Official: US-led force flying over IS-held Tikrit

Published 7:41 am Tuesday, March 24, 2015

TIKRIT, Iraq — The U.S.-led coalition targeting the Islamic State group has begun surveillance flights over the extremist-held city of Tikrit and sending intelligence to Iraqi forces fighting to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a senior official said Tuesday.

The flights and intelligence sharing, which began Saturday, mark the first time the coalition has been involved in the offensive, which up to now largely has been supported by Iranian advisers including Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard Quds Force.

The coalition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists about the matter, said the support began at the request of the Iraqi government. He declined to comment on whether they are providing airstrikes, saying he cannot discuss current or future operations.

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He also declined to discuss whether U.S. forces were directly communicating with Iranians on the ground there. U.S. officials repeatedly have said they are not in contact with Iranians in Iraq

Iraqi security forces, backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, launched a large-scale offensive to recapture Tikrit earlier this month. The U.S. previously had said that the Iraqi government never asked them to participate in the campaign.

A senior Iraqi military official said that coalition is not providing airstrikes in support of the Tikrit operation at this time, but launched airstrikes in the nearby oil refinery town of Beiji on Tuesday. He added that Soleimani has just left Tikrit after providing front-line assistance and advising since the start of the operation.

“He will come back if we need him to,” said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to brief journalists.