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Published: Friday February 14, 2014 MYT 9:27:13 PM
Updated: Friday February 14, 2014 MYT 9:28:21 PM

Iraqi troops regain ground from militants in northern town

TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships regained ground in the northern town of Sulaiman Pek on Friday, a day after parts of it were overrun by Sunni Islamist insurgents, the mayor said.

At least 12 militants were killed by the army, according to the town's mayor, Talib Mohammed, who identified the militants as members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

"The army is making good progress in the town," he said. "We have to admit it's not an easy job as snipers and roadside bombs planted by militants are forcing military forces to be slow and vigilant."

Sunni Islamist militants have been regaining ground in Iraq over the past year, particularly in the western province of Anbar, where gunmen opposed to the country's Shi'ite-led government took over the city of Falluja last month.

The Iraqi army has surrounded Falluja and threatened a ground assault to retake it unless the militants lay down their arms by Friday.

Sulaiman Pek, 160 km (100 miles) north of Baghdad, is a majority Sunni Arab town of around 25,000 people, with smaller Turkoman and Kurdish communities.

Police forces are in control of government buildings, the mayor said, despite repeated attempts by the militants to break into them, the mayor said.

"Military forces backed by helicopters are controlling now around 70 percent of the town and the gunmen started to leave their positions," Mohammed said.

An army officer said it was difficult to chase militants as many could easily hide their arms and blend in among civilians. Some had already left the town for surrounding villages.

"They are like ghosts appearing suddenly and disappearing in a glimpse. Even if they withdraw, they will attack us again," said army captain Falah Abdul-Ameer, whose battalion is stationed in Sulaiman Pak.

In a separate incident, at least four policemen were killed when gunmen attacked a police convoy on a highway near Tikrit, police said. In Tuz Khurmato, one civilian was killed and three were wounded in a bomb blast.

(Reporting by Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Isabel Coles)

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