March 5, 2015 5:37 AM EST

A force of 30,000 Iraqis launched a large-scale offensive on March 2 to push ISIS out of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Baghdad. The approach was slowed by roadside bombs and snipers, but by March 4 the Iraqi army said it had seized a key ISIS supply route as it aimed to encircle the city.

The battle carries political as well as military risks, with Iran-backed Shi’ite militias operating in a Sunni area where some welcomed ISIS. If sectarian passions are held in check, the Tikrit campaign could be a model for a later, far larger battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Mosul is ISIS’s key Iraqi redoubt, and as long as it controls the city it will hold sway over much of northern Iraq. Tikrit is an important transit center between Baghdad and Mosul and would give the central government an important logistical hub from which to fuel its Mosul offensive.

The battle will not be easy. The Iraqi military was driven out of both Mosul and Tikrit by ISIS last summer, and two previous attempts to retake the smaller city have failed, even as U.S.-led air strikes have helped halt ISIS’s momentum. But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi communicated a new urgency when he visited Iraqi forces on the eve of the operation, saying “zero hour” for taking back the city had arrived. For some the operation will be personal, as ISIS massacred hundreds of Iraqi recruits at a nearby base last summer.

The U.S. has so far stayed out of the fight for Tikrit, as reports suggest its antagonist Iran is helping steer the offensive with airpower, artillery and commanders on the ground advising Shi’ite militias. But Pentagon officials know the city must be retaken if the planned assault on Mosul is to go ahead. With the future of Iraq hinging on participation of its angry Sunnis, Tikrit will be a crucial test.

U.S.

‘Maybe it isn’t a bad form of diplomacy to send a comedian over.’

CONAN O’BRIEN, host of the TBS late-night talk show Conan, speaking to reporters after a trip to Cuba to film an episode that aired March 4; Washington and Havana moved to restore ties in December, and President Barack Obama said on March 2 that he hopes the U.S. will open an embassy in Cuba ahead of an Americas summit in Panama in April.

DATA

THE COST OF LIVING

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked more than 130 cities from most to least expensive, according to a survey of prices across 160 goods and services. Here’s a sampling:

[This article consists of 5 illustrations. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

1 Singapore

2 Paris

9 Seoul

22 New York City

132 Bangalore

3 ESSENTIAL FACTS

China’s Box-Office Boom

China’s box-office revenue in February hit $650 million, exceeding the monthly total in the U.S. for the first time, according to research firm Entgroup. Here’s a look at how China’s domestic box office is growing at a rapid pace:

IT’S HIGH SEASON

Because of the Chinese New Year holiday, the country’s biggest month at the box office is typically February, when revenue reached $318 million in a single week this year. The U.S. usually sees among the lowest tallies in February.

DOMESTIC FILMS ARE HITS

China restricts foreign films during the holiday season, so the record numbers were fueled by domestic hits like Dragon Blade, a period action flick that made $95 million in February. Last year, Chinese-made films took in $2.6 billion, making up more than half of total receipts in the country and around $1 billion more than all box-office revenue in movie-loving India.

A ROSY FUTURE

Fifteen film screens go up in China every day, and total revenue surged by 34%, to $4.7 billion, in 2014. That figure is expected to surpass $10 billion by the end of the decade.

An Ivory Pyre

KENYA

A Kenya Wildlife Service security officer stands near a burning pile of 15 metric tons of contraband elephant ivory lit by President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 3 to mark World Wildlife Day. The Kenyan leader vowed to destroy the country’s entire stockpile of ivory, estimated at 100 metric tons, by the end of the year as his government combats rising poaching rates. About 30,000 elephants are poached every year across Africa.

THE EXPLAINER

India Sets Sights on Growth

On Feb. 28, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unveiled its first full-year budget since taking power in May. Here are the main points in what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called a “road map for accelerating growth” in the world’s second largest nation:

Tax

The budget set out a corporate-tax cut from 30% to 25% over four years, intended to spur inward investment and bring the country’s rate more in line with those in Southeast Asian nations.

Social Security

The government unveiled an ambitious universal-social-security proposal, including subsidized accidental-death insurance for the poor if they pay an annual premium of 20¢.

Infrastructure

India’s poor road and rail networks have hampered industry’s ability to move goods around the country. The budget pledges an extra $11.3 billion in annual spending on infrastructure projects.

Yoga

The budget classifies yoga as a charitable activity, making it eligible for tax exemptions. Modi, an advocate of the discipline, last year appointed a minister to promote alternative medicine.

UKRAINE

842

Number of people who were killed in eastern Ukraine in the month leading up to the Feb. 15 cease-fire, according to the U.N.; the death toll has surpassed 6,000 since the fighting began in April

Trending In

POLLUTION

The European Union’s environmental agency said targets to curb pollution and climate change by 2050 would be missed without “profound changes” in technology, lifestyle and policy. The agency said poor air quality in Europe causes hundreds of thousands of early deaths a year.

SANITATION

Human waste from the roughly 700 climbers who scale Mount Everest every year poses a serious health issue on the slopes, the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association warned on March 3. He urged the government to push climbers to dispose of their waste responsibly.

MYSTERY

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister said the international search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished on March 8, 2014, cannot go on forever. Australia, China and Malaysia are in discussions over whether to cancel efforts, one year after the disappearance.

This appears in the March 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

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