The Iraqi military, backed by Shia militias, launched a large-scale offensive on Monday to reclaim Tikrit from Islamic State militants, who overtook the central city last June.
A force of up to 30,000 soldiers and fighters is reportedly attacking Tikrit from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets.
The extent of U.S. involvement in Monday's offensive was unclear. However, the Combined Joint Task Force reported Sunday that a U.S.-led coalition launched seven air strikes against Islamic State militants over the weekend in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the coalition used warplanes and drones to strike near Al Asad, Al Qaim, Kirkuk, and Mosul, destroying Islamic State tactical units, boats, a storage facility, buildings, and other targets, according to the statement.
According to Reuters, Iraq's air force carried out strikes in support of the advancing ground forces who were being reinforced by troops and militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization units, from the neighboring eastern province of Diyala. Iraqi officials have also claimed that an estimated 700 to 1,000 Sunni tribal fighters are involved in the Tikrit operation.
The New York Times described the attack as "the boldest effort yet to recapture Tikrit and, Iraqi officials said, the largest Iraqi offensive anywhere in the country since the Islamic State took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June."
The Times added:
From a military perspective, capturing Tikrit is seen as an important precursor to an operation to retake Mosul, which lies farther north. Success in Tikrit could push up the timetable for a Mosul campaign, while failure would most likely mean more delays.
The American military, though, appears divided on the question of when the Iraqi military—which collapsed last summer in the face of the Islamic State onslaught—would be ready for a wide-scale offensive in Mosul, or in Anbar Province in the west of the country, which is also in the hands of militants.
But tensions on the ground could further complicate the high-stakes offensive.
The Guardian reports: "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."
According to Reuters:
Shi'ite militia have been accused of mass executions and burning of homes in areas they have seized from Islamic State. Leaders of the paramilitary forces have denied the accusations.
In the hours before Monday's operation began, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi "sought to ease the concerns of Tikrit’s overwhelmingly Sunni residents, saying many of the volunteer forces aiding in the fight for the city are Sunni locals supporting the military’s effort," according to the Wall Street Journal.
"The US has made a big deal of courting Sunni tribes to fight against ISIS for the Shi’ite dominated government, and while there have been some indications of some tribes being open to that, the Shi’ite militias cracking down on locals in retaken territory have undercut that effort," writes Jason Ditz at AntiWar.com. "Many Sunnis have ultimately decided life under ISIS is less objectionable than life under occupation by the Badr Brigade and other militias."
Ditz also notes that al-Abadi called on fighters to "spare civilians" during the attack. But, Ditz adds, "Exactly how much influence he will have over his own military, let alone the militias, remains to be seen, however."