BAGHDAD - U.S. warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as U.S. officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.
The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Barack Obama on Wednesday, U.S. officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.
Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with U.S. troops, U.S. officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported Sunday to have left the area.
The United States has struggled to maintain influence in Iraq, even as Iran has helped direct the war on the ground against the Islamic State. But as the struggles to take Tikrit mounted, with a small band of Islamic State militants holding out against a combined Iraqi force of more than 30,000 for weeks, U.S. officials saw a chance not only to turn the momentum against the Islamic State but to gain an edge against the Iranians.
If the Americans did not engage, they feared becoming marginalized by Tehran in a country where they had spilled much blood in the past decade, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials now hope that a U.S.-assisted victory by al-Abadi and his forces will politically bolster him and counter the view of Iranian officials, and many Iraqi Shiites, that Iran is Iraq’s vital ally.
“Taking back Tikrit is important, but it gives us an opportunity to have our half of the operation win this one,” one U.S. official said. “It’s somewhat of a gamble.”
The administration also hopes that a Tikrit victory with U.S. air power will ensure that it is their coalition with al-Abadi’s forces, and not the faction led by Suleimani, that then proceeds to try to recapture the larger and more pivotal city of Mosul.
But by most accounts, such an operation is months in the future, at least, as officials and analysts agree the assembled force around Tikrit would be inadequate to take Mosul. Officials are scrambling to train more Iraqi soldiers for a push on Mosul, and especially to include more Sunni Arab forces in the offensive. Tikrit and Mosul are heavily Sunni cities, and there are widespread concerns that using predominantly Shiite forces in the campaigns could lead to sectarian abuses.
Further, it is not clear that al-Abadi has the political strength or will to keep reining in the militiamen or Iran’s influence, both which have powerful sway in his Shiite political coalition.
The White House made no comment and instead left it to the Pentagon to announce the new airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure,” Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commanding of the Islamic State operation, said in a statement. “This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.”
Al-Abadi hailed the strikes in a speech broadcast on Iraqi state television from Baghdad on Wednesday night.
“The time of freedom has just been started,” he said. He continued, “We announce today what we have promised you yesterday, that we are going to liberate and clear each spot of our territory, and ISIS won’t have a foothold on Iraq’s land.”
But Shiite militia figures have criticized any outreach toward the United States.
“Some of the weaklings in the army say that we need the Americans, but we say we do not need the Americans,” Hadi al-Ameri, the prominent leader of the group of Shiite militias known here as popular mobilization committees, said last week.
The battle for Tikrit, an important city north of Baghdad in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, has powerful resonance because its capture last year was seen as a sign of the Islamic State’s ascendance. Complete control of Tikrit would give Iraqi forces command of a vital cluster of road networks and would be the first major success in rolling back last year’s lightning offensive that brought Islamic State forces within a short drive from the capital.
The offensive began March 2, with officials making repeated claims that the city would be reclaimed within days. Then in recent days, officials have said they preferred to consolidate their gains rather than risk more civilian casualties by continuing to press their attack.
The preponderance of the 30,000 fighters on the Iraqi side have been members of the militias, fighting alongside Iraqi soldiers and policemen. The Iraqi government has tried to broaden the offensive to include more Sunnis, but the force remains largely Shiite.
At Friday Prayer in Karbala last week, a sermon by Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaee, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, pointedly called for more unity and better organization in the fight in Tikrit. That was widely taken as implicit criticism of the offensive’s lack of success.
The representative also said that fighters should refrain from flying Shiite religious banners, suggesting that better efforts should be made to involve Sunnis in the fight.
Sunday, Ameri, the militia organizer, praised Suleimani, the Iranian commander, for his help in Tikrit but said that he had left the area.
“Qassim Suleimani is here whenever we need him,” Ameri said at a news conference at Camp Ashraf, a militia base north of Baghdad. “He was giving very good advice. The battle ended now, and he returned to his operational headquarters.”
Al-Abadi asked the ambassador Stuart E. Jones and Brett McGurk, the deputy special envoy for the battle with the Islamic State, for U.S. help with the Tikrit offensive last week. The U.S. side insisted that it could help only if operations were coordinated by a joint center with the U.S. military in Baghdad and if there were clear targets.
The Americans wanted to work with Iraqi forces they had helped train and insisted on “deconflicting” with the Iranian-backed militias so they would not bomb them by mistake, U.S. officials said. The Shiite militias have generally been on the east side of the Tigris River, the officials said, so it should be possible to avoid any errors.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with al-Abadi by telephone, and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of Central Command, developed a plan for strikes and concluded that the Iraqis had met the Americans’ condition, the officials said. Although Obama does not personally sign off on most airstrikes in the fight with the Islamic State, he was brought this decision for approval because it represented a more complicated shift in policy.
U.S. officials seemed heartened that al-Abadi had made a point of calling the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey last weekend to reassure them that once the Islamic State is rooted out of Tikrit, the Sunni city would be returned to the control of its Sunni police, not dominated by Shiite forces.
But even the addition of U.S. airpower did not guarantee victory. Although the Islamic State has a relatively small force in Tikrit, U.S. officials said they had booby-trapped many of the houses, and an all-out raid to drive them out could be costly.
“It’s a pretty gnarly situation for anybody going in there,” one of the officials said.