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Iraqi forces launch air assault on rebels in Tikrit

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on rebel-held Tikrit yesterday with commandos flown into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after taking fire from insurgents who have seized northern cities.

Witnesses said battles were raging in the city -- hometown of Saddam Hussein -- which fell to Sunni Islamist fighters two weeks ago.

The helicopters were shot at as they flew low over the city and landed in a stadium at the city's university, a security source at the scene said. Government spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment and by evening the assault was still not being reported on state media.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said fierce clashes ensued, centered around the university compound.

Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched their assault with the capture of the north's biggest city, Mosul, on June 10.

But in recent days, government forces have been fighting back. Commandos were flown in by helicopter to defend the country's biggest oil refinery.

Recapturing territory inside Tikrit would deliver a serious blow against an insurgency that for most of the past two weeks has seemed all but unstoppable in the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad.

In the capital, the president's office confirmed a new parliament elected two months ago would meet Tuesday, the deadline demanded by the constitution, to begin forming a government.

Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under strong U.S. pressure to build a more inclusive government.

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