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Islamic State fighters begin to blend in Defeating IS no easy matter

BAQIRTA, Iraq/WASHINGTON, Sept 1, (RTRS): After their lightning takeover in June, flag-waving Islamic State militants paraded through the captured Iraqi city of Mosul in looted US-built Humvees, armored cars and pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Today, many have ditched militarytype vehicles that could make them easy targets of US 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 US air strikes reveals significant changes in the way the Islamic State operates since the US 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 evolving on both sides. The way the Islamic State is adapting shows the scale of problems ahead for President Barack Obama, the Pentagon and US-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 Islamistdominated 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 government estimates. 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 US 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.

Support
“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 US 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, US 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 kms) long where Iraq’s ethnic Yazidis had been trapped by the jihadists.

US 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”. US 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 US 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 US 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. 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 kms) away. 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. 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

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