World Bulletin / News Desk
Iraq's armed forces, backed by Shi'ite militia, attacked ISIL 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.
The offensive is the biggest military operation in the province since the radicals seized swaths of north Iraq last June and advanced towards the capital Baghdad.
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 Shi'ite militia had gathered for the offensive.
The pace of their progress in Salahuddin could affect plans to recapture Mosulfurther north. A U.S. 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.
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 ISIL supporters what he said was one last chance to lay down their arms, or face "the punishment they deserve because they stood with terrorism".
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