Heavy fighting was reported in Tikrit Saturday as Iraqi ground troops attacked from four directions in a bid to drive out ISIS fighters from the city, an Iraqi defense official said.
Fighters from the terror group were defending their positions, a brigadier general in the Iraqi ministry of defense told NBC News. The Iraqi offensive is being supported by U.S. warplanes, a development that occurred only days ago.
The U.S. military said Saturday that fighter and attack aircraft and drones carried out 18 airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq.
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Eight of those airstrikes were conducted near Tikrit, destroying an ISIS vehicle and an ISIS "vehicle borne explosive device," and pulverizing 11 fighting positions and killing fighters, the military said. Another airstrike destroyed an ISIS tactical unit near Bayji, about 26 miles north of Tikrit.
The U.S. military announced it would conduct airstrikes to support the Tikirt offensive for the first time on Wednesday, and it said the airstrikes were approved at the request of the Iraqi government. But it was complicated by the involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were also taking part in the offensive that stalled after initial success.
Top American commander Gen. Lloyd Austin told a Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday the U.S. military agreed to carry out the airstrikes on the condition the Iranian-backed militias withdraw from the city. "I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with the Shiite militias," Austin said.
Tikirt, the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, is seen as a stepping stone in the fight to retake the city of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, from ISIS.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi by telephone Saturday. "Both leaders expressed their strong support for continued cooperation between the Iraqi government and the international coalition," and Biden praised the prime minister for the Tikrit offensive, the White House said.
The latest round of airstrikes included three strikes against ISIS targets near Mosul, the military said. Two buildings being used to construct improvised explosive devices, a third building, and an armored vehicle and a fighting position was destroyed in those strikes, the military said in a statement.
— Phil Helsel
The Associated Press contributed to this report.