Stepping up its de-facto collaboration with Iran, the United States military is now giving direct air support to the Iran-backed offensive by Iraqi forces and Shiite militias on the city of Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad.
Launched over three weeks ago, the operation on the hometown of Saddam Hussein is the largest counter-offensive against ISIS yet, involving tens of thousands of Iraqi and Shiite militia fighters.
The U.S. initially did not take part in the attack, with Iranian advisers playing a much more visible role, including Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s overseas unit.
As the offensive falters, however, the U.S. is becoming more engaged.
The Pentagon confirmed earlier this week that U.S. forces are providing intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance support.
Iraqi President Fouad Massoum claimed on Wednesday that coalition air strikes will soon follow.
"Since yesterday, aerial support and reconnaissance flights started in Tikrit," Massoum told Reuters in Baghdad. "They first begin with reconnaissance missions; then they compile the aerial reports; and afterwards the aerial (strike) operations start."
U.S. officials have so far declined to comment on this latter claim.
The U.S. is stepping up its role in the offensive on Tikrit amid concerns about revenge attacks on Sunni residents, many of whom have fled, by the feared Shiite militias and Iraqi forces—both guilty of human rights abuses.
Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Militia, openly threatened revenge killings ahead of the offensive.
Furthermore, an investigation released last week by Human Rights watch found that, in the aftermath of an early September offensive on Amerli, in northern Iraq, Iraqi military forces, Shiite militias, and volunteer fighters raided Sunni-majority towns and villages, stealing civilians' possessions, and destroying buildings through arson, explosives, and demolition, and abducting residents.
They had the direct backing of U.S. air strikes in the initial offensive.