Iraq forces regain ground north of Baghdad

Iraqi security forces retook a town north of Baghdad from militants Saturday as they readied a fightback after the premier announced the cabinet granted him "unlimited powers."

Troops and tribal militia found the burned bodies of 12 policemen as they recaptured Ishaqi in Salaheddin province from Sunni Arab insurgents, a police colonel and a doctor said.

It was one of the closest points to the capital that the militants had reached in the offensive that saw them overrun a large chunk of northern and north-central Iraq this week.

Troops also retook the nearby Muatassam area of Salaheddin, the police colonel said.

On Friday night, police and residents expelled militants from another town in the province, Dhuluiyah, where they had set up checkpoints, witnesses said.

"Residents are now firing into the air" in celebration, witness Abu Abdullah told AFP.

Security forces have also held fast in the Muqdadiyah area of Diyala province, preventing militants from taking the town in heavy fighting, a police colonel said.

In Samarra, further north in Salaheddin province, reinforcements from the federal police and army arrived on Friday to bolster the defences of the city, which is home to a revered Shiite shrine, an army colonel said.

The reinforcements were awaiting orders to launch a counter-offensive against areas north of the city, including Dur and Tikrit, that the militants seized earlier this week, the officer said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki travelled to Samarra for a security meeting on Friday, also visiting the city's Al-Askari shrine, which was bombed by militants in 2006, sparking a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis that killed tens of thousands.

Maliki, a Shiite, said that "the cabinet granted the prime minister, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, unlimited powers" to combat the militants, in a statement posted late Friday on his website.

The premier's opponents have long accused him of monopolising power and moving towards dictatorship, and the announcement is likely to deepen those fears.

It seemed to indicate he was claiming similar authority to that granted if parliament declares a state of emergency, in which case the constitution says the prime minister is to have the "necessary powers," the specifics of which are to be regulated by law.

Parliament had been due to consider a motion granting Maliki emergency powers on Thursday but failed to muster a quorum, with one official saying only 128 out of 325 MPs showed up.

bur-wd/kir