BAGHDAD, March 2, 2015:
Iraq’s armed forces, backed by Shia militia, attacked Islamic State strongholds north of Baghdad on Monday at the start of a campaign aimed at driving them out of the mainly Sunni Muslim province of Salahuddin.
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 Shia militia had gathered for the offensive.
A United States official said the assault on Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control, could start as early as April but Iraqi officials have declined to confirm that timetable.
A source at the local military command said forces advanced north from Samarra towards the town of al-Dour, which officials describe as an Islamic State bastion, and Tikrit, which lies about 40km north of Samarra.
Iraq’s air force was carrying out strikes in support of the advancing ground forces, who were being reinforced by troops and militia — known as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation units — from the neighbouring province of Diyala to the east.
Declaring the start of operations on Sunday evening, Abadi gave Islamic State supporters what he said was one last chance to lay down their arms, or face “the punishment they deserve because they stood with terrorism”.
Shia 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.
Monday’s offensive follows several failed attempts to drive the militants out of Tikrit since last June, when Islamic State declared a caliphate in the territories it controls in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.
In Iraq, months of U.S.-led air strikes, backed up by the Shi’ite militias, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers have contained Islamic State and pushed them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala.