WASHINGTON — The United States launched airstrikes on Islamic State positions inside Tikrit late Wednesday in a sudden application of air power intended to give new life to a stalled Iraqi government operation to recapture the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. military intervention came after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi told Shiite Muslim militias in writing that he was overriding their objections to U.S. participation in the Tikrit campaign, according to Jassem Atiya, the vice president of the governing council of Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is located.
In a phone interview, Atiya said Abadi told the militias that he was authorizing the American participation “because the Tikrit battle needed to be completed so that security forces could move on to Anbar and Mosul,” two other Islamic State strongholds.
The operation to take Tikrit was announced with great fanfare March 2, with an estimated 20,000 Shiite militia fighters advised by Iranian military commanders taking the lead in the fighting. But after initial success in capturing towns outside Tikrit, the effort stalled 10 days ago, hindered by heavy government casualties and a disagreement over what tactics to follow.
Regular Iraqi army forces favored asking the U.S.-led coalition to begin precision airstrikes on Islamic State targets, but the militias and their Iranian advisers objected, saying they wanted to prove they could defeat the Islamic State without Western help.
When Abadi came down in favor of the U.S. participation was uncertain, but the announcement that American airstrikes had begun came one day after the top Iranian general in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, was reported to have left Tikrit, where he had been said to have taken personal charge of the operation.
Suleimani’s role made the Tikrit operation an especially sensitive one for the United States. The United States blames Suleimani for hundreds of U.S. casualties during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when U.S. officials charged that he provided Iraqi fighters with especially deadly bomb technology. In recent months, Suleimani, who reports directly to Iran’s supreme leader, has been an increasing presence in Iraq, standing for photographs with militia forces that were then posted on Twitter.
Suleimani’s departure from Tikrit, reported Tuesday by the Associated Press, which cited an unnamed Iraqi official, might have made delivering airstrikes more palatable to the Americans.
The U.S. military confirmed that it had joined the Tikrit battle at Abadi’s request. In a statement, it described the airstrikes as “direct support to Iraqi Security Forces conducting operations to expel ISIL from the city.” ISIL and ISIS are alternative names for the Islamic State.
In addition to the strikes, the coalition is providing “airborne intelligence capabilities” and “advise and assist support” to Iraqi commanders, the statement said.
“These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure,” said Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander of U.S. efforts against the Islamic State. “This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.”
The statement said the air attacks were coordinated with “renewed efforts on the ground.” Atiya confirmed that Abadi had announced that a second stage of the operation had begun. Atiya said that four Islamic State targets had been hit by coalition aircraft in central Tikrit, including near the main government center.
U.S. military officials in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge details of military actions said coalition forces struck 15 targets in Tikrit, including barracks, a weapons storage area and several Islamic State checkpoints.
The officials said all of the targets had been selected in advance after U.S. aircraft began surveillance flights in recent days.
Whether Iranian advisers remain embedded with the Shiite militias remains unknown. Previously, the U.S. has said it was not communicating directly with Iran on military engagements in Iraq. Both Iran and the United States back the Abadi government, but the U.S. has to date declined to coordinate its actions with Iran’s.
Last year, U.S. airstrikes were critical to helping Iranian-trained and -advised Shiite militias break an Islamic State encirclement of the city of Amerli.
American air power also was critical in the effort by the Iraqi army and Shiite militias to retake control of the town of Baiji in November and December. Ultimately, however, that effort failed, with the Islamic State retaking most of the town after initially withdrawing.