Iraq has launched a military operation to recapture Tikrit, the hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein, from Islamic State (IS) and its allies. A force of about 30,000 troops and militia were said to be attacking on different fronts, backed by air strikes from Iraqi fighter jets. Fighting is reported in towns to the north and south of Tikrit.
A Shia militia commander has told the BBC that Iran’s Gen Qasem Soleimani is also taking part in the operation. Soleimani is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ overseas operation arm, the Quds Force. He emerged from decades in the shadows after the IS advance in Iraq last summer, personally overseeing the defence of the capital Baghdad and mobilising pro-Iranian Shia militia – by organising them as well as funnelling money and weapons to them. Soleimani has played an important role in countering IS in Iraq
Tikrit, which lies 150km (95 miles) north of the capital Baghdad in Salahuddin province, was seized in June 2014 by IS militants backed by anti-government Sunni allies loyal to Saddam Hussein’s banned Baath party. A commander of a Shia militia unit involved in the offensive recently confirmed that IS announced it had taken a number of youths hostage and threatened to kill them if government forces entered the city. He added that the Iranians had been involved in the Tikrit operation for the past two days. Tehran insists it has only sent troops to advise Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia militiamen. However, members of the Guards and the Quds Force are widely believed to be involved in combat operations, including those that have benefited from US-led coalition air strikes.
Al-Iraqiya TV said IS militants had been dislodged from some areas outside Tikrit and added that Iraqi troops and fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Forces – an umbrella group of Shia militia fighting IS – were moving on Tikrit as air strikes hit northern militant strongholds. There are unconfirmed reports that al-Dour, south-east of Tikrit, has been taken by Iraqi forces and fighting is also reported in the town of al-Alam, north of the city, and Qadisiya.
The operation involving up to 20,000 government troops is being backed by an alliance of volunteers mainly from the Shia community but also Sunni tribal fighters. The Popular Mobilisation Force was formed last summer following the collapse of army troops after IS militants swept through the Sunni heartlands in the north and west of Iraq.
The jihadist movement is backed by Sunni insurgents, who started to take up arms against the Shia-led government in late 2013 after months of protests against what the Sunni community perceived as marginalisation and discrimination.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met military leaders in Salahuddin province ahead of the advance. He declared the start of the operation, as tens of thousands of troops and militia gathered in the central town of Samarra. Abadi offered to pardon all Sunni tribal fighters “who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms” and abandon IS. He described it as a “last chance”, saying that the city of Tikrit would soon be returned to its people.