World Bulletin / News Desk
Iraq's armed forces, backed by Shi'ite militia, attacked ISIL trongholds north of Baghdad on Monday as they launched an offensive to retake the city of Tikrit and the surrounding Sunni Muslim province of Salahuddin.
The offensive is the biggest military operation in the province since the Sunni Islamic radicals seized swaths ofnorth 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 will affect plans to recapture Mosul further north. A U.S. official said the assault on Mosul, the largest city under ISIL 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 ISIIL bastion, and Tikrit, which lies about 40 km (25 miles) north ofSamarra.
Iraq's air force carried 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 eastern province ofDiyala.
Artillery gunners in a military base just north of Tikrit also bombarded ISIL positions in the city, another source said.
But the soldiers and Shi'ite militia fighters faced heavy opposition from ISIL fighters who have had months to dig in, coming under attack as they advanced towards Samarra from their base to the east.
Sixteen of the advancing troops, five soldiers and 11 militia fighters were killed by gunfire and roadside bombs,army and medical sources said.
Also to the east of Samarra, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle packed with explosives into a convoy of Shi'ite militia fighters, killing four, police and hospital sources said. More than 30 militia fighters were wounded in clashes near al-Dour.
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".
But he also stressed that the army and militia must protect civilians and property in the battlefield. Shi'ite militiahave been accused of mass executions and burning of homes in areas they have seized from ISIL. 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 ISIL 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 ISIL and pushed them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala.
But they have held most of their strongholds in Salahuddin and taken new territory in the western province ofAnbar.Last Mod: 02 Mart 2015, 18:12