WASHINGTON–Twitter came alive on Monday with photos of Iranian Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani who is again in Iraq, directing Shia militias in their fight against IS militants.

Soleimani is reportedly taking a leading role in managing the fighting between Iraqi forces and their Shia militia allies as they attempt to wrest control of the Sunni-dominated city of Tikrit from IS militants and their Sunni allies.

Fighting has been reported in towns to the north and south of former dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown, nestled in the heart of Sunni-dominated territory, as about 25,000 Iraqi army and Shia militia forces push toward the city.

Soleimani has been pictured in northern Iraq repeatedly over the past year as his forces have worked to train largely Shia Iraqi troops and militias as they fight back against IS.

Photos coming out of the region over the past 24 hours have shown convoys of government Humvees and militia trucks flying the yellow flag of one of the more powerful Iranian proxies, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which was formed in 2013 to fight in Syria. Commanders of the group are affiliated with the Badr group and the Quds Force.

The assault appears top have taken the US by surprise, as it comes just two weeks after a now-infamous briefing where a CENTCOM official outlined a timeline for the eventual attack on the city of Mosul, which they said would come later this spring.

Another Pentagon official said this morning that the United States has not been asked to provide air strikes in support of the Tikrit operation, despite the fact that there are Iraqi aircraft hitting IS positions from the air.

The Guardian today quoted Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, an advisor to the Iraqi government, as saying that the attackers have been divided into an initial assault force of 9,000, with another group made up of local Sunni tribesmen who will "pacify" the town, and another group which will work on intelligence gathering, reconstruction work, and dealing with the expected refugee flow caused by the fighting.

On Sunday, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi promised amnesty for Sunni fighters in the city who have aligned themselves with IS, saying "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 has been in Samarra a town about halfway between Baghdad and Tikrit since the weekend, directing preparations for the coming assault.


Twitter: @paulmcleary

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