The joint offensive between the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shiite militias to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State was supposed to demonstrate how Tehran and Baghdad were fully capable of repelling the militant group without the help of the United States. It didn’t quite work out that way. On Wednesday, after entirely sitting out the three-week offensive, U.S. forces began carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Tikrit at the request of the Iraqi government, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren.
Iraqi government forces and Shiite militias currently control large parts of Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein’s hometown, but a pocket of fighters belonging to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, continue to hold out against their opponents. With the offensive stalled, the introduction of American airpower may tip the balance in favor of local forces on the ground.
“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 general of the anti-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.” According to Terry, Iraqi forces have Islamic State fighters in Tikrit surrounded and are also providing aerial reconnaissance capabilities to the Iraqis.
Until Wednesday, U.S. forces had been conspicuously absent from the battlefield in Tikrit, and Baghdad’s decision to move forward with the offensive without U.S. support was seen in some quarters as an effort by Tehran to assert its role as the foremost foreign military presence in Iraq. That offensive began with grandiose promises that Tikrit would be quickly liberated from the Islamic State but has been bogged down amid intense urban combat, heavy casualties, and tenacious fighting by the Sunni extremists.
The request by the Iraqi government for U.S. air support may serve as a vindication for American commanders, who had been blindsided by the decision to launch the offensive. What Baghdad thought could be accomplished without U.S. air support could not, and that may pave the way for a larger U.S. military role as Iraqi forces try to retake other cities held by the Islamic State, most importantly Mosul.
The military campaign to oust the Islamic State from Iraq has in part emerged as a contest between Iran and the United States for influence in Baghdad. Tehran has poured men and materiel into Iraq, engendering a sense of gratitude in Baghdad. The Iranian military effort in Iraq has been directed by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the elite paramilitary branch of the Revolutionary Guard that frequently carries out operations across the Middle East. But so far he has failed to deliver the kind of decisive military victories that would make the U.S. presence there inconsequential.
The beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Tikrit marks the most significant instance during the current campaign against the Islamic State in which American planes have provided aerial cover for Iranian-backed troops on the ground. U.S. troops also provided air support for Tehran during the campaign to liberate Amerli in northeast Iraq, but those operations were on a far smaller scale than the Tikrit offensive, where some 30,000 Iraqi and Iranian fighters are estimated to have been deployed. The vast majority of them — as many as 20,000 — are believed to be Shiite militias.