After three weeks of fighting, the Iraqi-led campaign to oust Islamic State militants from the city of Tikrit has stalled, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
“The enemy is dug in there,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “They are dug in, they have constructed a really hardened defense, a really sophisticated defense, and it’s difficult terrain.”
U.S. forces and aircraft are not involved in the Iraqi government’s operation in Tikrit, Warren said; Iraqi security forces instead are backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias. The Iraqi army’s regular forces are estimated to make up less than half of the 30,000 troops assembled for the operation.
Warren declined to comment on an Associated Press report out of Baghdad that the U.S. has begun surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Tikrit and is providing intelligence to the Iraqis.
The battle for Tikrit began in early March, but Islamic State militants continue to control most of the densely populated city center. Iraqi forces have not advanced since last week, Warren said.
“The Iraqi security forces are positioning themselves around Tikrit. They have made minor inroads into some of the city limits, but they have not really moved deeply into the city,” Warren said. “This is going to be a long, complicated, difficult battle.”
Tikrit is important politically and strategically. Once the hometown of Saddam Hussein, the city lies on the Tigris River and Iraqi forces will need to control it to secure supply lines for any major operations in Mosul, the largest city occupied by Islamic State militants.
Top Pentagon officials say the fall of Tikrit to Iraqi forces is inevitable, but may take time. The protracted battle highlights the ability of the IS militants to fend off a vastly larger force. Estimates of the number of militants in the city range from 1,000 to 10,000.
Read More:Pentagon: Iraqi assault on Tikrit stalls.