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Baghdad, March 26, 2015 (Reuters) U.S. warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, for the first time entering a struggling Iraqi offensive to retake the city after more than three weeks of remaining on the sidelines.

A coalition of Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces aided by Iranian military advisers have been trying to root out Islamic State fighters from Tikrit, an important city north of Baghdad in Iraq's Sunni heartland. 

From the start, the offensive went without U.S. air assistance - government and militia officials had boasted that airstrikes were neither needed nor wanted, and U.S. officials privately expressed discomfort with the idea of directly aiding an operation led by militias and Iranian officials.

But in recent days, as the militants have continued to hold out in central areas of the city, Iraqi military officials have said that airstrikes would be needed to fully secure Tikrit - despite rebukes by Shiite militia commanders.

Complete control of Tikrit would give the Iraqi ground force command of a vital cluster of road networks and would be the first major success in rolling back a lighting offensive by Islamic State last summer that brought the militants just a short drive away from Baghdad.

Surveillance flights by coalition aircraft over Tikrit began late Tuesday, according to a spokesman for the Iraqi military's Salahuddin Operations Command, which has responsibility for the military side of the Tikrit operation. And witnesses reported late Wednesday that heavy bombing runs had begun in the city against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday night that airstrikes had begun in Tikrit. And Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in a speech broadcast on Iraqi state TV from an undisclosed location in Salahuddin province Wednesday night, hailed the strikes, saying, "The time of freedom has just been started."

He continued: "We announce today what we have promised you yesterday, that we are going to liberate and clear each spot of our territory, and ISIS won't have a foothold on Iraq's land."

Earlier Wednesday, Khalid Shwani, the spokesman for President Fuad Masum, said that Iraqi and U.S. officials had formed a committee of senior advisers to decide whether airstrikes would be beneficial.

"President Masum is expecting that the Americans will conduct airstrikes in Tikrit," he said.

Until Wednesday, U.S. airstrikes had continued in other parts of Iraq, but not near Tikrit, which is on the main highway between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and a stronghold of the Islamic State since June.

U.S. officials have said that was mostly because Iraqi officials had not yet asked for airstrikes. But they also acknowledged concerns about Iran's unusually high-profile involvement in the Tikrit fight. 

The commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qassem Suleimani, has been photographed and videotaped around the Tikrit front. And Iraqi leaders have publicly praised the Iranians for their assistance, with some contrasting it with the lack of U.S. assistance on the ground.

Even as some Iraqi security officials began worrying about the absence of airstrikes, Hadi al-Ameri, the prominent leader of the group of Shiite militias known here as popular mobilization committees, criticized any outreach toward the United States.

"Some of the weaklings in the army say that we need the Americans, but we say we do not need the Americans," Ameri said.

The preponderance of the 30,000 fighters on the Iraqi side have been members of the militias, fighting alongside Iraqi soldiers and policemen. The Iraqi government has tried to broaden the offensive to include more Sunnis, but the force remains largely Shiite.


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