Iraq begins assault on Islamic State strongholds north of Baghdad

Written by on March 2, 2015

Shia militia parade in northern Iraq last June. Islamic State controls territory in Salahuddin including Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.

Shia militia parade in northern Iraq last June. Islamic State controls territory in Salahuddin including Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.

Iraq’s armed forces, backed by Shia militia, have begun a fresh campaign to wrest control and “liberate” Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, now a stronghold of Islamic State, the country’s prime minister has said.

The long-promised battle for Tikrit and the province of Salahuddin, north of Baghdad, is set to be a dry run for another offensive, backed by the US-led international coalition and Shiamilitia, to retake Isis-controlled Mosul.

The government faces a challenge in overthrowing the militants – who are entrenched within both urban centres and villages – without alienating local Sunnis and enabling retributive attacks by the Shia militia against Sunnis suspected of collaboration with Isis.

“Our goal is to liberate people from these terrorist groups,” said Haidar al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, on Sunday. He was speaking from the city of Samarra, a day after two suicide attacks by Isis in the area.

Abadi also called for “utmost care in protecting civilian lives and property”.

Reports of attacks by the militia on Sunni civilians – including accusations of mass executions – have increased in recent weeks, as they battle to retake control of towns and villages that were under Isis control.

Members of the Sunni community already felt alienated and abandoned by the government in Baghdad in the runup to the Isis takeover.

The Iraqi government’s greatest challenge is likely to be the Isis strongholds in al-Dawr, south of Tikrit and west of the city in Albu Obaid – areas believed to be staging grounds for suicide attacks – said Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises the Iraqi government on Isis.

He said the military operations in north Tikrit had brought the government forces just 2 miles from the centre of the city, with fierce fighting ongoing in its south.

Hashimi said the pro-government forces, made up of 27,000 cadres, had been divided into an initial liberation force of 9,000, a second group made up of local tribesmen to pacify the town, and a third group tasked with gathering intelligence, reconstruction, and repatriating refugees who had fled the area.

He said the current plan was intended to greatly limit friction between locals and the forces trying to retake the area.

A successful operation in Tikrit is also likely to help the Iraqi military regain a measure of self-confidence after its embarrassing withdrawal in the face of the initial Isis assault.

There have already been several failed attempts to drive the militants out of Tikrit since last June, when Isis declared a caliphate in the territories it controls in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.

“If the victory is achieved, morale will increase,” said Hashimi.

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