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.

"In urban combat, the sheer weight of numbers isn't the only factor," Warren noted. "The restrictive nature of the terrain in urban combat certainly reduced the advantage that numbers play."

While the U.S. and coalition aircraft are not supporting the Iraqis with airstrikes in Tikrit, airstrikes continue in other parts of Iraq.

On Monday and Tuesday, U.S. military officials said, those strikes included:

  • Two near the oil refinery in Bayji struck an IS tactical unit and destroyed two IS shipping containers.
  • An airstrike near Fallujah hit an IS vehicle.
  • Two near Mosul destroyed two IS excavators.
  • An airstrike near Sinjar hit an IS tactical vehicle and destroyed an IS building.
  • Two airstrikes near Tal Afar struck an IS tactical unit, a vehicle and a storage facility used for car bombs.

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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