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Iraq identifies 6 victims from mass graves in Ramadi – US ups pressure on IS with first B-52 strike

WASHINGTON, April 21, (Agencies): The US Air Force for the first time deployed a B-52 bomber against the Islamic State, the Pentagon said Wednesday as it ramps up a 20-month campaign to smash the jihadists. The bombing mission, in which a hulking B-52 destroyed a weapons storage facility south of Mosul, comes the same week that Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Baghdad and announced extra US troops, cash and equipment for the anti-IS campaign in Iraq.

In other signs of an increasing tempo, US commandos working with Kurdish troops conducted a raid targeting a senior IS group figure and the Pentagon said it has changed how air strikes risking civilian deaths are approved. Under the new rules, authority now comes from the commanding three-star US general in Baghdad, instead of going through a four-star at the US Central Command’s headquarters in Florida. Baghdad-based military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren insisted the changes do not lessen oversight standards in determining when civilian losses are an acceptable risk. “This does not translate to more civilian casualties, this translates to a more rapid execution of strikes,” Warren said.

The Pentagon has acknowledged 26 civilian deaths due to US-led coalition strikes since the campaign began in August 2014 in Iraq, and credits the use of guided missiles in keeping the number relatively low — though independent observers say the figure is far higher. Carter this week announced an additional 217 US forces would be deployed to Iraq as advisors, pushing the official count there past 4,000.

The Pentagon has also offered Apache attack helicopters for use in an eventual push on Mosul, Iraq’s second city and which is under control of the IS group. Separately, Danish lawmakers have approved a plan to commit seven F-16 warplanes, a transport aircraft and 400 military personnel to expand its fight against the extremists.

Monday’s strike by a B-52 Stratofortress blew up an IS weapons storage facility in the town of Qayyarah, about 35 miles (60 kms) south of Mosul. The enormous planes, originally designed in the 1950s, became a symbol of US might during the Cold War and the aircraft was used to conduct carpet bombing in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, six bodies have been identified so far from two mass graves unearthed this week in the western city of Ramadi, nearly four months after Iraqi forces routed Islamic State militants from the Anbar provincial capital, officials said Thursday. Arrested Islamic State militants had led authorities on Tuesday to the mass graves inside the city’s soccer stadium, believed to contain up to 40 bodies. Some of the victims were blindfolded and had their hands tied, Iraqi officials had said earlier.

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