BAGHDAD - The Iraqi army retook Saddam Hussein’s home village overnight, a symbolic victory in its struggle to seize back swathes of the country from insurgents.

Backed by helicopter gunships and helped by volunteers, the army recaptured the village of Awja in an hour-long battle on Thursday night, according to state media, police and local inhabitants.

Awja lies 8 km (5 miles) south of Tikrit, a city that remains in rebel hands since Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), launched a lightning assault across northern Iraq last month. The offensive to retake Tikrit began on June 28, but the army has still failed to retake the city which fell after the police and army imploded last month in the face of the militant onslaught that also captured Mosul and other major Sunni areas. The military spokesman of embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Awja had been “totally cleansed” and 30 militants killed, according to state television. A police source told Reuters three insurgents had been killed. The birthplace of Saddam, Awja benefited hugely from the largesse of the dictator before his ousting by the US invasion of 2003 and locals remained fiercely loyal to the man who would select his relatives from the area for top posts.

Spokesman Qassim Atta said security forces had seized control of several government buildings, including a water treatment plant, but security sources and residents said militants were still holding Iraqi forces from entering Tikrit.

The army said it now held the 50-km (30-mile) stretch of highway running north from the city of Samarra - which is 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad - to Awja.

But the mainly Sunni communities along this corridor remain hostile towards government forces and army convoys continue to come under guerrilla attack. Military officials in the United States, which has deployed advisers to Iraq, believe the Iraqi army will be able to defend Baghdad but struggle to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistical weaknesses. In the town of Hawija, site of infighting last month between  fighters and militia forces, members of local tribes told Reuters that community members had organised to fight against the militants in control of the town.

Members of the Al-Obaidi tribe were angered over the militants’ seizure of homes of local sheikhs and officials and had formed an armed group that killed five insurgents on patrol in the town on Friday, residents said. The onslaught by Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group that has declared a medieval-style caliphate erasing the borders of Iraq and Syria, and threatened to march on Baghdad, has left the govt in disarray. Parliament was unable this week to pick a new government to unite the ethnically divided country, something the most senior Shia cleric on Friday called a “regrettable failure”.

In a sermon delivered by his aide, Sistani Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on politicians to avoid “mistakes of the past that have grave consequences for the future of the Iraqis.” Sistani reiterated his call for the government to have “broad national acceptance”, a formulation many officials interpret as a call for Maliki - blamed by Sunnis for marginalising them and worsening ethnic tensions - to go. In the governing system set up after Saddam’s fall, the PM has traditionally been Shia, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd.

Meanwhile, Kurdish preparations for an independence referendum met with frustration in Washington, which stressed unity was essential to tackle a jihadist-led onslaught that risks “Syria-like chaos”.

In a rare piece of positive news during the crisis, however, a group of 46 Indian nurses caught up in the conflict were to be freed, one of them told AFP.

Iraqi Kurdish president Massud Barzani told the autonomous region’s parliament on Thursday that it should make “preparations to begin to organise a referendum on the right of self-determination”, but the US opposed the move.

The prospect of an independent state is made more attractive by what the Kurds say is Baghdad’s unwillingness to resolve the issue of disputed territory and late and insufficient budget payments to the region.

The White House gave the Kurdish leader’s plan for an independence referendum a cool reception, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying that “we continue to believe that Iraq is stronger if it is united”.

“That is why the United States continues to support an Iraq that is democratic, pluralistic and unified, and we are going to continue to urge all parties in Iraq to continue working together toward that objective.”