Baghdad (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Iraqi army and Shiite militias have launched a far-reaching - and long expected - operation against the Islamic State in Salahuddin province, an Islamic fundamentalist stronghold north of Baghdad. They aim to wrest Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein. News of the operation was announced yesterday by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and broadcast this morning by Iraqi television.
According to Al-Iraqiya TV, this morning security forces began the assault on the city of Tikrit, with the support of heavy artillery and air strikes by the Iraqi airforce. The Islamist militants have already been driven out of some locations around the city, but there is no more information on the assault.
The Islamic State militias have captured large swathes of the majority Sunni Salahuddin province; besides Tikrit, they control several cities on the Tigris River, north of the town of Samarra, which is still in the hands of the government army, and which Prime Minister Abadi visited yesterday.
Tikrit, 130 km north of the capital, fell into the
jihadists hands last summer, along with Mosul, the second largest city in the
country and different areas with a Sunni majority. In the hours leading up to
the military offensive, the Prime Minister directly appealed to the Sunni
fighters, urging them to abandon the extremist group in exchange for government
"It's their last chance" said Abadi, who added that " "If they insist on staying on their wrong path they will receive the fair punishment they deserve because they ... stood with terrorism". The announcement of the Chief Executive follows a series of operations launched in the past by the Iraqi army to liberate Tikrit from the militia, which thus far had failed.
In February, an official of the US Central Command said that the Iraqi army is preparing an offensive to take back to Mosul from the hands of the Islamic State (IS) in April-May. For the operation 20-25 thousand Iraqi soldiers are being trained, including police forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga troops, tribal and anti-terrorism forces. Mosul, Iraq's second city was inhabited by over a million people before it was conquered by the IS last June. It is estimated that it is controlled by two thousand Islamist militiamen.