An Iraqi coalition of government troops and militias has begun a highly publicized offensive to push Islamic State militants out of the city of Tikrit.
The country's Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Haider Al-Abadi announced the start of the operation Sunday as he traveled to nearby Samarra to oversee efforts "to liberate Tikrit" and the surrounding governorate of Saladin.
Abadi called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State group. He offered what he called "the last chance'' for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon during a news conference in Samarra.
"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.
Thousands of Shi'ite militiamen, local tribes and Iraqi forces are said to have teamed up to battle for the city, in what a former regional official told VOA he anticipates will be a fierce fight.
Saladin Governorate bridges the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, with rebel-held Mosul in the north.
The city has been under Islamic State control since mid-2014. Tikrit is seen as a linchpin in countering the militant land grab that swept across northern Iraq last year.
In an interview with VOA's Kurdish service last month, former Saladin deputy governor Amin Aziz said IS militants have booby trapped Tikrit with explosives.
A senior U.S. defense official confirmed to VOA last month that Shi'ite forces were organizing a battle for Tikrit, but did not say when the offensive would take place.