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Jihadists Face Growing Pressure As U.S. Mulls Strategy

Baghdad (AFP) — Elite Iraqi troops backed by U.S. jets battled jihadists near Baghdad Wednesday as Washington devised a strategy for expanded operations against the Islamic State group.

President Barack Obama prepared to meet with U.S. commanders to decide how to turn the tide on the powerful and brutal extremist organisation while keeping a promise not to drag America into another military quagmire.

The White House scrambled to play down a suggestion that deploying ground forces was an option but expanded air strikes were already turning up the heat on Islamic State group fighters.

According to Iraqi military and tribal leaders, U.S. jets struck three IS targets in an area just south of Baghdad dubbed the “triangle of death”, killing at least four militants.

A leader of the Janabi tribe in the flashpoint region of Jurf al-Sakhr, less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Baghdad, said Iraqi soldiers had fought IS militants overnight until early Wednesday.

“The main focus was an area of Jurf al-Sakhr called Fadhiliya. They fought deep into the night but the Iraqi army was not able to enter the place,” he told AFP.

The U.S. military issued a statement late Tuesday that spoke of three air strikes southwest of Baghdad but did not specify where.

The Jurf al-Sakhr region is key because it sits on the Euphrates River between the major Sunni insurgent bastion of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and the country’s most revered Shiite holy sites south of the capital.

– Ground forces? –

The tribal leader and an army lieutenant said the push was led by the Golden Brigade, which is widely recognized as the best force in the country.

Critics say it may be the only credible fighting force in what is sometimes derided as “a checkpoint army”.

The brigade, which spearheaded an offensive to retake the country’s largest dam north of Mosul last month, has been hopping from one key frontline to another.

The U.S. administration has said that its strategy in Iraq would involve helping to revamp an army it had not finished training when the eight-year occupation ended in 2011.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday that US military advisers could “provide close-combat advising”.

But the White House insisted the idea of U.S. troops in battle was a “purely hypothetical scenario.”

The more than 160 air strikes launched by the U.S. since August 8 have achieved some results, apparently forcing top IS leaders to cross the border back into neighboring Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday that nearly 50 people, including seven women and a child, had been killed since Monday in government air strikes on Talbisseh.

The town in the central Homs province has been under siege by the army ever since rebels seized it two year ago.

On Tuesday, Kurdish peshmerga forces — which have been receiving military equipment from Washington and some of its Western allies — retook seven Christian villages east of the second Iraqi city of Mosul with U.S. air support.

The villages had been emptied of their population during an IS offensive in August.

According to a senior Kurdish leader, Roj Nuri Shaways, a top IS military commander known as Abu Abdullah was killed in the fighting.

Calls have been mounting in Iraq for Washington to expand its air support to Sunni tribesmen fighting the jihadists, particularly in the town of Dhuluiyah, north of Baghdad.

– Global threat –

On Wednesday, Obama is to sit down with General Lloyd Austin, chief of U.S. Central Command, at his Florida headquarters.

The president will “discuss the plan for building an international coalition to degrade and destroy (IS),” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

British and French planes have already started surveillance missions over Iraq.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday that plans were being laid to hit targets in Syria, where the IS group is holding Western hostages and has a stronghold in the city of Raqa.

“This plan includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group.

Over the past month, IS sparked global outrage by releasing video footage of the beheadings of two U.S. reporters and a British aid worker. It also warned it would take the battle to America and its allies.

A U.S. court on Tuesday indicted a Yemeni-born U.S. man for allegedly providing material support to IS by recruiting members for jihad in Syria.

Lawmakers in France — the top purveyor of Western jihadists — the same day approved a new anti-terror bill aimed at preventing potential jihadists from travelling to Iraq or Syria.

Six people, two of them minors, were arrested in the suburbs of the eastern city of Lyon on recruitment suspicions, a judicial source said Wednesday.

AFP Photo/Mohammed al-Shaikh

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U.S. Air Strikes To Target Jihadist ‘Safe Havens’ In Syria: Hagel

Washington (AFP) — Planned U.S. air strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria will target extremist sanctuaries, command centers, and logistic networks, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel told lawmakers Tuesday.

“This plan includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria — including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But the U.S. military’s top-ranking officer, General Martin Dempsey, told the same hearing that the bombing would not resemble the large-scale raids that accompanied the start of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Commanders at the time dubbed the campaign a bid to provoke “shock and awe” among ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops.

“This will not look like ‘shock and awe’ because that is not how ISIL is organized, but it will be persistent and sustainable,” Dempsey said.

AFP Photo

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U.S. Strikes Islamic State Jihadists Near Baghdad For First Time

Baghdad (AFP) — The United States has bombed militants near Baghdad in support of Iraqi forces, striking close to the capital for the first time in its expanded campaign against Islamic State jihadists.

But in a sign of their growing strength, a monitoring group said the jihadists had managed to bring down a Syrian warplane conducting strikes over their stronghold of Raqa in north-central Syria.

The US air strike against IS fighters in the Sadr al-Yusufiyah area, 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Baghdad, came as world diplomats pledged to support Iraq in its fight against the militants and less than a week after US President Barack Obama ordered a “relentless” war against IS.

“U.S. military forces continued to attack (IS) terrorists in Iraq, employing attack and fighter aircraft to conduct two air strikes Sunday and Monday in support of Iraqi security forces near Sinjar and southwest of Baghdad,” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit (IS) targets as Iraqi forces go on offence, as outlined in the president’s speech last Wednesday.”

The strikes destroyed six IS vehicles near Sinjar and an IS position southwest of Baghdad that had been firing on Iraqi forces.

– Purported photo of wreckage –

They bring the number of U.S. air strikes across Iraq to 162.

Iraqi security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta on Tuesday welcomed the expanded American action, saying the U.S. “carried out an important strike against an enemy target in Sadr al-Yusufiyah.”

Sadr al-Yusufiyah lies in the Euphrates Valley, between the militant stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and the key battleground of Jurf al-Sakhr, further south.

It is one of the closest front lines to Baghdad where Iraqi government forces and allied militia have struggled to defend their positions.

IS militants have seized a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic “caliphate”, committing widespread atrocities and instituting a brutal interpretation of Islamic law.

As part of the extended campaign Washington has vowed to carry out strikes in Syria as well, despite warnings from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against violating its airspace.

On Tuesday, the jihadists shot down a Syrian warplane conducting strikes against them, the first time they have done so since the regime began bombing their stronghold of Raqa in July, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“IS fighters fired on a military aircraft which crashed,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.

“It is the first aircraft shot down since the regime launched air strikes against the jihadists in July following their declaration of a caliphate in late June,” said the group, which relies on a wide network of doctors and activists for reports on the situation in Syria.

A photograph posted on a jihadist Twitter account purported to show the wreckage of the plane.

“Allahu Akbar (God is greater), thanks to God we can confirm that a military aircraft has been shot down over Raqa,” another account said, congratulating the “lions of the Islamic State”.

The expansion of the U.S. air campaign came as representatives from about 30 countries and international organisations, including the United States, Russia and China, vowed during talks in Paris on Monday to support Iraq in the fight against IS.

In a joint statement, diplomats promised to back Baghdad “by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance, in line with the needs expressed by the Iraqi authorities, in accordance with international law and without jeopardising civilian security.”

They stressed that IS militants are “a threat not only to Iraq but also to the entire international community” and underscored the “urgent need” to remove them from Iraq.

The Paris statement made no mention of Syria, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed again at the talks that “we’re not going to coordinate with the Syrians.”

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that U.S. forces will target Syrian anti-aircraft systems if they take aim at American planes conducting strikes inside Syria against IS.

– Target for major drive –

On the ground in Iraq, sporadic clashes broke out Monday near the town of Dhuluiyah, north of Baghdad, where security forces and allied tribesmen prepared for an operation against IS-led militants.

The area would appear to be the target of the next major drive against IS in Iraq, after a successful operation to break the siege of the town of Amerli farther north.

The Paris meeting was the latest in a series of frantic diplomatic efforts to build a broad global coalition against the jihadists, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said meetings would come “thick and fast” ahead of a U.N. General Assembly next week.

Ten Arab states including Saudi Arabia are among the countries backing the U.S.-led coalition, and Australia has pledged 600 troops.

“We are not building a military coalition for an invasion… but for a transformation as well as for the elimination of (IS),” Kerry told reporters.

“We are fighting an ideology, not a regime.”

The beheading at the weekend of a British aid worker, the third Western hostage to be executed on camera, raised the stakes in the battle against the jihadists, who the CIA estimates have as many as 31,500 fighters.

AFP Photo/Mohammed al-Shaikh

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Kerry Holds Iraq Talks On U.S. Strategy Against Jihadists

Baghdad (AFP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Iraq’s new leaders Wednesday on their role in a long-awaited strategy against Islamic State jihadists to be unveiled by President Barack Obama.

Iraq has been at the center of U.S. efforts to halt IS since its fighters spearheaded a lightning offensive in June seizing much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad.

But in a keenly awaited policy speech later Wednesday, Obama was widely expected to announce the expansion of the month-old U.S. air campaign to neighboring Syria, where IS has seized a swathe of the northeast, bordering Iraq.

The U.S. administration has come under mounting domestic and international criticism for not taking stronger action against IS fighters who have committed a spate of atrocities in recent weeks, many of them paraded on the Internet.

Kerry’s unannounced talks in Baghdad were the first stop on a regional tour to build support for the new U.S. strategy which he has said will only work with the backing of the “broadest possible coalition of partners around the globe.”

He was to fly on to Saudi Arabia for talks on Thursday with 11 regional foreign ministers on a joint campaign against IS.

U.S. efforts to build a broad regional coalition had been complicated by the sectarian politics of the region, with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states deeply suspicious of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

But they were given a boost on Monday by the formation of a new government that Kerry has said has “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities”.

Kerry met new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, a Shiite regarded as far less divisive than his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, who was criticized for driving many in the Sunni minority into the arms of IS.

U.S. officials have hailed a more constructive approach from Abadi to recapturing Sunni Arab areas from the jihadists after the heavy-handed security tactics of Maliki’s government.

Kerry praised the new premier’s “commitment to the broad reforms that are necessary in Iraq to bring every segment of the Iraqi society to the table.”

He welcomed the “military’s commitment to reconstituting itself” for the fightback.

But the scale of the security challenge facing Iraq was underlined by twin bombs that killed at least seven people in east Baghdad during Kerry’s visit.

– Locally recruited fightback –

Much of the regular army is drawn from Iraq’s Shiite majority who come from Baghdad and the south and are despised outsiders in Sunni areas.

U.S. officials have welcomed the new government’s acceptance that Sunnis need to take charge of the fightback against IS in Sunni areas.

“Abadi has said repeatedly since he was named the prime minister that he is not going to… take military units from the south and go into areas in the north and west to take on (IS)” a U.S. official told journalists travelling with Kerry.

Instead national guard units “grown from the provinces… locally recruited,” will take the “primary security responsibility” for the fightback in the five provinces where IS fighters hold sway in Sunni areas.

The official stressed that the new units would need to be “paid by national funds,” which was one of the areas where Baghdad would need the international help that Kerry intends to discuss with regional governments in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

“The region and our partners in the Gulf can play a really important role… in terms of their encouragement, in terms of their financial contributions, in terms of lifting the burden that the government here has.

“Even for a country that’s still exporting about 2.6 million barrels of oil a day, the financial toll of the crisis is quite staggering,” the official said.

– Syria air strikes? –

In his speech later on Wednesday, Obama was expected to steel Americans for a prolonged battle against the jihadists, despite devoting much of his presidency to avoiding new entanglements in the Middle East.

But wary of repeating what he believes were the mistakes of the last decade, Obama was expected to renew his pledge not to send ground troops back to Iraq.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post said Obama was preparing to authorize the expansion of the air campaign against IS that he launched in Iraq on August 8 to neighboring Syria.

An opinion poll published on Tuesday suggested 65 percent of Americans would approve such an expansion of air strikes, which would be without the authorization of the Damascus government.

But Brussels-based think-tank the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned “the resulting boost to IS recruitment might outweigh the group’s tactical losses.”

Washington has pinned its hopes of pegging back IS in Syria on rebel groups opposed to the jihadists, balking at cooperation of any sort with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad whose overthrow it has supported since 2011.

However the main anti-jihadist rebel alliance suffered a major blow late Tuesday when a blast in the northwest killed 47 of its top commanders.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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