While the world is more occupied with the preparation for the ultimate assault on Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that has become the de facto capital of IS-held territory in Iraq, the Iraqi government is attacking Tikrit from the North and the South in what is to be the largest counteroffensive yet against the ISIS.
Tikrit has a largely Sunni dominated population and has historical significance also because it is the birthplace of the former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. However the force which is trying to wrest bit from ISIS control is predominantly composed of Shiite fighters.
Iranian state television on Monday aired footage of Iraqi military forces launching a large-scale military operation to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State extremist group. The Iranian connection is viewed with deep suspicion by the predominantly Sunni population of Tikrit, Mosul and Anbar Province in the west of the country, which is also in the hands of militants.
Iraq is sending some 30000 troops which are composed of Shiite militias forming the backbone of the campaign in the mostly Sunni region. The move has become militarily necessary it also fraught with danger of further widening the sectarian divide in Iraq.
The offensive was officially announced during the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to the government-held city of Samarra, about 25 miles south of Tikrit.
The Iraqi military is attacking Tikrit from both North and South. The city was hit by a barrage of artillery from a government held base in the North while another force began moving from Samarra towards al-Dour, an IS stronghold just outside Tikrit. The offensive is backed by Iraqi air power but it is not clear if US backed coalition which has been bombing IS positions since August is also involved.
The Tikrit campaign will have huge implication on the future Mosul campaign. It will also have a profound impact on the sectarian divide in Iraq. Tikrit is the birthplace of former President Saddam Hussein, is a staunchly Sunni city. It was one of the reasons which greatly helped ISIS to capture the town last year who could draw support from the Sunni militias in the city who were angry and frustrated with the then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s uncompromising Shiite government.