Iraq’s prime minister called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State group Sunday, ahead of a promised offensive to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the extremists.
Haider al-Abadi offered no timeline for an attack on Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi dictator some 80 miles north of Baghdad that fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer. However, Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces have stationed themselves around Tikrit as state-run media has warned that the city “will soon return to its people.”
But sending Shiite militias into the Sunni city of Tikrit, the capital of Iraq’s Salahuddin province, could reprise the bloody, street-by-street insurgent battles that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. On Saturday, two suicide car bombers killed 16 nearby Shiite militiamen and wounded 31.
Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon during a news conference in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. His office said he arrived in Samarra to “supervise the operation to liberate Tikrit from the terrorist gangs.”
Al-Abadi said the operation will see troops come from several directions, but he declined to give an exact time for the operation’s start. However, his presence in Samarra suggests it could come soon. A statement from his office late Sunday announced the start of a security operation to “liberate” Salahuddin province, though there were no initial reports of any military action underway.
The Iraqi military previously launched an operation in late June to try to wrest back control of Tikrit, but that quickly stalled. Other planned offensives by Iraq’s military, which collapsed under the initial Islamic State group blitz, also have failed to make up ground, though soldiers have taken back the nearby refinery town of Beiji, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition.