| BAQIRTA, Iraq/WASHINGTON
BAQIRTA, Iraq/WASHINGTON Aug 31 After their
lightning takeover in June, flag-waving Islamic State militants
paraded through the captured Iraqi city of Mosul in looted
U.S.-built Humvees, armored cars and pickup trucks mounted with
heavy machine guns.
Today, many have ditched military-type vehicles that could
make them easy targets of U.S. air strikes, and try to blend in
with residents, say witnesses. While still terrifying, they are
now a far more discreet force.
A Reuters examination of three weeks of U.S. air strikes
reveals significant changes in the way the Islamic State
operates since the U.S. joined the struggle against them, with
fewer militants on the streets of Mosul the clearest sign. It is
unclear how the Islamic State's tactics will further change as a
result of the reclaiming of the strategic Mosul Dam by Iraqi
government and Kurdish forces or Sunday's dramatic retaking of
Amerli, where thousands had been cut off from food and water,
but clearly battlefield strategies are involving on both sides.
The way the Islamic State is adapting shows the scale of
problems ahead for President Barack Obama, the Pentagon and
U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as they struggle to
reclaim ground from the Sunni militants, who have seized a third
of both Iraq and Syria, and want to establish a jihadist hub in
the heart of the Arab world.
After forging working arrangements with other armed Sunni
groups and tribes angry at the Shi'ite Islamist-dominated
central government in Baghdad, the Islamic State is now the most
powerful force in parts of northern and western Iraq, with its
ranks ranging from 8,000 to 20,000 fighters, according to Iraqi
Large areas are under control of the radical offshoot of al
Qaeda, and will be difficult to wrest away from them if Iraq's
Shi'ite political leaders fail to appease disgruntled Sunnis,
many of whom have embraced Islamic State after what they
describe as years of discrimination and persecution.
Ousting the jihadists altogether will likely require a
two-pronged approach, including ground combat in Iraq carried
out by Iraqi security forces, Sunni tribesmen and ethnic Kurdish
peshmerga fighters, perhaps with guidance by U.S. Special
Operations Forces and American advisers, say Iraqi security
officials and experts.
Defeating them would almost certainly require air strikes on
Islamic State strongholds in neighboring Syria that could be
risky, including the possibility of high civilian casualties
given patchy American intelligence on the ground.
"To retake areas requires more than airstrikes. It requires
specially trained fighters and the support of the population in
these areas," said Ali Al-Haidari, an Iraqi security expert and
former officer in the Iraqi military.
Washington needs to decide whether it wants to halt and
contain Islamic State or wipe it out entirely, said Hayat Alvi,
professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Naval War College
in Newport, Rhode Island.
"If they really want to destroy the Islamic State and stop
them being a threat, they are going to have to get a lot more
committed," she said.
Since Aug. 8, U.S. warplanes have mounted several strikes a
day in Iraq, mostly around three key northern Iraqi
battlefields: the Kurdish capital Arbil, Mosul Dam and Mount
Sinjar, a strip of ground more than 40 miles (65 km) long where
Iraq's ethnic Yazidis had been trapped by the jihadists.
U.S. F/A-18 jets from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush
launched the first strikes around Sinjar in what it said was a
move to protect Yazidis it feared were facing "genocide". U.S.
officials say those planes have now been joined by land-based
aircraft and drones from other bases in the region.
"So far, the air strikes have been focused on stopping IS
moving forward," says Douglas Ollivant, former lead U.S.
National Security Council official on Iraq for both President
George W. Bush and Obama. "They've been quite successful, at
least within Iraq. Syria is a different matter. So is pushing IS
back in Iraq itself."
The increased use of airpower, not just U.S. fighter jets
but also the arrival of Russian-built Su-25 attack jets for the
Iraqi Air Force, have had a significant impact, say Iraqi and
Western officials, though gauging casualties among Islamic State
fighters is difficult.
In Mosul, a mainly Sunni city under Islamic State control,
the group no longer flaunts its presence. "Their deployment is
less than before," said one resident who declined to be
identified by name for fear of Islamic State reprisals. "They
avoid using machine guns on pickups as they are clear targets
for the jets."
U.S. airstrikes also helped Iraqi forces and militia wage a
coordinated assault on Islamic State-held towns near northern
Amerli, where thousands of Shi'ite Turkmen residents had been
cut off from receiving food, water, and medical supplies for two
months. On Sunday, the town returned to Iraqi government
Even as U.S. air strikes assisted the military campaign,
they underscored the thorny dynamics for all sides as the U.S.
military, in effect, came to the assistance of not only Iraqi
troops but Shi'ite militia elements, who once fought U.S. forces
and have been accused by Sunnis of carrying out abuses in the
fight against the Islamic State, including extrajudicial
Without American air power, Kurdish forces say they would
have been hard-pressed to halt the Islamic State's advance on
Arbil. Instead, the Kurds pushed back and on Aug. 24 retook the
village of Baqirta some 43 miles (70 km) away.
Several Islamic State leaders have also been killed, said
sources in Mosul. The Kurdish government says its fighters have
seen vehicles burning and militants struggling to evacuate the
dead and dying.
"We feel we are stronger than them," said Nejat Ali Salih, a
senior official from the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Makhmur,
an oil and farming center near Baqirta.
At the start of the Islamic State offensive, Iraq's air
force was largely limited to attack helicopters and a handful of
propeller-driven Cessna light aircraft firing Hellfire rockets.
By the end of June, however, Russia and Iraq announced a
deal to supply the Iraqi air force with Su-25 attack jets.
Simple, slow and unwieldy but heavily armored, they are ideal
for attacking troop concentrations in the open.
A second batch of Su-25s arrived in July bearing the
camouflage patterns and markings used by Iran's Revolutionary
Guard, London's International Institute for Strategic Studies
said after examining assorted photographs. Neither the Iraqi nor
Iranian governments have commented on their origin, or who is
Iraqi military officer Colonel Ali Abdulkareem said the jets
halted the Islamic State's advance on Baghdad last month.
Although Iraqi pilots were less experienced than their
American counterparts and the weaponry less accurate,
coordination with ground forces was improving, Abdulkareem said.
But it won't be easy to defeat Islamic State in Iraq.
The U.S. air campaign appears to have provoked even more
anger from the Islamic State against the Kurds. The Islamic
State released a video on Thursday in which it showed 15 Kurdish
prisoners and the apparent execution of one of the men. Three of
the prisoners urge Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani
to end his military alliance with the United States.
"What we are fighting now is a well-trained and well-armed
terrorist army," said a senior Kurdish official. "They are very
clever in their fighting, we have to admit. They want to make us
busy on many fronts. They come to one front, they want all of us
to focus on that front, and then they penetrate through another
Taking back ethnic Sunni areas looks difficult. During the
2007/08 "surge", U.S. troops worked closely with some Sunni
groups against al Qaeda. Some of those they trained now fight
with Islamic State, say Sunni fighters and tribal leaders.
Although Islamic State has lost considerable quantities of
heavy equipment, advancing mainly Kurdish forces have found
fewer bodies than they had expected, say Kurdish fighters. Some
Kurdish officials say the bodies could have been removed quickly
by retreating militants, though it is also possible the Islamic
State may have also had fewer fighters in the path of air
strikes than had been expected.
The jihadists are also making substantial new gains in
Syria, including capturing a major military airbase on Aug. 24.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey
said on Aug. 21 beating Islamic State in Iraq would require
success against the group in Syria, something U.S. officials are
But unlike Iraq, where the United States has years of ground
experience and friendly forces with which it can liaise, a
Syrian operation faces formidable hurdles. Washington has no
relations with President Bashar al-Assad's government. Air
defences operated by both Asaad and IS are more formidable.
Obama on Thursday dampened expectations of imminent air
strikes on Islamic State positions in Syria, admitting "we don't
have a strategy yet" for confronting the militant group in
Syria. The White House said he wants to look deliberately at the
options his military advisers are giving him.
"So far, the strikes haven't targeted the organizational
structure of Islamic State, haven't targeted their stores,
haven't targeted the sources of their strength which are the
oilfields and haven't targeted the smuggling between the Syrian
and Iraqi borders," said Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based
researcher of Iraq's armed groups.
"These strikes achieved their target in pushing Islamic
State from Kurdistan but they haven't achieved a big victory or
big gains," he said.
(Additional reporting by Raheem Salman and Ned Parker; Editing
by Jason Szep and Martin Howell)