Two senior Islamic State group leaders were killed in US and coalition airstrikes in northern Iraq over the last week, US officials said late on Thursday, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved new orders for several hundred troops to deploy to Iraq to train Iraqi forces.
According to one of the US officials, airstrikes killed a key deputy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Daesh (Isil) militants, and one of al-Baghdadi’s military chiefs.
A third militant, described as a mid-level leader, was also killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the identification details publicly.
Words of the deaths came after Hagel signed orders Wednesday for the first group of US troops to go to Iraq as part of the administration’s recent decision to deploy 1,500 more American forces to the country. The troops are to advise and train Iraqi forces.
The top US commander for the mission in Iraq and Syria said Thursday the next wave of American troops will begin moving into Iraq in a couple of weeks, and cautioned that it will take at least three years to build the capabilities of the Iraqi military.
Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, who is leading the US campaign to defeat Daesh militants in Syria and Iraq, said the challenge is to get Iraqi units trained and back into the fight so they can plan operations to regain contested areas such as Mosul.
He said that while there has been progress in halting the militants’ charge across Iraq, “I think what we must do, especially inside of Iraq, is continue to build those (Iraqi) capabilities. I think you’re at least talking a minimum of three years.”
The Iraqi army wants to launch a counteroffensive to retake Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, and the US probably would help.
While there have been some concerns that Iraq’s military may not be ready yet for such an ambitious operation, Hagel said last week that the US is working with senior Iraqi leaders on preparations.
“Part of the planning has to be how you generate force to do operations,” Terry told reporters. The question, he said, is “how do you get into a place where you can generate some capability, pull some units back so that you can make them better, and then now start to put those against operations down the road?”
He declined to say when a Mosul operation might be launched. There have been fewer details and more limited media access to U.S. military operations in Iraq this time than during the eight years of war that ended in 2011. U.S. officials say it’s because the military is there only to advise and assist the sovereign Iraqi government.
There are currently about 1,700 US troops in Iraq, and President Barack Obama has authorized up to 3,000.
More than 1,000 US troops are expected to be deployed in the coming weeks to increase the effort to advise and assist Iraq units at the higher headquarters levels and also to conduct training at several sites around the country.
Terry offered an optimistic view of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government’s progress in working more with the Sunni tribes.
The deep sectarian divide fueled the advances of the Daesh militants across Iraq earlier this year as grievances led some to align with the extremists.
US officials have stressed that ongoing coalition assistance hinges in part on whether the Iraqi government becomes more inclusive.
The US and Iraqi governments have proposed creating a national guard program that would arm and pay tribesmen to fight.
Terry said that as the Iraqis conduct more combat operations in Sunni strongholds such as Anbar, there will be more opportunities to bring tribal members into the fight.
He said the national guard effort is starting and he is optimistic the Iraqi government will approve legislation needed for the program to move forward.
Report from AFP: US air strikes have killed several leaders of the Daesh (Isil) group in Iraq in recent weeks, dealing a blow to the jihadist forces, defense officials said late on Thursday.
The strikes – mostly carried out in northern Iraq – were aimed at “degrading Isil’s ability to conduct command and control” of their forces, the official said, using an alternative acronym for the group.
The official said the operation was “not insignificant,” and reflected a wider effort to pile pressure on the group as Iraqi forces prepare for a major counteroffensive in the coming months.
US officials named three figures who were killed in targeted raids, and said other “mid-level” leaders also were taken out.
“I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed Haji Mutazz and Abd al Basit. Mutazz and Basit were considered high-level leaders within Daesh,” a US defense official said.
“Additionally, since mid-September, we’ve killed several other mid-level Daesh leaders including Radwin Talib,” the official said.
The chief of the extremist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was not among those killed, the official added.
Mutazz was believed to be a deputy to Baghdadi, while the man known as Basit was head of the group’s military operations, and Talib was identified as a “governor” overseeing the captured northern city of Mosul, officials said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that US forces had taken out several key leaders, quoting the military’s top officer, General Martin Dempsey.
“These are high-value targets, senior leadership,” Dempsey told the Journal.
The newspaper, quoting unnamed officials, said between December 3 to December 9, air raids killed Basit and Mutazz.
The United States launched air strikes against the Daesh group on August 8 in Iraq, and expanded the raids to Syria on September 23.
A coalition of Western and Arab countries has joined the US-led air campaign, which focused this week on Daesh militants around Sinjar.
Manhunts against senior leaders has become a common tactic in Washington’s war against Al-Qaeda and affiliated extremists over the past decade.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, US intelligence agencies repeatedly targeted senior leaders in drone air strikes in Pakistan and the American military conducted frequent raids on the ground and in the air against senior insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SOURCE: AFP, AP