At Iraq’s request, the U.S. began airstrikes in Tikrit on Wednesday in support of a stalled Iraqi ground offensive to retake the city from Islamic State fighters. The bombing marked a significant expansion of the U.S. military role in Iraq.
“These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing” unintended damage to civilian structures, Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander of the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, said in a written statement.
“This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit,” Terry said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
Tikrit is deemed an important test of the ability of Iraq, with coalition support, to retake ground it ceded to the Islamic State last year. The U.S. initially did not provide air support in Tikrit because Baghdad pointedly chose instead to partner with Iran in a battle it predicted would yield a quick victory. In recent days, however, the Pentagon has called the Iraqi offensive “stalled.”
An Associated Press correspondent in Tikrit reported hearing warplanes overhead late Wednesday, followed by multiple explosions. An Iraqi commander in the city told the AP that a warehouse used to store Islamic State weapons was bombed by a U.S. plane, and a U.S. official in Washington confirmed that arms warehouses were among the targets. The Iraqi commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the airstrikes.
The Washington official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss military details, said there were no more than one dozen airstrikes Wednesday, and said some were conducted by U.S. allies. The official had no details on the extent of allied participation, including which countries launched airstrikes.
The official said Wednesday’s attacks were the first in a series that would be carried out in the days to come as the coalition coordinates with Iraqi ground troops who have encircled Tikrit but not penetrated deeply into the city.
The battle for Tikrit is widely seen as a step toward the more difficult and potentially decisive battle to regain control of the larger city of Mosul.
In an address to the nation Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi predicted success in Tikrit but did not say the U.S. was providing airstrikes.
“We have started the final phase of the operation in Tikrit,” he said. “You will liberate your ground, not anyone but you,” he said in a speech to the Iraqi people.
Al-Abadi praised all the groups involved in the battle against the Islamic State group, including the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, which the U.S. calls Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and well as the Sunni tribes and coalition forces. But he fell short of confirming that the coalition is playing a direct role in Tikrit.
Read more: Yahoo News