On Monday, Iraqi security forces aided by Shiite militias started an offensive to take back the city of Tikrit, which has been under Islamic State control since last summer. This is at least the third major attempt to dislodge ISIS from the city—previous operations in June and August of last year failed.
Strategically, the battle for Tikrit is a crucial military challenge for an Iraqi army trying to wrest back control of the northern and western parts of the country that it lost to ISIS in the past year. As my colleague Steve Clemons noted on Twitter, the Tikrit operation is, for one thing, "an important training run on the larger eventual challenge of Mosul," the second-largest city in Iraq, which is also under Islamic State control.
But, perhaps even more importantly, the fight is a test of how the country's sectarian divide will play out in the fight against ISIS. Tikrit is not only the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, it is also dominated by Iraqi Sunnis who are wary of Baghdad's Shiite-led government and Iran's growing influence in the country.
Ahead of Monday's operation, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made one last promise of amnesty for Sunni fighters in the city who have joined forces with ISIS. “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,” Abadi said on Sunday. Whether Sunni fighters (or civilians for that matter) in Tikrit will side with government forces remains a huge unknown.