After Weeks On The Sidelines, U.S. Begins Air Campaign In Tikrit
The U.S. has begun airstrikes against self-declared Islamic State militants in Tikrit, Iraq. The effort by Iranian-backed militias to help Iraq recapture the city has stalled, and now the U.S. has agreed to help the Iraqis if Iranian forces leave the area.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The U.S. has begun airstrikes against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Iraq's military, with the help of Iranian-backed militias, has been unable to dislodge several hundred militants holed up in the city. NPR's Jackie Northam reports the U.S. agreed to help retake it only if the Iranian-backed forces get out of the fight.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Pentagon says the first round of U.S.-led airstrikes on Tikrit hit several militant targets, including a palace that was being used as a headquarters by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Until now, the U.S. has sat on the sidelines in the push to retake Tikrit. When the Iraqi military launched the major offensive in early March, it didn't ask for help from the U.S. Instead, it turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias. But by the third week, the offensive had ground to a halt. And the Iraq government turned to the U.S. for help, says Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
ANTHONY CORDESMAN: It's quite clear this campaign hasn't gone the way people hoped. And if they're going to achieve the kind of results they need, they've had to turn to the United States.
NORTHAM: But one of the conditions the U.S. had is that the Iranian-backed forces, the Shiite militias, withdraw from the fight. Iraq's government agreed. Two a Shiite militia commanders protested and said they're boycotting the offensive. Robin Wright, a Middle East specialist with United States Institute of Peace, says the U.S. taking the lead is an amazing turnaround, especially given that the Iraqi army and its Iranian-backed allies had about 30,000 fighters and yet were unable to uproot a few hundred ISIS militants.
ROBIN WRIGHT: The one thing that's so striking about this switching roles is that the Iranian advisers had appeared very capable at designing campaigns against ISIS. And yet the Shiite militias weren't capable of forcing ISIS out of Tikrit. And that's where U.S. air power came in. But there are no guarantees that U.S. air power is going to force ISIS out of Tikrit either.
NORTHAM: The airstrikes can help ease the way for Iraqi troops to enter Tikrit. But fighters will still have to deal with snipers and booby traps set up by ISIS militants that helped stall the initial offensive. Wright says if this new operation fails or if there are large civilian casualties from the airstrikes, Iran will make sure to blame the U.S. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.