Iraqi security forces prepare to attack Islamic State extremist positions in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Iraqi security forces prepare to attack Islamic State extremist positions in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 26, 2015. Khalid Mohammed/AP

Pentagon: Yes, Taking Tikrit Just Got Harder

DoD official concedes that Iran was helping Iraq take back its city.

The departure of the Iranians from the battlefield of Tikrit will likely prolong ISIS’s presence around the city, say Pentagon officials.

Today, Pentagon officials acknowledged that “hundreds of enemy” ISIS fighters remain around the besieged Iraqi city. When asked if the departure of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias would make it harder for Iraqi Security Forces to take back the city, Col. Steve Warren, director of Defense Press Operations, told reporters, “Yes.”

Three Iranian-backed militia groups, a force consisting of several thousand soldiers, are boycotting the fight for Tikrit because the U.S. is also there, leading strikes by coalition air forces, The New York Times reported yesterday. Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, yesterday told lawmakers that the U.S. had in fact told the Iraqi government to make the militias leave as a precondition for the airstrikes. “I will not—and I hope we never—coordinate or cooperate with Shi’ite militias," he said.

Warren said that despite the departure of the militias, at least 4,000 Iraqi Security Forces remained in the fight, along with other fighters loyal to the Iraqi government. He declined to say when Tikrit might be recaptured, but expressed confidence in the eventuality.

“Yes, some Shia militia units have withdrawn from the battlefield. These are primarily Shia militia units that we had no interest in being on the battlefield in the first place,” he said referring to Iranian-backed groups that had been leading the assault on ISIS in Tikrit since the start of March.

“The forces that remain on the battlefield are regular Iraq forces as well as the People’s Mobilization Forces [PMF], which, as you know are made up of both Sunni and Shia,” he told reporters. “What remains on the battlefield now are forces under the direct control of the ministry of defense and who Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi has made clear to that he has a zero tolerance policy for any sectarian improprieties,” said Warren.

Thanks in part to the U.S.-led airstrikes, Iraqi Security Forces are beginning to move directly into the city to take back neighborhoods from ISIS control after a brief pause in clearance operations.

Warren said that the fighting would be prolonged and deadly. “Urban warfare is difficult. It’s rough, hot, bloody, tiring and exhaustive work. No one should expect this to be an overnight thing. This is a hard fight that the Iraqis are going to have to go through. It will be difficult.”

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