Backed by allied Shiite and Sunni fighters, Iraqi security forces began a large-scale military operation today to recapture Saddam Hussein's hometown from ISIS in a major step in a campaign to reclaim a large swath of territory in northern Iraq controlled by the militants, according to state TV. The city of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, fell into the hands of ISIS last summer along with Mosul—the country's second-largest city—and other areas in the country's Sunni heartland after the collapse of national security forces. Tikrit is one of the largest cities held by ISIS and sits on the road to Mosul—and any attempt to take Mosul likely would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first because of its strategic location for military enforcements.
The cooperation between Shiite and Sunni fighters is an important development in the battle against ISIS, though the presence of Shiite forces in the Sunni area risks prompting a backlash in the future. Hours ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the extremist group, offering what he described as "the last chance" and promising them a pardon. "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, adding that the "city will soon return to its people." (Read more Tikrit stories.)