U.S. raids in support of a ground offensive on the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit were underway Wednesday, a senior U.S. official said, after Washington gave the green light to airstrikes to assist Iranian-backed Iraqi forces attempting to wrest the city from fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"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 Terry, commanding general of the U.S.-led operation. He added: "This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit."
Prior to the airstrikes being confirmed, the Pentagon said the United States had started intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights over the besieged city.
Washington and Baghdad had been discussing possible American raids for days in a bid to revive a push against the extremists that had seemingly stalled.
But the prospect of U.S. airstrikes in Tikrit raises sensitive questions about participating in an Iraqi campaign that has been spearheaded by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias.
Iran has provided artillery and other weaponry for the Tikrit battle, and senior Iranian advisers have helped Iraq coordinate the offensive. Iraq pointedly did not request U.S. air support when it launched the offensive in early March.
Recently, the offensive has lost momentum. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday the Iraqi forces have encircled Tikrit but not yet made significant inroads into the heavily defended city limits.
"They are stalled," he said.
The U.S. has said it is not coordinating any military actions with the Iranians. The U.S. has avoided supporting the operation in Tikrit up to now, not wanting to be allied with its long-time adversary, Iran.
Warren said the Iraqis, who initially said they did not need U.S. air power in Tikrit and were satisfied with their partnership with Iran, are discovering how difficult it can be to carry out ground operations in an urban area.
"I think it's important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against ISIL," Warren said. "Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that reside very clearly and very squarely with the coalition."
Al Jazeera and wire services. Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.