WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday about the fight against Islamic State militants including the Iraqi-led operations in Tikrit, the White House said.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants has not played a role in the battle in Tikrit, the home town of executed Sunni president Saddam Hussein. Instead, it has been led by Iraqi military officials in coordination with Iran’s military.
Biden commended Abadi and Iraqi leaders for “building a national front before launching the ongoing operation near Tikrit,” the White House said in a statement.
“He also noted the Iraqi government’s efforts to enable fighters from Salah ah Din to participate in reclaiming their own territory” from Islamic State militants, the White House said.
The military push in the mainly Sunni Muslim region around Tikrit has involved thousands of Shi’ite militia, and there were concerns by some that it could inflame sectarian tensions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the operation was “a multi-sectarian force” that included fighters from local Sunni tribes and was supported by the Sunni governor of the Salah Ah Din province.
“We have said from the beginning that the United States will not coordinate militarily with the Iranians,” Earnest said. “But the fact that some Iranian military personnel are involved doesn’t change the priority that the Iraqis can and should place on this operation to ensure that it’s inclusive and multi-sectarian.”
Asked during a daily press briefing whether the fight in Tikrit was a “dress rehearsal” for an attack to recapture the city of Mosul, Earnest said that Iraqi forces would lead the Mosul offensive at a time chosen by Iraqi leaders.
“We would expect that any sort of operation on Mosul would also be multi-sectarian,” Earnest said, noting that fight could include support from the U.S.-led coalition.
“I do think we would envision a scenario where an operation against Mosul would certainly have the possibility of being backed by coalition airstrikes,” he said.
Reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bill Trott and Andrew Hay