22 February 2015, NYT: Battle to Retake Iraqi City Looms as Test of Obama's ISIS Strategy
20 February 2015, NYT: Iraqi Assault to Retake Mosul From Islamic State Is Planned for Spring
MARCH 2, 2015
Iraqi Offensive to Retake Tikrit From ISIS Begins
By OMAR AL-JAWOSHY and TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi military, alongside thousands of Shiite militia  fighters, began a large-scale offensive on Monday to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State, a battle that could either become a pivotal fight in the campaign to reclaim north and west Iraq or deepen the country's bloody sectarian divide.
Iraqi state television announced the beginning of the offensive Monday morning, a day after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the forces massed on Tikrit's outskirts and delivered a speech in which he said "zero hour" for the liberation of Tikrit was at hand.
While visiting Samarra, a town near Tikrit, on Sunday, Mr. Abadi promised amnesty to local residents who had been forced to join the Islamic State. But he said it was the last chance for them to lay down their arms and assist the security forces in pushing out the militants.
It is not the first time  the Iraqi military has sought to retake Tikrit in the months since the city, Saddam Hussein's hometown and a Sunni stronghold, fell into militant hands during the Islamic State's blitz through the country after seizing the northern city of Mosul in June last year. At the time, the militants' offensive had even residents of Baghdad worried of a new conqueror, but the advance stalled near Samarra.
Several times since then, the army and allied Shiite militias -- sometimes in defiance of objections from American officials, who warned of a sectarian blood bath should they enter Tikrit -- have begun counteroffensives, only to abort them shortly after.
But Monday's attack, which officials said involved more than 30,000 fighters supported by Iraqi helicopters and jets, was the boldest effort yet to recapture Tikrit and, Iraqi officials said, the largest Iraqi offensive anywhere in the country since the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
By sundown Monday, fighting raged in the areas surrounding Tikrit, but the army and militia fighters had not yet pushed on the city center. The Islamic State, meanwhile, released a video that seemed intended to terrify any citizens who were considering aiding the advance by the security forces. The clip showed the execution by gunshot of four men, dressed in orange jumpsuits, who were said to be local tribesmen collaborating with the government.
Alaa al-Ajeeli, a schoolteacher near Tikrit, described chaos in his village Monday morning. As mortar shells rained down and helicopters buzzed the sky, the militants began calling from loudspeakers for citizens to leave their homes and flee.
"We all escaped immediately to various directions," he said, explaining that many citizens fled to safer areas in Anbar or Kirkuk Provinces.
In a speech Monday to Parliament, Mr. Abadi echoed the words of President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, saying that the residents of Tikrit were either with Iraq or with the Islamic State.
"There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIS," Mr. Abadi said. "If someone is being neutral with ISIS, then he is one of them."
From a military perspective, capturing Tikrit is seen as an important precursor to an operation to retake Mosul,  which lies farther north. Success in Tikrit could push up the timetable for a Mosul campaign, while failure would most likely mean more delays.
The American military, though, appears divided  on the question of when the Iraqi military -- which collapsed last summer in the face of the Islamic State onslaught -- would be ready for a wide-scale offensive on Mosul, or in Anbar Province in the west of the country, which is also in the militants' hands. Some American officials have backed off earlier estimates that it could happen as early as April.
Even a victory in Tikrit could be costly, given the prominent role of Shiite militias, which are feared by the Sunni population. And reports that the militias have carried out sectarian abuses in some areas have complicated efforts to persuade Sunnis to work with the government.
The United States, in returning to a military role in Iraq, has pushed for reconciliation between Iraq's Shiite-led government and the country's Sunni minority, but there has been little apparent progress. The United States has also insisted that Iraq establish Sunni fighting units to retake and hold Sunni areas, and it warned against using Shiite forces to invade those areas.
Yet it has been almost exclusively Shiite fighters that have protected Baghdad since the Islamic State offensive last summer, and it has been Iranian-directed militias that have secured some of the most significant gains on the battlefield, often fighting with the support of American airpower.
Further, the fight against the Islamic State has brought the United States and Iran into an awkward alliance in Iraq. While the United States' effort has been most apparent in its airstrike campaign, Iran has taken the most prominent role on the ground, not just with the militias but with Iranian generals sometimes directing the fighting.
On Monday, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian spymaster who once directed the militias' deadly campaign against American forces in Iraq, was on the ground near Tikrit, according to a prominent Iraqi militia leader and the Iranian Fars news agency.
Among the nearly 30,000 fighters involved in the Tikrit operation were an estimated 700 to 1,000 Sunni tribal fighters, according to Iraqi officials.
Sahar Mawlood, who had been a member of the Salahuddin Provincial Council before the Islamic State took control, discounted fears that the offensive could incite more sectarian bloodletting. Referring to the Shiite-dominated south, she said: "We are proud to see the sons of the south fighting alongside the sons of Tikrit against ISIS. We are supporting our security forces as strong as we can, as we support all those who offer help."
Yet some Iraqi officials have referred to the new operation as revenge for the Shiite victims of a massacre last summer in Tikrit by the Islamic State, raising the likelihood of violent score-settling. In a gruesome tableau that was publicized in videos and photographs by the Islamic State, militants -- possibly aided by local Sunni tribesmen -- slaughtered more than 1,000 Shiite soldiers from a nearby military base, Camp Speicher.
In a statement that addressed the worries over militias taking retribution on the local population, the United Nations representative in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said Monday that "military operations reinforced by international and Iraqi air support must be conducted with the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties, and with full respect for fundamental human rights principles and humanitarian law."
Omar al-Jawoshy reported from Baghdad, and Tim Arango from Istanbul. Falih Hassan and Ahmed Saleh contributed reporting from Baghdad.