Islamic State: Iraqi troops begin large-scale attack in Tikrit
Use of Shi'ite militia to reclaim Saddam Hussein's Sunni hometown raises fears of a future backlash
The Iraqi military has launched an attack on Islamic State in the city of Tikrit, said to be the largest offensive since the militants took control of Mosul last year.
Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, were seized by IS in June 2014.
Today, Iraqi government soldiers, alongside Sunni and Shi'ite militias, began striking the city from different directions, reported Al-Iraqiya state television.
It is not the Iraqi military's first attempt to retake Tikrit, says the New York Times, but with more than 30,000 fighters supported by Iraqi helicopters and jets, it is the "boldest" effort yet. It is unclear if the American-led coalition was involved in the early stages of the offensive.
If successful, the military operation could become a "pivotal fight" in the campaign to reclaim north and west Iraq, says the newspaper.
"Controlling Tikrit would probably be necessary for any attempt to attack Mosul because of its strategic location for the flow of arms and military enforcements," explains The Independent.
However, US military officials appear to disagree about whether the Iraqi military, which collapsed last year in the face of the IS assault, would be ready for an operation to retake Mosul.
There are also fears that the presence of Shi'ite forces in Sunni areas could prompt a backlash in the future.
"The militias are largely controlled by Iran, the region's dominant Shi'ite power, and they could widen the country's sectarian divide, especially if they carry out abuses, as they have done elsewhere," says the New York Times.
Hours before today's offensive Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi urged local residents to lay down their arms and help the security forces drive out the militants, offering amnesty to those forced to join IS.
"I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities," he said. "The city will soon return to its people."