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Iraq Launches Tikrit Operation Against Islamic State Militants

  • RFE/RL

Iraqi soldiers stand on a damaged tank during fighting against IS militants near Tikrit on February 24.

Iraqi soldiers stand on a damaged tank during fighting against IS militants near Tikrit on February 24.

Iraqi government forces have launched an operation to recapture the city of Tikrit and other areas north of Baghdad from the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

State television reported on March 2 that military forces were attacking IS positions in late dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown, some 130 kilometers from Baghdad.

It said the troops were backed by Shi’ite and Sunni Arab fighters, as well as artillery and air strikes by Iraqi jets.

The Pentagon said on March 2 that the United States, which has conducted air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria, was not providing air power for the latest Iraqi offensive.

Iraqi and Iranian media reported that Qassem Soleimani -- commander of the elite Al-Quds force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) -- was in the area to help oversee operations.

The militants were reportedly dislodged from some areas outside the city, but this has not been confirmed.

Security officials were quoted as saying the operation involved some 30,000 troops and allied fighters.

An army lieutenant colonel on the ground told the French AFP news agency that the forces involved in the battle were from the army, police, counterterrorism units, Shi'ite militias known as Hashid Shaabi, and local Sunni tribes opposed to the IS group.

The offensive is part of a campaign to drive IS militants out of the mainly Sunni Arab province of Salah al-Din.

It follows several failed attempts to clear the IS group from Tikrit since June 2014, when the militants swept through northern Syria and northern and western Iraq.

Hours ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi offered Sunni tribal fighters in Tikrit a "last chance" to abandon the IS group, promising them a pardon.

Abadi spoke on March 1 in the government-held city of Samarra, about 40 kilometers south of Tikrit, where some of the troops and allied forces had gathered for the offensive.

"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," Abadi said.

Analysts say Abadi's comments appear to be targeting former members of Iraq's outlawed Baath Party, loyalists to Saddam Hussein, who joined the IS group during its offensive, as well as other Sunni Arabs who were dissatisfied with Baghdad's government.

Months of U.S.-led air strikes, backed up by the Shi'ite militias, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and Iraqi soldiers have contained IS militants and pushed them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala.

But they have held most of their strongholds in Salah al-Din and taken new territory in the western province of Anbar.

Attacks by IS have sparked a new wave of bloodshed in Iraq.

The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq said on March 1 that in February alone, violence across Iraq killed at least 1,100 Iraqis, including more than 600 civilians.

UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov blamed the deaths on the extremist group, government forces, and pro-government Shi'ite militias.

"Daily terrorist attacks perpetrated by [IS] continue to deliberately target all Iraqis," Mladenov said. "There are also concerning reports of a number of revenge killings by armed groups in areas recently liberated from ISIL."

With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and AIN