BAGHDAD – Backed by allied Shiite and Sunni fighters, Iraqi security forces on Monday began a large-scale military operation to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State extremist group, state TV said, a major step in a campaign to reclaim a large swath of territory in northern Iraq controlled by the militants.
The city of Tikrit, 130 kilometres north of Baghdad, fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer along with the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland after the collapse of national security forces. Tikrit is one of the largest cities held by the Islamic State group and sits on the road to Mosul.
Security forces have so far been unable to retake Tikrit, but momentum has begun to shift after soldiers, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, recently took back the nearby refinery town of Beiji. Any operation to take Mosul would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first because of its strategic location for military enforcements.
U.S. military officials have said a co-ordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But they have cautioned that if the Iraqis aren’t ready, the timing could be delayed. Past attempts to retake Tikrit have failed, and Iraqi authorities say they have not set a date to launch a major operation to recapture the city. Heavy fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish forces is taking place only outside the city.
Al-Iraqiya television said that the forces were attacking Tikrit from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city. Several hours into the operation, it gave no details.
Tikrit is an important test case for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which is trying to reassert authority over the divided country. Iraq is bitterly split between minority Sunnis, who were an important base of support for Saddam, and the Shiite majority.
While the TV said Shiite and Sunni tribal fighters were co-operating in Monday’s offensive, Tikrit is an important Sunni stronghold, and the presence of Shiite forces risks could prompt a backlash among Sunnis. The Iraqi military is heavily dependent on Shiite militias that have been accused of abusing Sunni communities elsewhere in Iraq.
Hours ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State extremist group.
“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said Sunday during a news conference in Samarra, 95 kilometres north of Baghdad.
Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon. “The city will soon return to its people,” he added.
His comments appeared to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government.
Saddam, the country’s longtime ruler, was ousted in 2003 by U.S. forces and later executed. Tikrit frequently saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country.