Iraq Launches anti-ISIS Offensive in Salahuddin Province

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Volunteer fighters, known as the Popular Mobilization units, who support the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group fire a Howitzer artillery canon in the village of Awaynat near the city of Tikrit on February 28, 2015. Government forces have attempted and failed several times to wrest back Tikrit — the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein — since losing it to ISIS in June 2014. AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye

Published Monday, March 2, 2015

Iraq's armed forces, backed by volunteering fighters, attacked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) strongholds north of Baghdad on Monday at the start of a campaign aimed at driving them out of the province of Salahuddin.

The offensive is the biggest military operation in the province since the Islamist militants seized swaths of north Iraq last June and advanced towards the capital Baghdad.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the start of the Salahuddin operations on Sunday during a visit to the government-held city of Samarra, where some of the thousands of troops and volunteering fighters had gathered for the offensive.

The pace of their progress in Salahuddin could affect plans to recapture Mosul further north. A US official said the assault on Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control, could start as early as April but Iraqi officials have declined to confirm that timetable.

In Salahuddin, ISIS fighters control several strongholds including Tikrit, hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein and other Tigris river towns.

A source at the local military command said forces advanced north from Samarra towards the town of al-Dour, which officials describe as an ISIS bastion, and Tikrit, which lies about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Samarra.

Iraqi forces are also "moving alongside roads to prevent Daesh's escape," an army lieutenant colonel on the ground told AFP by telephone, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Iraq's air force was carrying out strikes in support of the advancing ground forces, who were being reinforced by troops and fighters known as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization units, from the neighboring province of Diyala to the east.

Iraqi army forces in a military base just north of Tikrit also bombarded ISIS positions in the city, another source said.

"The attack is being carried out using fighter jets, helicopters and artillery targeting Tikrit to secure the advance and cut supply routes," Abadi said.

Military sources said Iraqi warplanes were involved but it was not immediately clear whether foreign air support — Iranian or from the US-led coalition fighting ISIS — was also called in.

Declaring the start of operations on Sunday evening, Abadi gave ISIS supporters what he said was one last chance to lay down their arms, or face "the punishment they deserve because they stood with terrorism."

"I call on all those who were misled and made mistakes in the past to lay down their arms today. This may be the last chance," Abadi said in Samarra, suggesting some could be granted amnesty.

But he also stressed that the army and volunteering fighters must protect civilians and property in the battlefield.

"The priority we gave to the armed forces and all the forces taking part alongside them is to preserve the security of citizens," Abadi told reporters.

On social media, he called "for utmost care in protecting civilian lives and property."

Hadi al-Ameri, the Popular Mobilization commander and a central figure in Iraq's fightback against ISIS, on Saturday urged Tikrit residents to leave their homes within hours so government forces could "wrap up the battle of the revenge for Speicher."

Speicher is a military base near Tikrit from which hundreds of new recruits were kidnapped before being executed in the early days of the ISIS nationwide offensive in June 2014.

Monday's offensive follows 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.

Iraqi security forces, backed by Kurdish troops, pro-government volunteering fighters, and tribesmen on the ground have managed to regain some ground from ISIS and push them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala. But they have held most of their strongholds in Salahuddin and taken new territory in the western province of Anbar.

ISIS launched an offensive on Sunday on a military bases near the al-Baghdadi township in Anbar, hitting the area with mortars. At least three children were killed and three women were injured in the attacks.

In the same region, close to the military base, ISIS militants killed at least five civilians on Saturday and injured six others after shooting mortars.

The al-Baghdadi Local Assembly said Saturday that around 500 families were forced to leave their houses following ISIS attacks. The assembly added that more than 1,000 children were in danger due to lack of food.

Separately, security officials said on Saturday that ISIS militants executed 32 policemen and tribal forces by firing squad in front of the locals of the Vaddahiye village of al-Baghdadi. Earlier in February, ISIS reportedly burned to death 45 people in the same township.

A US-led coalition of Western and Arab states has also carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq since August and has billed Iraq more than $260 million.

However, the air campaign, which Washington says aims to degrade ISIS' military capability, remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS' advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

The expansion of jihadist groups in Iraq raises questions about the effectiveness of the US anti-terrorism campaign since 2001.

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 using the pretext of “fighting terrorism” and claiming that then-dictator Saddam Hussein owned weapons of mass destruction.

The US invasion that supposedly aimed to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq — a group that didn't exist in the country until after the invasion — ended up serving as a recruitment tool for terrorist groups.

The war aimed to “free Iraqis” but instead killed at least half a million Iraqis and left the country in total turmoil.

(Reuters, AFP, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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