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US providing surveillance to Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State in Tikrit

BAGHDAD: Drones from the US-led coalition are providing surveillance and intelligence to Iraqi troops as they struggle to recapture the city of Tikrit from Islamic State militants, US officials said on Wednesday, marking America’s first involvement in an operation that has so far relied on Iranian support.

The shift in US strategy is expected to clear the way for airstrikes in the Tikrit campaign, the US officials added. The Tikrit operation is seen as an important front in efforts to break the Islamic State militant group’s grip on northern Iraq.

Col Steve Warren, a spokesman for the Pentagon, confirmed to reporters that the United States has been flying surveillance flights over Tikrit, and providing intelligence to Iraqi security forces around the city, for several days.

The coalition began providing the support after a formal request from the Iraqi government on Saturday, a US military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The US-led coalition has conducted months of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, but US officials see the Tikrit offensive as being complicated by the presence of Iranian advisers on the battlefield and the potential for civilian casualties.