KIRKUK - Iraqi forces on Friday attacked the strategic jihadist-held town of Baiji, which has been out of government control for months, regaining control of two areas, army officers said.

They ‘entered the town of Baiji... and moved into Al-Sinai and Al-Tamim neighbourhoods and cleared them,’ Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, who leads the military command for the area, told AFP. Major Hassan Mekhlif, who took part in the operation, confirmed the two areas had been retaken, adding that ‘our forces are stationed in a number of sites and checkpoints.’

An army major general said the assault came after shelling targeting militants from the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, which spearheaded a sweeping June offensive that overran Baiji and much of the rest of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland.

Security forces, militiamen and tribesmen had been gathering for several days near Baiji, after advancing from the south in an operation launched more than two weeks ago.

Baiji lies on the main highway to Iraq’s IS-controlled second city Mosul, and the town’s recapture would also help to further isolate militants in the city of Tikrit, to the south. The Baiji assault could also open the way to breaking a months-old jihadist siege of government forces defending Iraq’s largest oil refinery, which is located near the town. But government forces face a major challenge in retaking Baiji, and previous offensives have failed to gain ground.

The major general said the Baiji assault was interrupted by an attack on the command headquarters located at Tikrit University. Three suicide bombers had tried to detonate explosives-rigged vehicles at the university but were killed, while other militants also took part in the attack, which was repelled after three hours.