U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against Islamic State Militants in Iraqi City of TikritPosted: March 26, 2015
Americans say move reflects failure of Iranian-backed forces to retake area from insurgents
The offensive to retake the city has been stalled for more than a week and American officials on Wednesday said they began the strikes after the Iraqi government formally requested help. The U.S. in recent days began providing video feeds and other intelligence to Iraqi forces, drawing the Americans into closer coordination with Iranian-allied Shiite militias spearheading the campaign.
The U.S. intervention is a blow to Iran, which has played a major role in commanding the Shiite militias and has also supplied weapons. Those militias account for about 20,000 of the 30,000-strong force involved in the operation.
U.S. officials said the difficulty in Tikrit exposed the weakness of Iranian support for Iraq’s government, adding that they hope to use those difficulties to drive a wedge between Iraq and Iran.
“Tikrit shows the complete failure by Iran to produce results on the ground,” said a senior U.S. official.
Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been assisting the Iraqi force, including planning help, artillery fire and other combat support. But Pentagon officials said the IRGC effort has produced little in the way of results for Iraqi forces.
The U.S. and allied warplanes struck between six and 10 targets in Tikrit, according to Pentagon officials, including the palace that Islamic State militants have been using as their headquarters. The buildings struck were all preselected targets that U.S. surveillance planes have been tracking for several days, officials said.
American officials held open the option that moving targets could be targeted in future strikes. Defense officials said they were working only with the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces, not Shiite militias or Iranian forces.
Tikrit, about 120 miles north of Baghdad, is dominated by Iraq’s Sunni minority, which has complained of discrimination by the Shiite-led government and past abuses by Shiite militias. U.S. officials have worried an offensive by a mostly Shiite force to liberate a Sunni city could touch off sectarian fighting.
While the operation has been moving slowly during the past three weeks, the U.S. has conducted 318 airstrikes elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, killing some 800 Islamic State fighters and destroying tanks and other heavy equipment, according to defense officials.
A Pentagon official said on Wednesday that the number of fighters killed and Islamic State equipment destroyed in operations outside Tikrit was far greater than the size of the militant force inside the city that has held off the Iraqi advance.
“We haven’t been sitting on the sidelines. We have been getting after it all over Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Brian Fickel, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. “It is clear to Iraq they need a reliable partner. We can provide a capability that others cannot.”
The first two weeks of the offensive, when Iraqi security forces beat back Islamic State fighters with little resistance, were seen as confirmation of America’s diminishing influence in a nation it occupied for nearly a decade. Iraqi military leaders initially predicted Tikrit would fall quickly. But a few weeks later, the campaign stalled…. (read more)
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