US planes, Iraqi ground forces battle IS jihadists
MURSITPINAR, Turkey: US-led warplanes pummelled Islamic State fighters in Syria Friday as Iraqi forces fought the jihadists west of Baghdad, with the US military reiterating that Iraq is its top priority.
As fighting raged on several fronts, Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based franchise urged Muslims worldwide to support the IS group in Syria and Iraq.
The US commander overseeing the air war hailed “encouraging” signs in the defense of Kobani, but said the Syrian town on the Turkish border could still fall to IS and insisted that Iraq was the coalition’s top focus.
“Iraq is our main effort and it has to be, and the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq,” said General Lloyd Austin.
Six US-led coalition air strikes hit IS positions in the east of Kobani Friday, taking advantage of new coordination with the town’s Kurdish defenders, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The jihadist group has captured large parts of Syria and Iraq, committing atrocities and declaring an Islamic “caliphate.”
The Britain-based Observatory claimed that IS fighters were now being trained to fly three jet fighters, captured from the Syrian military, by former Iraqi officers who had served under Saddam Hussein.
In Iraq, security forces fought IS on two fronts — the strategic city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and near Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.
Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, is in a shrinking patch of territory where pro-government forces in the area still hold ground, and its loss would be a major blow for Baghdad.
Government forces launched an offensive Friday north of Tikrit, one of a string of mainly Sunni Arab towns north and west of Baghdad that the jihadists seized in June.
Iraqi troops have been struggling to retake and hold ground, despite the coalition air strikes.
Despite a string of car bombs in the Iraqi capital, the US military said Baghdad was not under “imminent threat” from the jihadists.
“There are not masses of formations of (IS) forces outside of Baghdad about to come in,” spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
Two more car bombs hit crowded commercial areas of the capital Friday, killing at least 18 people and wounding more than 40, officials said.
While the jihadists have been kept from reaching Baghdad in force and would face major challenges if they tried to occupy part of the city, they are still able to carry out bombings with impunity.
In Syria, meanwhile, Kobani district chief Anwar Muslim said US-led strikes had destroyed many IS vehicles and artillery pieces.
The Kurds claim to have pushed IS back in parts of Kobani as the coalition intensified its air strikes in recent days, and Muslim told AFP “our forces are reinforcing their defensive positions.”
But he said IS sniper and mortar fire was preventing authorities from evacuating civilians caught up in the battle.
“Their situation is difficult,” he added.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which spearheads the defense of Kobani has been appealing urgently for weapons to resupply its fighters, but Washington said it was too early to discuss the request.
The PYD has close ties with the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party — which is on the US terror blacklist — over the border in Turkey.
Warplanes from five Arab states of the Gulf — Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — have taken part in the air strikes on IS targets in Syria since last month.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, classified by the United States as the network’s deadliest franchise, urged Muslims Friday not to participate in the battle against IS.
“We urge all mujahedeen (Muslim fighters) to set aside their differences and inter-factional fighting and move instead against the crusade targeting all” jihadists, it added.
The month-old IS assault on the Kobani area has sparked an exodus of some 200,000 mainly Kurdish refugees across the border, where the town’s plight has stoked nationalist sentiment among Turkey’s own large Kurdish minority.
More than 180,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in 2011, escalating into a civil war.
At least 15 civilians, including three minors, were killed in Syrian regime air raids on a rebel-held town near the capital on Friday, the Observatory said.