BY PHIL STEWART – Reuters — The U.S.-led coalition is planning to carry out air strikes in support of Iraqi operations against Islamic State in the city of Tikrit, a U.S. official said on Wednesday, confirming comments by Iraq’s president in an interview with Reuters.
The U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, declined to discuss timing of any strikes.
The coalition had long been absent from the campaign in Tikrit, the largest undertaken by Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia groups since Islamic State militants overran a third of the country last year.
But the Pentagon and White House earlier on Wednesday confirmed that the U.S.-led coalition had started carrying out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Tikrit.
Any strikes by the coalition in Tikrit would represent the biggest collaboration so far against the militants by Iraqi forces, Iranian-backed paramilitaries and their Iranian advisers on the ground, and the United States and its allies.
Iraqi President Fouad Massoum told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that the coalition would soon carry out strikes in Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Pentagon and the White House declined to comment on the possibility of any military action.
Massoum stressed that Iraq was seeking a balance among Iranian, Western and Arab states participating in the fight against Islamic State, which aims to create a modern-day Islamic caliphate imposing a militant form of Islamic law across the Middle East.
More than 20,000 troops and allied Shi’ite paramilitary groups are taking part in the offensive, which has been on pause for nearly two weeks after they suffered heavy casualties on the edge of the city, 100 miles (160 km) north of Baghdad.
The Iraqi military had lobbied for U.S.-led coalition air strikes while Shi’ite paramilitary forces opposed such a move. One militia leader, Hadi al-Amiri, boasted three weeks ago that his men had been making advances for months without relying on U.S. air power.
The mainly Sunni city of Tikrit was seized by Islamic State in the first days of their lightning strike across northern Iraq last June.
If Iraq’s Shi’ite led-government retakes Tikrit, it would be the first city wrested from the Sunni insurgents and would give Baghdad momentum for a pivotal stage of the campaign: recapturing Mosul, the largest city in the north.