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.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi said on Monday: “Today, God willing, we start an important military campaign to liberate the citizens of Salahuddin province which includes Samarra, Dhuluiya, Balad, Dujail, al-Alam, al-Door, and Tikrit and other areas in the province from ISIL.”
“I call upon you and all other commanders to deal with citizens well. Our goal is to liberate people from the oppression and terrorism of Daesh,” he added in a televised address, referring to the Arabic acronym used to describe ISIL fighters.
About 30,000 Iraqi troops started attacking ISIL positions in Tikrit from the northern, western and southern fronts early on Monday, backed by artillery and air strikes by Iraqi fighter jets.
Iraqi authorities reported that security forces were in the process of retaking some neighbourhoods in Tikrit’s northeast.
Hospital sources told Al Jazeera that two members of popular mobilisation forces and one government soldier was killed on Tikrit’s northern front on Monday, while 35 more were wounded.
Hours ahead of the operation, Abbadi called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the group, promising them a pardon.
Tikrit, some 130km north of Baghdad, fell into the hands of ISIL last summer along with the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in the Sunni heartland.
On Sunday, Iraqi forces launched a military offensive against ISIL in other parts of the strategic province of Salahuddin, which includes Tikrit.
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 Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, 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”.
In his speech in Samarra, Abbadi warned the troops to “secure the safety of all of our civilians” as they move towards the north to Mosul.
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. Al Jazeera