US says Iranian hand in Iraq could turn out well

US says Iranian hand in Iraq could turn out well

US says Iranian hand in Iraq could turn out well

Shi’ite fighters fire their weapon during clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants in Salahuddin province March 3. Reuters Photo.

Iran’s direct support for an Iraqi push to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group from the northern city of Tikrit could turn out to be “a positive thing” if it does not inflame sectarian tensions, the top U.S. general has said.

The statement by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on March 3 reflected the delicate balance Washington is trying to strike between limiting Iranian influence and allowing Iraqi leaders to determine their own path to defeating ISIL.

U.S. officials have said Iraq did not ask the U.S. to provide air support for the Tikrit offensive, even though the U.S.-led military coalition has been conducting airstrikes in much of Iraq since August and has deployed hundreds of U.S. soldiers to try to regenerate an Iraqi army that collapsed last June, The Associated Press reported.

Dempsey said Iran and its proxies have been operating inside Iraq since 2004, but the Tikrit campaign signals a new level of involvement.

“This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Dempsey said in response to questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

The Iraqi army said March 4 that its strategy for retaking the jihadist stronghold of Tikrit is to surround the city before launching an assault.

On March 2, the Iraqi security forces and a variety of allied fighting units launched the biggest ground operation yet against the Islamic State group in Iraq.

Backed by jets and helicopters, the 30,000-strong force is moving in from three main directions, their progress slowed by suicide bombers, sniper fire and booby traps.

A senior commander said operations were currently focused on preventing IS from launching more attacks and cutting supply lines to stop reinforcements and weapons from reaching Tikrit.

The next step will be to “surround the towns completely, suffocate them and then pounce on them,” Lieutenant General Abdel Amir al-Zaidi told AFP.

Iraqi forces have yet to retake Ad-Dawr and Al-Alam, towns south and north of Tikrit respectively which command access to the city.

“Our forces are advancing gradually, although slowed by roadside bombs and sniper fire,” another lieutenant general involved in the operation said.