Iraq Launches Biggest Anti-IS Operation in North of Baghdad

Iraq Launches Biggest Anti-IS Operation in North of BaghdadIraq Launches Biggest Anti-IS Operation in North of Baghdad

Some 30,000 Iraqi troops and Shiite fighters backed by aircraft attacked Islamic State strongholds north of Baghdad on Monday at the start of a campaign aimed at driving them out of the Salahuddin Province.

The offensive is the biggest military operation in the province since the extremist group seized swaths of north Iraq last June and advanced towards the capital Baghdad, Reuters said in a report.

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 Shiite forces had gathered for the offensive.

The pace of their progress in Salahuddin could affect plans to recapture Mosul further north. A US official said the assault on Mosul, the largest city under IS control, could start as early as April but Iraqi officials have declined to confirm that timetable.

In Salahuddin, IS fighters control several strongholds including Tikrit, hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein.

A source at the local military command said forces advanced north from Samarra towards the town of al-Dour, which officials describe as an IS bastion, and Tikrit, which lies about 40km north of Samarra and 150km north of Baghdad.

One Last Chance

Declaring the start of operations on Sunday evening, Abadi gave IS supporters what he said was one last chance to lay down their arms, or face "the punishment they deserve because they stood with terrorism."

He also stressed that the army and militia must protect civilians and property in the battlefield.

Monday's offensive follows several failed attempts to drive the militants out of Tikrit since last June, when IS declared a caliphate in the territories it controls in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.

In Iraq, months of US-led airstrikes, backed up by the Shiite forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers have contained IS 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 of Anbar.

Australia Bans Travel to Mosul

Australia on Monday barred its citizens from travelling to Mosul in northern Iraq, in a push to combat what the government calls "growing radicalization among young Australians."

"The government is determined to stop Australians joining the terrorist conflict in Iraq and Syria and supporting terrorist organizations," Bishop said in a statement.

It is the second time Australia has used a tough new law barring overseas travel to specific areas, following a ban on the province of Raqqa in Syria, a key strategic hub for IS.

Last month the Pentagon said it had sent 10,000 US M-16 rifles and other military supplies worth about $17.9 million to Iraq as US troops pushed ahead with training and supplying Iraqi security forces battling IS insurgents.

IS Frees 19 Captives

IS released at least 19 Christians on Sunday who were among the reportedly 262 people the militants took captive in northeastern Syria last week, activists and a local leader said.

Bashir Saedi, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, said the 16 men and three women arrived safely Sunday at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the city of Hassakeh. He said the 19 — all of them from the village of Tal Ghoran — had traveled by bus from the IS-held town of Shaddadeh south of Hassakeh.

Saedi said all those released were around 50 years of age or older, which suggests age might have been a factor. It was not immediately clear why IS freed the captives.

The Sweden-based Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria also reported the release, and published photographs that it said were from Hassakeh showing a crowd dressed in winter coats greeting the returnees.

Meanwhile, a security source in Salahaddin said IS militants have kidnapped 26 female college students in the Askari quarter of Tikrit. IS also reportedly killed five teenage boys in Sinjar, accusing them of deserting the fight against the Peshmerga.

IS also declared a new target in its war on the West — a co-founder of the micro-blogging website Twitter.

Twitter has routinely shut down IS social media accounts, particularly those that threaten or link to beheadings and other atrocities. The militant group posted an online threat Sunday warning Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey that "your virtual war on the Internet will cause a real war on you."

Twitter issued a one-sentence statement saying that its "security team is investigating the veracity of these threats with relevant law enforcement officials."

The post includes a matted photo of Dorsey with a target on his face.