US and coalition aircraft bombed Islamic State militants in Tikrit, Iraq, on Wednesday, lending air power to Iraqi forces who have struggled to recapture the town despite Iranian assistance.
With the offensive against the Islamic State in Tikrit bogged down, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made a belated request for US support after having relied solely on Iran’s military advice and aid, officials said.
The US, worried about Iran’s high-profile association with the operation, seized a chance to exert its influence and US fighter jets and bombers were ordered in.
US President Barack Obama approved the air raids on the condition that Iraqi government forces be given a larger role in the assault, instead of the Shiite militias trained and armed by Iran, a US official told reporters.
The offensive to take back Tikrit — the home town of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein — has stalled after more than three weeks, with militants defending their positions with homemade bombs.
“I can confirm that the government of Iraq has requested coalition support for operations in Tikrit,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said. “Operations are ongoing.”
“International coalition forces bombed four areas in the center of Tikrit city,” an Iraqi special forces lieutenant colonel told reporters:
According to the Iraqi officer, the bombing began after nightfall and was continuing periodically. Air raids hit an area near a palace compound area and near the Tikrit hospital, he said.
US officials said the aircraft were bombing “preplanned” targets identified in advance and that the scale of the operation was “not massive,” but comparable to other raids conducted in Iraq and Syria.
Over the weekend, US aircraft — including drones — began carrying out surveillance flights to support the Tikrit operation on the ground against the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Other countries in the US-led coalition were taking part in the air strikes, but officials did not specify which governments.
“These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure,” said US Lieutenant General James Terry, who oversees the command in charge of the US war effort. “This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.”
Although the US and its allies have conducted air strikes elsewhere in Iraq, Baghdad had not previously asked for US help for the Tikrit offensive.
Instead, long-time US foe Iran has played a dominant role, providing artillery and deploying advisers to the Iraqi Shiite militias also taking part in the operation.
However, the assault has stalled, even though the Iraqi forces far outnumber the Islamic State militants.
US officials and military officers made no secret of their view that Iraq had made a mistake in not asking for US air power from the start.
“Now the operation to take Tikrit really begins,” one US defense official told reporters.
At a Pentagon briefing earlier on Wednesday, spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said the US-led coalition was the most “reliable” partner for Iraq.
He said the Iraqis had made confident predictions when the offensive on Tikrit was launched earlier this month, but he said “urban combat is difficult and slow” and the coalition had unmatched military power to offer.
“I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against ISIL,” he said. “Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition.”
The offensive to retake Tikrit, which involves thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police and forces known as Popular Mobilization units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, started on March 2.
Obama’s administration has insisted it does not coordinate military operations directly with Iran and until this week the two countries have operated in separate areas in Iraq. However, the US surveillance flights and air raids in Tikrit illustrate how Washington is moving toward greater collaboration with Tehran, albeit indirectly, despite the intense distrust between the two adversaries.
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