
At least 17 people were killed in the fighting. The brazen offensive provided the latest evidence of the militants' strength in Iraq, six months after hard-line Islamist fighters seized the western city of Falluja,  which militants continue to control. The attack also raised the specter of deadly sectarian incitement, as the heavily armed militants took up positions within a mile of a hallowed Shiite shrine in the city that has served as a focal point for strife in the past.
The bombing of the dome of the shrine in 2006 set off rounds of retaliatory violence  against Sunni mosques and unleashed some of the bloodiest sectarian fighting of the Iraqi civil war. On Thursday, officials appeared determined to protect the site, saying that heavy security details had been sent there while insisting that it remained beyond the reach of the militants' weapons.
The attack in Samarra started a few hours after midnight, according to security officials and witnesses, who said the roughly 500 militants flooded in from the east. They rode trucks outfitted with heavy machine guns and attacked checkpoints, using cranes to dismantle security barricades as they cleared a path into the city.
The offensive bore the hallmarks of earlier attacks by jihadists, who seized control of mosques on Thursday and declared their presence over loudspeakers, telling residents to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In parts of the city, people rushed to stock up on food, fearing a prolonged siege. Security officials said they had trouble immediately sending reinforcements, because the militants had laid roadside bombs around their positions.
Later on Thursday, the government sent army and special forces troops who recaptured several neighborhoods, security officials said. The remaining militants "are deployed among the people," said Lt. Gen. Rashid Fleih, a senior army commander.
"They can be defeated, but the situation needs two to three days," he said in an interview in the capital.
The loss of Samarra would have been a devastating blow to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose security forces have failed for months to dislodge militants in Falluja or the neighboring city of Ramadi. The army, which has suffered heavy casualties in the fighting and a growing tide of desertions, has stepped up its shelling of Falluja, with indiscriminate strikes that have worsened a humanitarian crisis.
Aid agencies say that hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced by the fighting. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which sent a delegation to Falluja this week, warned about the increasingly dire situation of civilians who remained there, including "a severe shortage of food, water and health care."
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Tikrit, Iraq.