US 'eye in the sky' aiding Iraq's Tikrit operation
BAGHDAD - Agence France Presse
Members of an Iraqi Shiite militant group called Imam Ali Brigades launch rockets against Islamic State group positions during clashes in Tikrit, 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, March 24, 2015. AP PhotoWashington is providing reconnaissance support for Iraqi forces fighting to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an official said March 24, the first confirmation of American involvement in the operation.
Such assistance could help Iraqi forces move forward with their largest operation against ISIL jihadists to date, which enjoyed initial success but has since stalled into a siege, with the city surrounded but not retaken.
A US-led coalition has targeted ISIL with air strikes and provided training and equipment to Iraqi forces, but had not previously announced direct assistance for the Tikrit operation, in which Iran has played a major role.
"The coalition began providing ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) support on March 21, 2015 at the request of the government of Iraq, and the US is now providing that support," a senior coalition military official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said that this support is provided in the form of "an eye in the sky".
ISIL led a sweeping offensive last June that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, including Tikrit, the capital of Salaheddin province and executed dictator Saddam Hussein's home town.
Iraqi security forces initially fared poorly against ISIL, with multiple divisions collapsing in the north, but have since made major gains against jihadists with the aid of tens of thousands of allied paramilitaries, the US-led coalition and Iran.
The operation to retake Tikrit, which involves thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police and forces known as Popular Mobilisation units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, began on March 2.
It has succeeded in retaking towns leading to Tikrit, and also in surrounding several hundred jihadists in the city.
But capturing Tikrit itself has proved more difficult because of the jihadists' extensive defensive works, including a huge number of bombs planted in streets and buildings.
Iraq's interior minister announced last week that the operation had been halted temporarily to avoid casualties and to protect infrastructure in the city.
Army Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a top commander in Salaheddin province, told AFP on March 15 that coalition air support was needed in Tikrit, and that he had requested that the Iraqi defence minister ask for it.
But that was apparently not immediately done, with a Pentagon spokesman saying five days later that he was unaware of any official requests "to participate in operations around Tikrit".
The issue of foreign air support, especially from the United States, is a point of contention between the Iraqi military and militiamen fighting alongside it.
Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the powerful Iran-backed Badr militia, told journalists on Sunday that: "Some of the weaklings in the army... say we need the Americans, while we say we do not need the Americans."
The US faces a delicate balancing act in anti-ISIL efforts in Iraq, where working against the jihadists sometimes means taking part in operations that are also assisted by rival Iran, and involving militias that fought against American forces in past years.