BAGHDAD (AP) — Dozens of fighters with the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr left Iraq's capital Sunday to take part in an offensive to capture Tikrit from the Islamic State group.
Men from Iraq's Peace Brigade left to the Shiite holy city of Samarra, the launching point for operations to recapture Saddam Hussein's hometown. About a dozen heavily armed trucks packed with fighters left Baghdad earlier Sunday.
"We are traveling to help the community of Muslims and to help the people of Iraq," said Ali al-Mousawi, a spokesman for the brigade.
Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shiite militias launched a long-awaited offensive this month aimed at retaking Tikrit, a Sunni bastion on the Tigris River whose capture would pave the way for an assault on Mosul, which U.S. officials have said could come as soon as next month.
Tikrit and Mosul have been under the control of the Islamic State group since it swept across northern Iraq in June. The extremists hold a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Iraqi officials say that at least 30,000 men — including soldiers, Shiite militiamen, Sunni tribes and police officers — are fighting to seize Tikrit. U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday that at least 20,000 militiamen are taking part in the offensive.
Earlier this month, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi government to protect civilians in Tikrit and allow them to flee combat zones. Its statement noted "numerous atrocities" against Sunni civilians by pro-government militias and security forces.
Al-Sadr, who comes from a line of influential Shiite clerics, heads the militia previously known as the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force he formed in 2003 in a show of resistance against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Last month, he announced that he would withdraw the Peace Brigade from fighting in a "show of goodwill" following accusations that the militias were responsible for battlefield atrocities.
Al-Mousawi said the Peace Brigade are looking to fight alongside Tikrit's Sunni tribes to liberate the city, saying: "It's them who should lead this fight, since Tikrit is where their homes and families are."