— -- Iraq’s military has launched what it calls a major offensive to recapture Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit from ISIS, but U.S. officials say there has been no coordination from the U.S. nor any requests for coalition airstrikes to support the operation.
On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Al Abadi announced that the Iraqi military had launched a major operation to recapture the northern province of Saladin from ISIS. Tikrit is located 80 miles north of Baghdad and was seized by ISIS fighters last summer shortly after ISIS had taken over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
An Iraqi military spokesman told ABC News Monday that ISIS fighters were retreating from some areas in the province that had come under attack by Iraqi military forces. However, those claims could not be independently verified.
Iraqi state television reported that a large Iraqi military force had pushed into Saladin Province accompanied by Shiite and Sunni fighters and supported by Iraqi fighter jets. There have been unverified reports that the combined Iraqi force numbers as many as 30,000 Iraqi troops and militia fighters.
A U.S. official told ABC News that this appears to be more of a “tactical operation” and that Iraqi military elements involved do not appear to be well-coordinated.
"We were aware of the operation before it started,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters Monday. “But I’m not going to details about what degree of coordination was involved in this."
Another U.S. official said that the U.S. began monitoring Iraqi troop movements in the area last week, though it remains unclear how much advance information Iraq provided to American military officials.
Warren said U.S. and coalition aircraft are not providing airstrikes in support of the operation since Iraq did not request air support. A U.S. official told ABC News that the Iraqi Air Force and Army aviation are providing Iraqi troops with air cover for the operation.
Warren said the U.S. military mission in Iraq is to advise and assist Iraq's military in their fight against ISIS, but Iraq that decides the level of cooperation it wants.
A Shiite militia leader told the BBC that Iran's General Qasem Soleiman, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, was involved in the planning of the offensive. Officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been assisting the Iraqi military since last year and Iranian jets have conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets in eastern Iraq. Senior U.S. military officials have said repeatedly that there is no coordination with Iran in the fight against ISIS inside Iraq.
A U.S. official said Monday there appears to be Iranian involvement in the planning and execution of the Iraqi operation.
Warren noted that Iran has a great interest in the fight in Iraq, but he would not speak to the level of Iranian involvement.
Separately, Jordanian aircraft have now begun conducting airstrikes inside Iraq. Until now Jordan and four other Arab countries participating in the air campaign against ISIS had only launched airstrikes inside Syria. The expansion of Jordanian airstrikes into Iraq reflects Jordan's push to do more militarily against ISIS following the group's burning death of a captured Jordanian pilot last month.