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US launches Tikrit air strikes to support Iraqi forces

Washington: US and coalition aircraft bombed Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Tikrit on Wednesday, lending air power to Iraqi forces who have struggled to recapture the town despite Iranian assistance.

With the offensive against IS in Tikrit bogged down, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi made a belated request for US support after having relied solely on Iran’s military advice and aid, officials said.

The United States, 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.

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 AFP.

The offensive to take back Tikrit – the home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein – has stalled after more than three weeks, with jihadists 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.”

An Iraqi special forces lieutenant colonel told AFP: “International coalition forces bombed four areas in the centre of Tikrit city.”

According to the Iraqi officer, the bombing began after nightfall and was continuing periodically.

Air raids hit an area around a palace compound area and near the Tikrit hospital, he said.

US officials said the aircraft were bombing “pre-planned” 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 IS militants.

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 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 United States and its allies have conducted air strikes elsewhere in Iraq, the Baghdad government had not previously asked for American 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.

But the assault has stalled, even though the Iraqi forces far outnumber the IS militants.

US officials and military officers made no secret of their view that Iraq had made a mistake in not asking for American air power from the start.

“Now the operation to take Tikrit really begins,” one US defense official told AFP.

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.

President Barack 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.

But the American surveillance flights and air raids in Tikrit illustrate how Washington is moving towards greater collaboration with Tehran, albeit indirectly, despite the intense distrust between the two adversaries.

Even as the United States found itself in common cause with Iran against the IS group in Iraq, a escalating proxy war between US ally Saudi Arabia and Iran was unfolding in Yemen.

Saudi warplanes carried out air strikes against Huthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday, with Riyadh saying it was part of a regional coalition aligned with the embattled president, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. – AFP/nst

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