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U.S. Providing Reconnaissance Flights Over Booby-Trapped Tikrit

A volunteer fighter with a Shiite militant group known as Jihad Brigades fires his weapon during clashes with Islamic State  militants outside Tikrit, Iraq, on Saturday.

The U.S. is providing surveillance flights over the besieged Iraqi city of Tikrit, where militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State remain holed up, protected by a defensive network of explosives and snipers.

NPR's Alice Fordman reports that a senior military official from the U.S.-led coalition against the militants, also known as ISIS, says the U.S. has been conducting reconnaissance missions over Tikrit since Saturday.

Until now, she says, the weeks-long military operation around Tikrit has been dominated by Iraqi security forces and allied paramilitary forces strongly backed by Iran. But Alice reports that the operation to take back Tikrit from the militants has stalled, and some Iraqi military officials have told reporters they need U.S. air support to take the city.

Tikrit, about 90 miles northwest of the capital, Baghdad, is the hometown of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Pushing militants from the city would be considered both a military victory and a symbolic victory over ISIS — and a prelude to a battle to retake Mosul, where the jihadist group has set up a major base.

Reuters news agency says the surveillance flights are a lead-up to U.S. airstrikes on Tikrit. The news agency quotes a senior Western diplomat who is part of the coalition as saying that a formal request from the Iraqi government for airstrikes is "imminent."

Still, Alice says one leader of an Iranian-backed militia, Hadi al Ameri, gave a speech over the weekend in which he strongly condemned the idea of U.S. military assistance, calling those who sought American air support weaklings.

Iraqi security officials say their force of 20,000 is made up of mostly Shiite militiamen. It succeeded in pushing militants out of surrounding villages, but hasn't been able to uproot them from the center of Tikrit, according to The Wall Street Journal.

As NPR has reported, ISIS has dug up the streets and planted mines. They've also booby-trapped cars and have snipers protecting the militants.

Sky news says Iraq's interior minister announced last week that the operation had been halted temporarily to avoid casualties and protect infrastructure in the city.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, politics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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