A push to retake Tikrit stalled as ISIS repositioned its forces around the city
Spokesman: Iraq's leader requested help because coalition has "advanced" capabilities
Leaders of predominantly Shiite militia fighting in area had resisted such intervention
U.S.-led warplanes continued to hammer ISIS positions around the pivotal Iraqi battleground city of Tikrit, stepping in at the Iraqi Prime Minister’s request to get at what a spokesman called “difficult targets.”
The U.S. military announced Thursday that it and its allies conducted 17 airstrikes around Tikrit, going after three ISIS checkpoints, two bridges, two staging areas and other targets such as a roadblock and a “command and control facility.”
The idea is that this aerial bombardment will pave the way for Iraqi forces to go in and take control on the ground.
“The ongoing Iraqi and coalition airstrikes are setting the conditions for offensive action,” said Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, commanding general of the U.S.-led coalition.
Iraqi forces have tried multiple times to win back Tikrit since the group, which calls itself the Islamic State, conquered the city in June as part of its campaign to amass an expansive Islamic caliphate. And each time, so far, they’ve failed.
The latest push began after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on March 1 ordered Iraqi forces to retake Tikrit and Salahuddin province. Militants have been under pressure ever since in the battleground city, which is the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and located about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Baghdad.
ISIS responded by adjusting its positions in and around the city, hiding in buildings and other key infrastructure, said Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for al-Abadi. This movement led Iraq’s military to pause its operation, out of growing worries that a full-on invasion could produce heavy Iraqi military and some civilian casualties.
The situation also spurred the Iraqi Prime Minister to request more help.
Al-Hadithi said the U.S.-led coalition has “advanced technical” and “powerful” capabilities – not to mention the right munitions – that Iraq’s air force does not have to conduct precision airstrikes.
Thus, it was al-Abadi who specifically asked for the strikes, based on what he heard from military commanders on the ground.
If so, the decision would appear to be at odds with what was said just a few weeks ago by some leaders of the predominantly Shiite Muslim forces doing much of the fighting around Tikrit. Some of these Shiite fighters are getting help from the Iranian government, a longstanding and staunch U.S. foe.
“We don’t need it, and we won’t need it,” Hadi Al-Amari, the head of the Hashd Al-Shaabi fighting force, said in mid-March. “Anyone who puts their faith in the international coalition to liberate Iraq is putting their faith on a mirage.”
Thus, al-Abadi is taking a bit of a gamble by having the U.S.-led coalition play any part in this fight.
He hopes it pays off by not only ousting ISIS from Tikrit, but setting the stage for Iraqi forces to take back an even bigger prize: Mosul.
“There is high morale to liberate this city from ISIS and the terrorists. I would like to assure all the citizens that there are almost no civilians remaining in the city now, and there are only terrorists,” al-Abadi said Thursday during a visit to Tikrit.
He said operations were going as planned, and that forces were in the final stages of liberating Tikrit.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-biggest city and the site of one of its military’s biggest embarrassments, when Iraqi troops dropped their weapons and ran rather than defend their posts last June.
A U.S. official said in February that up to 25,000 Iraqi troops plan to return to Mosul in April or May and, ideally, win it back. This comment came days after al-Abadi told the BBC that while there’s still work to do, he felt confident Iraqis could recapture the key northern city.
“We are now planning an offensive on Mosul in the coming few months,” the Prime Minister said. “We have to prepare for it carefully, because the only choice we have in Mosul (is to win). We have to win in Mosul to keep (ISIS) out.”
CNN’s Dana Ford contributed to this report.