WASHINGTON, July 2, (Agencies): A coalition air strike near the Islamic State bastion of Mosul in Iraq has killed two of the jihadist group’s senior military leaders, the Pentagon said Friday. “Coalition forces conducted an air strike against two ISIL senior military commanders on June 25 near Mosul, Iraq, resulting in their deaths,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement, using an acronym for the IS group.
“The precision strike killed Basim Muhammad Ahmad Sultan al-Bajari, ISIL’s deputy minister of war, and Hatim Talib al-Hamduni, an ISIL military commander in Mosul.” Cook said al-Bajari was a former al-Qaeda member who joined the IS group and oversaw the June 2014 offensive to capture Mosul. He “also led the ISIL Jaysh al-Dabiq battalion known for using vehicle-borne IEDs (homemade bombs), suicide bombers and mustard gas in its attacks.”
Al-Hamduni was a military commander in Mosul and the head of military police in the region, Cook said. Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and became the IS group’s de facto Iraq capital. Iraqi security forces have in recent weeks made significant progress against the IS group, including the recapture of the city of Falluja this month. Attention is now shifting to Mosul, where a battle to liberate the city is expected to unfold in the coming months.
“Removing these terrorist leaders from the battlefield shapes the environment for Iraqi forces to ultimately liberate Mosul with support from the international coalition,” Cook said.
Meanwhile, clumps of hair from hastily shaven beards littered floors and filled wastebaskets in houses in the Iraqi city of Falluja’s western neighborhood, a dense block of low-rise homes that were the Islamic State militants’ last stand before they largely fled, melting into the sprawling Anbar desert in the face of advancing Iraqi ground forces. Iraqi officers said they bombed convoys of fleeing militants this week, destroying dozens of vehicles and purportedly killing scores of IS fighters.
But the way IS abandoned the longheld urban stronghold also underscores the group’s ability to adapt and regroup, long after defeat on the battlefield. In the city’s Julan neighborhood, Iraqi Cpl. Sahar Najim kicked through the refuse of facial hair with his boot, saying that he has seen similar scenes in other cities and towns retaken from IS. As the militants realize they are losing, they quickly shave off their beards to disguise themselves and escape among fleeing civilians, he said.
Losing Falluja, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, was a huge blow to the Sunni militant group, depriving it of bomb-making facilities, a safe haven for training recruits and sources of income through taxing the local population. To the east, in the city’s industrial neighborhood, dozens of car repair shops had been converted into car bomb factories. A garage still advertising Toyota car repairs was stocked with plastic jugs filled with chemicals. Iraqi forces declared Falluja fully liberated on Sunday, after government troops routed the remaining IS fighters from the city’s north and west under the close cover of US-led coalition airstrikes.
The battle, which began May 22, was the latest in a string of territorial defeats for IS in Iraq over the past year. At the height of the group’s power, in 2014, IS rendered nearly a third of the country out of government control, having blitzed across large swaths of the north and west and capturing Iraq’s second- largest city of Mosul. Now, it’s estimated to control only 14 percent of Iraqi territory, according to the office of Iraq’s prime minister.
More than 500 IS fighters managed to flee Falluja throughout the five-week offensive, an Iraqi officer told The Associated Press on Thursday. Earlier this year, more than 1,000 IS fighters were estimated to have fled the operation that retook Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital.