Iraqi armed forces and pro-government militias today launched a major offensive to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State extremist group, in part of a push to capture swathes of lost territory.
The assault began early on Monday and included government troops and police alongside allied Sunni and Shia militias, according to state television and other local media outlets. Military jets and helicopters were also reported to be involved, as well as around 30,000 troops.
Tikrit, the birthplace of deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, is around 100 miles north of Baghdad and was seized by the Islamic State in June 2014 as the group swept across the north of the country in a shock offensive. Government forces have made several unsuccessful attempts to retake the city since, but this is one of the largest and comes as the Islamic State has suffered defeats elsewhere in recent months, including the nearby oil refinery town of Baiji.
If the assault is successful, it would be a propaganda and tactical victory for Iraqi forces, which are reportedly also preparing for an assault on the country's second city of Mosul after it fell to the Islamic State around the same time as Tikrit.
A Lt. Col. with the Iraqi army told AFP that troops were pushing forward from both north and south of Tikrit and moving to cut off Islamic State supply routes. Initial reports indicated that the extremist militants have been dislodged from some parts of the city's outskirts and that government forces are as close as three miles from its center, but this cannot be independently confirmed.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the assault on Sunday evening at a news conference in nearby Samarra.
He added that security forces should ensure that civilians be spared during the fighting and, on his Facebook page, said that civilian lives and property must be protected. Abadi was seemingly referring to fears that Shia militias could target Tikrit's Sunnis in reprisal attacks.
The Islamic State kidnapped then executed more than 1,000 predominantly Shia recruits from the Camp Speicher military base close to Tikrit during its June 2014 offensive. Shia militias vowed revenge and often accuse local Sunni tribes of involvement in the killings.
Hadi al-Ameri, transport minister and head of the Badr Organization, said on Saturday that those living in Tikrit should leave their homes to allow pro-government forces to "wrap up the battle of the revenge for Speicher."
Some Sunni tribes and supporters of Hussein's Baath Party in the area sided with the Islamic State against the government last year. However, Abadi hinted that those who had could be offered amnesty, urging fighters "who were misled and made a mistake to lay down their arms", but also warned that this could be their "last chance."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck