WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States conditioned its entry into Iraq’s battle to retake Tikrit from Islamic State on the withdrawal of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias from the clearing operation, and they are no longer there, a senior U.S. general told Congress on Thursday.
The remarks by General Lloyd Austin, who as head of the U.S. military’s Central Command oversees American forces in the Middle East, came a day after the U.S.-led coalition started airstrikes around Tikrit after weeks on the sidelines.
The U.S. entry into the campaign raised concerns that the United States, however reluctantly, might find themselves on the same side of the battle as the Iran-backed forces to retake the city.
Austin told a Senate hearing, however, that the clearing forces in the city were now composed entirely of Iraqi forces and federal police, not Shi’ite militia.
“They are not a part of the clearing operations in Tikrit,” Austin said, acknowledging, however, that Shi’ite forces were still in the area, perhaps across the river, outside the city.
Austin said the Tikrit operation had stalled in part because the forces on the ground were not being properly controlled by the Iraqi government and because Iraq didn’t have a coherent plan for ground movements.
U.S. made creating a proper plan, and the militia pullback, preconditions for its entry into the campaign.
“Once those conditions were met – which included Shi’ite militias not being involved – then we were able to proceed,” Austin said.
“And I’d just like to highlight, sir, that three tours in Iraq, commanding troops who were brutalized by some of these Shi’ite militias, I will not - and I hope we never - coordinate or cooperate with Shi’ite militias,” he said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and David Alexander; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey