Iraqi military forces, backed by allied Sunni and Shia fighters, launched a large-scale offensive (Reuters) to recapture Tikrit from ISIS control on Monday, according to Iraqi state TV. Nearly thirty thousand troops led attacks (Al Jazeera) on ISIS positions in Saddam Hussein's hometown with support from Iraqi jets. Tikrit fell to ISIS last summer along with Iraq's second largest city of Mosul and other surrounding Sunni areas. Meanwhile, U.S. officials signaled plans for a coordinated mission to retake Mosul in April or May; a victory (NYT) in Tikrit could accelerate plans for an operation to seize Mosul. Larger operations against ISIS in Iraq come after the group abducted hundreds of civilians in Syria and Iraq and made gains in Libya.
"It won’t be easy, and it may not be quick. But retaking Mosul is an endeavor that is worth undertaking—and worth doing right. The Islamic State’s grip over Iraq’s second-largest city has been a symbol of the movement’s success. Mosul may be the one battle in Iraq that can decisively prove that the Islamic State is a losing cause," write Michael Knights and Michael Pregent in Foreign Policy.
"The war against radical Islamic militancy is not our fight. It is a struggle among Muslims for the soul and the future of the Muslim world. In the end, only Muslims can determine the outcome. Make no mistake: We in the United States and the West have an important national security stake in that outcome. But we should not try to win on our own what only local forces can sustain, particularly when our effort to help only makes their success less likely," argues Robert Grenier in the New York Times.
"The prolonged political crisis is already causing splits within Libya’s two main political blocs, and hard-line factions within both are agitating for more extreme action. ISIS may find willing recruits among these fringe radicals, as well as among foreign fighters from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been struggling to remain relevant. Still, an ISIS stronghold in Libya is hardly a fait accompli," writes Geoffrey Howard in Foreign Affairs.
North Korea Fires As Drills Start
Pyongyang test-fired (Yonhap) two short-range missiles into the East China Sea on Monday, a move seen as protest to the kick off of joint annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises intended to improve combined operations and capabilities.
CFR's Scott Snyder and Woo Jung-yeop explore U.S. and South Korean visions for regional cooperation in East Asia in this Working Paper.
CHINA: The central bank cut (WSJ) interest rates for the second time in four months on Saturday, reflecting growing concerns over China's economy. The business loan rate and the one-year deposit rate were reduced by 0.25 basis points, dropping to 5.35 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA
India Releases Budget
Finance minister Arun Jaitley unveiled (Mint) the Modi government's first full-year budget on Saturday. The budget emphasizes on economic growth, and provides increased spending on infrastructure, however it provides few structural reforms.
CFR's Alyssa Ayres provides a breakdown of Modi's first budget in this blog post.
AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said on Monday that more than three hundred people have died (TOLO) in the recent wave of avalanches throughout the country.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
Saudi Diplomat Freed in Yemen
Abdullah al-Khalidi, a Saudi diplomat, was released (Al Arabiya) on Monday after being held hostage by the Yemeni-based chapter of al-Qaeda for nearly three years. The diplomat was serving as a deputy consul in the southern city of Aden when he was abducted in March 2012.
Namibia's outgoing president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, was awarded (All Africa) the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's prize for achievement in African leadership. The $5 million prize is given to elected leaders whom the foundation deems have governed well, raised living standards, and voluntarily left office at the end of his or her term. Pohamba is the fifth recipient of the award since it was created in 2007.
NIGERIA: A mob beat (BBC) to death and set fire to a young woman they accused of being a suicide bomber plotting to attack a market in northeastern Nigeria. The woman had refused to be searched at the market gate, however no explosives were found on her body. A series of bombings by young women have been blamed on militant group Boko Haram.
Mass Rally in Moscow to Honor Slain Russian Dissident
Tens of thousands of protesters marched (FT) to mourn outspoken opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Russia on Sunday. Nemtsov, one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, was shot dead steps away from the Kremlin late Friday.
ESTONIA: Estonia's center-right pro-Western ruling party won thirty of 101 seats (Deutsche Welle) in parliamentary elections on Sunday; the governing party is expected to continue its coalition partnership with the Social Democrats. The elections were held ahead of proposed tax reforms and amid fears of the security situation in Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Monday to reinforce (Guardian) the shaky cease-fire in Ukraine, which appears to be holding after government and separatist forces began to withdraw heavy weaponry from frontlines. The UN's latest report (UN News) says that the death toll in the Ukraine conflict has exceeded six thousand people.
UNITED STATES: Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Iranian counterpart (NYT), Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Switzerland in renewed attempts to negotiate an agreement that limits Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is in Washington, where he will be addressing a joint session of Congress and denounce the plans he says that are emerging from negotiations.