Government forces backed by allied Shia and Sunni fighters have begun a large-scale military operation to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
A force of 20,000 soldiers and fighters are trying to advance into Tikrit on Monday to force the armed group from the historic city and the surrounding Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad.
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State-run Al-Iraqiya television said that forces were attacking Tikrit from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets.
Iraqi security forces said they have now retaken control of al-Dour, including the countryside where former President Saddam Hussein was found hiding, Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf, who is in Baghdad, reported.
“This is the first test for the Iraqi military,” she said.
The military commander of Salahuddin region, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told state TV the operation was “going on as planned,” with fighting taking place outside Tikrit mainly on its eastern side.
On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi came to Samarra to rally the troops.
“Our goal is to liberate people from the oppression and terrorism of Daesh,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday, referring to the Arabic acronym used to describe ISIL fighters. He is now back in Baghdad to meet with members of parliament.
Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salauhddin province, 130km north of Baghdad, fell to ISIL last summer, along with the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland.
Past attempts to retake Tikrit have failed, however, as Iraq struggles with its armed forces, which collapsed in the wake of ISIL offensive last summer.
The city was an early centre of the insurgency against the US military and a base of opposition to subsequent Iraqi governments. Like most Sunni majority areas, many in the province believe they have been marginalised by the Iraqi government and mistreated by Iraqi security forces.
ISIL’s most effective Iraqi ally is believed to be a group headed by Saddam Hussein’s elderly former right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, from al-Dour, southwest of Tikrit, Al Jazeera’s Arraf reported.
|Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan reported on the fighters who are now going into Tikrit [February 15]|
PM overseeing operation
Abbadi arrived on Sunday in the northern city of Samarra in Salahuddin to oversee the military operation, and vowed to “liberate” the province “from the tyranny of the terrorists”.
Thousands of government troops, fighters from Shia militia and Sunni tribes have gathered around Samarra for the operation in the nearby strongholds of ISIL near the Tigris River, Al Jazeera has learned.
Iraq’s military also told Reuters news agency that around 2,000 Shia militia fighters have arrived near Tikrit in preparation for the major operation.
Raed Salahuddin, governor of Salahuddin, had said last week that 5,000 fighters from the security forces and Hashid Shaabi militia, which was formed last year with Iranian support, would join the operation.
Al Jazeera’s Arraf said that “this is one of the biggest military operations that will eventually proceed to take back Mosul”, referring to the main city of Nineveh province, which is the stronghold of ISIL.
Our correspondent said that US air strikes are also expected to provide back-up for the Iraqi troops on the ground.
“This is not expected to be an easy fight,” she said. “ISIL has dug in there”.
Ahead of the ground operation, on Saturday, ISIL fighters launched pre-emptive strikes against targets in Samarra.
After months of air strikes by the US and its Western and Arab allies, ISIL is on the defensive in several parts of the “caliphate” it declared in swathes of Iraq and Syria.