By Richard Mably and Samia Nakhoul
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's President Fouad Massoum said on Wednesday that the U.S.-led coalition will soon carry out air strikes against Islamic State in the Sunni city of Tikrit, after starting aerial reconnaissance flights this week.
A three-week offensive by Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shi'ite paramilitaries has failed to flush out Islamic State fighters from Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Since yesterday, aerial support and reconnaissance flights started in Tikrit. They first begin with reconnaissance missions; then they compile the aerial reports; and afterwards the aerial (strike) operations start," Massoum told Reuters in an exclusive interview at the presidential palace in Baghdad.
Iraqi military commanders had asked for air strikes, while the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias had publicly rejected the U.S. role in the campaign to retake the jihadist bastion.
Faced with the deadlock, the Iraqi government had called a halt to most operations a week ago, citing concerns about civilian and military casualties.
But Massoum made clear that the Iraqi government had decided to ask for the U.S.-led alliance's air support in the battle.
"The Iraqi government along with residents of the area wanted an active contribution from the international coalition... The Iraqi government alone decides and no other force decides," Massoum, a veteran Kurdish politician who became Iraq's president last summer, said.
He also alluded to the United States' previous hesitation to participate in battles alongside Iranian-supported Shi'ite armed factions and their Iranian advisers.
"If there were any kind of hesitation in the position of the coalition to support the (Iraqi) army and volunteers in Tikrit," Massoum said. "It seems now that this sensitivity has ended. Of course, the participation of the coalition will have an impact."
A senior Western diplomat told Reuters on Tuesday the Iraqi government was on the verge of requesting U.S.-led air strikes, and that the international community was ready to accept.
The president said the timing of the air strikes will be determined by Iraqi and coalition military experts.
"The experts decide whether this needs one week, less or more," Massoum told Reuters.
He emphasized that the strikes would avoid the civilian populations despite Islamic State's attempts to use civilians as human shields and clearly target its fighting positions.
Islamic State, a radical Islamist movement, which seizes to establish a medieval-style caliphate across the Middle East, seized large sections of northern and western Iraq and much of eastern Syria last year.
The Iraqi government, with its Western and Iranian allies, is now trying to recapture the nearly one-third of Iraq that the jihadists' control, including the Sunni Muslim city of Mosul.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ned Parker; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Louise Ireland)