U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State group begin in Iraq

WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. official says the U.S. has begun airstrikes in Tikrit in support of a stalled Iraqi ground offensive to retake the city from Islamic State fighters.

The official says the airstrikes began after the Iraqi government requested U.S. help. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the American attacks had not yet been officially announced.

An Associated Press reporter in Tikrit reported hearing warplanes overhead late Wednesday, followed by multiple explosions.

WASHINGTON — The Iraqi government has asked the U.S. to provide airstrikes in support of a stalled Iraqi ground offensive against a dug-in Islamic State force in the northern city of Tikrit, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

That raises highly sensitive questions about participating in an Iraqi campaign that has been spearheaded by Iraqi Shiite militias trained and equipped by Iran, an avowed U.S. adversary.

The U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the Iraqi request publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Earlier Wednesday, two U.S. officials said the U.S. had been in discussions with the Iraqis about the possibility of U.S. airstrikes.

Iran has provided artillery and other weaponry for the Tikrit battle, and senior Iranian advisers have helped Iraq coordinate the offensive. Iraq pointedly did not request U.S. air support when it launched the offensive in early March.

Recently, the offensive has lost momentum. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday the Iraqi forces have encircled Tikrit but not yet made significant inroads into the heavily defended city limits.

“They are stalled,” he said.

The U.S. has hundreds of military advisers in Iraq helping its security forces plan operations against the Islamic State, which occupies large chunks of northern and western Iraq. But the U.S. has said it is not coordinating any military actions with the Iranians.

Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that at Baghdad’s request the U.S. began aerial surveillance over Tikrit in recent days and is sharing the collected intelligence with the Iraqi government.

The U.S.-led air campaign, launched in August and joined by several European allies, has allowed Iraqi forces to halt the IS group’s advance and claw back some of the territory it seized last summer.

But the growing Iranian presence on the ground has complicated the mission, with Washington refusing to work directly with a country it views as a regional menace, yet is currently embroiled with Iran in sensitive negotiations over a nuclear deal.

The prominent role of the Shiite militias in the fight to retake Tikrit and other parts of Iraq’s Sunni heartland has meanwhile raised concerns that the offensive could deepen the country’s sectarian divide and drive Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State group.

Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization and a commander of Iraq’s Shiite militias, told reporters in Samarra:

“If we need them (the U.S.-led coalition ) we will tell them we need them. But we don’t need the coalition. We have surveillance planes over our heads already. The participation of U.S. planes hinders out operations… If we need it, we’ll tell our government what we need.”

He claimed that the militias, known also as Popular Mobilization Units, the overwhelming majority of which is made up of Shiite fighters, have their own surveillance drones. “We buy them anywhere,” he said. “We have our own … controlled by Iraqis.”

A series of U.S. airstrikes north of Tikrit, in the vicinity of Beiji, in recent weeks has had the indirect benefit of tying down Islamic State forces that might otherwise be operating in defense of Tikrit. On Wednesday, for example, the U.S. military said it had conducted five airstrikes Tuesday near Beiji, home of a major oil refinery that IS has sought to capture. That bombing targeted IS combat units and destroyed what the U.S. called an IS “fighting position,” as well as an IS armored vehicle.

Warren said the Iraqis, who initially said they did not need American air power in Tikrit and were satisfied with their partnership with Iran, are discovering how difficult it can be to carry out ground operations in an urban area.

“We heard quite a bit from the Iraqis and some even from the Iranians — some fairly high-confidence statements about how rapidly the operations for Tikrit would go,” Warren said. “We’ve seen otherwise.”

“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,” Warren said. “Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that reside very clearly and very squarely with the coalition.”

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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