The U.S. and allies began airstrikes on the Iraqi city of Tikrit, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been fighting to expel Islamic State fighters from the largely Sunni Muslim area.
The strikes effectively make the U.S. an unacknowledged partner of Iran, an alliance that American officials have disavowed even as the two nations work in parallel against the terrorist group.
The U.S. had stayed out of the fight in Tikrit in northern Iraq for weeks, saying the Iraqi government hadn’t requested its help until now. Instead, Iraq’s military has relied on Iran and the Iranian-backed militias to help oust Islamic State from the city about 87 miles (140 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad where the late Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein is buried.
The U.S. agreed to assist in the Tikrit offensive after securing a commitment from the Iraqi government that the Shiite militias would pull back from the operation, General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The forces working to clear Tikrit of Islamic State fighters now are Iraqi security forces, special forces units and federal police, Austin said.
That would mark a reversal. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said March 11 in congressional testimony that about 20,000 Shiite militia members trained and equipped by Iran were doing the bulk of the fighting in the city, compared with about 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and 1,000 Sunni tribal fighters.
One of the main Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, decided to suspend its participation in the Tikrit offensive because of U.S. and allied involvement, according to the group’s spokesman, Naim al-Aboudi.
“We can’t be a part of any battle that the U.S. and its allies are involved in for two reasons,” he said in a telephone interview. “First, we don’t trust them, and we expect they would intentionally bomb our forces, and second, we are confident that we can retake Tikrit without their help.”
“We will stay in our locations until the coalition quits this battle,” al-Aboudi said.
U.S. and allied forces conducted 17 airstrikes “using fighter, bomber and remotely piloted aircraft” against Islamic State sites, including a command-and-control facility, two bridges, checkpoints and roadblocks, according to a U.S. military statement on Thursday.
U.S. ‘Deeply Involved’
“The United States is deeply involved in this operation now,” retired General John Allen, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, said in Washington at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Asked whether Iran could end up controlling Iraq, Allen said, “I don’t think that’s going to be the case. In the end, Iraq is an Arab country.” Iranians, he said, “are a different people.”
Airstrikes have limited effectiveness in urban areas because of the difficulty of discerning friend from foe. Confirmation of the strikes came after an Associated Press reporter in Tikrit reported hearing warplanes overhead and multiple explosions.
“These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure,” U.S. Army Lieutenant General James Terry, the top commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said Wednesday in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State’s former name.
“This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit,” Terry said.
Iraqi forces have Islamic State fighters encircled in Tikrit, according to the statement. But the forces’ advance has stalled as the Sunni extremists have dug in.
Islamic State seized a swath of Iraq and Syria last year and declared a self-styled caliphate, or religious state.
Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he’s concerned about the U.S. involvement in an offensive involving Iranian-backed militias.
“It is hard to see how empowering Iran’s proxies is in the short-, medium-, or long-term interests of an inclusive Iraq or a stable Middle East,” the California lawmaker said in a statement prepared for his panel’s hearing on Thursday.
Sunni Iraqis who were tortured by Islamic State could be subject to “the same brutal treatment by the Shiite-militia ‘liberators,’” Royce said. “That would fuel endless conflict.”