WASHINGTON, May 12, (Agencies): The Obama administration is grappling with a renewed show of force by Islamic State militants as they advanced again toward the ancient Syrian crossroads of Palmyra and exposed the Iraqi capital’s frailty through a series of deadly car bomb attacks.
American officials said Wednesday the US wasn’t shifting its strategy for defeating the extremist group in either country. But the violence across the two central IS battlefields illustrated how the US-led campaign remains dependent on weak allies and even sometimes local leaders and forces that Washington opposes.
The developments overseas contrasted with more positive news at home, as FBI Director James Comey declared that fewer Americans were now traveling to enlist with IS as its brand suffers in the United States.
Whereas a couple of years ago investigators saw six to 10 Americans heading to the Mideast each month to join the fight, Comey said that number has averaged about one a month since last summer.
“There’s no doubt that something has happened that is lasting,” he told reporters. But agents are still evaluating more than 1,000 cases to gauge levels of radicalization and potential for violence. The threat remains high after the Islamic State-inspired attack in San Bernandino, California, in December that killed 14 people.
In the broader war against IS, the most complicated situation is in Syria.
There, the US hopes President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers can hold off a fresh offensive near Palmyra several weeks after they pushed IS out of its world-famous ruins and neighboring city. The militants on Wednesday seized a key rocket-launching site about 40 miles away, according to media reports and activists, effectively isolating government forces in Palmyra from supply routes elsewhere in the country.
“We certainly do not want to see ISIL expand the territory that they control and we certainly do not want to see ISIL put at risk once again such a historically and culturally significant city,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
But Earnest said the US wouldn’t coordinate defense efforts with Assad’s military or Russia in the event the city faces another capitulation.
That leaves few other options for any intervention that might be deemed necessary. The US has a small contingent of special forces in Syria, but on the ground it primarily depends on Arab and Kurdish forces, several of which see Assad as a greater enemy than Islamic State militants.
Beyond its relics, Palmyra is important because of its location between the IS stronghold to the north and the capital of Damascus in the south. Losing the city again would thus provide IS a major logistical gain and propaganda coup.
And it would add further evidence of the militants’ surprising capacity to inflict losses on its enemies, after killing a US Navy SEAL last week in Iraq. The special warfare operator, Charles Keating IV, was part of a quick reaction force that moved in to rescue US military advisers from a firefight started by about 100 Islamic State fighters about 14 miles north of Mosul.
In Iraq, the US strategic thinking is more straightforward. The United States is backing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s attempt to break months of political deadlock through government reforms and a Cabinet reshuffle.
But three separate car bombings in the capital on Wednesday, killing more than 90 people and wounding at least 160, highlighted how weak his government’s control over security remains. IS claimed responsibility for all three attacks, claiming they targeted Shiite militiamen; it was the deadliest day in Baghdad this year.
Earnest condemned the bombings, calling them “abominable.” But he said al-Abadi was determined to protect his people, and unite Iraq’s different factions against their common foe, and the US would help.
“This is a problem that the Iraqi people are going to have to solve when it comes to addressing the challenges in their own country,” he said. “We’ve tried the path of the United States trying to impose a solution on these countries that are facing so much turmoil and violence.
“That didn’t work out very well. It didn’t work out very well for the United States. It didn’t work out very well for the Iraqi people either. So we need to pursue a strategy where we are empowering the Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi people to confront successfully the problems that are plaguing their own nation.”
In Iraq, Islamic State insurgents killed at least 17 Iraqi soldiers with suicide truck bombs on Thursday in a major attack on government forces that recaptured the western city of Ramadi in December, military officials said.
The jihadist group also killed two policemen and wounded eight others in two suicide bombings in Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad, a day after killing at least 80 people in bombings at an outdoor market and two checkpoints inside the capital.
The attacks near Ramadi dealt one of the heaviest blows to the army since it drove Islamic State out of the western city five months ago.
An army colonel told Reuters that militants killed at least 17 soldiers with suicide truck bombs in Jarayshi, 10 km (6 miles) north of Ramadi. They also surrounded an army regiment, seized a bridge and cut a key supply route linking Ramadi to the Thirthar district further north, army sources said.
An officer said the attack appeared designed to delay an expected army offensive into a nearby region that would have completely severed militant supply routes to Falluja, the Islamic State-held city on the western approaches to Baghdad that Iraqi forces have ringed for more than six months.
Another officer said reinforcements had arrived to the area to help clear the militants out of houses where they had taken up positions.
As Islamic State has been pushed out of key towns and cities it seized in 2014, it has resorted increasingly to guerrilla-style attacks in civilian areas under the nominal Iraqi government control.
The toll from Wednesday’s three suicide bombings in Baghdad made it the deadliest day in Baghdad so far this year.
Police sources said Thursday’s bombers approached a police station in Abu Ghraib from two directions before detonating their explosives. Baghdad Operations Command, one of the security organs charged with protecting the capital, said a third assailant was killed on approach to the police station.
Amaq news agency, which supports Islamic State, said two militants had clashed with police at al-Zeidan station before setting off their explosives-filled vests.
Sunni Muslim militant violence against security forces and Shi’ite Muslim civilians has persisted since Baghdad became the target of almost daily bombings a decade ago following the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The Islamic State group has released a video showing five alleged “spies” being shot dead in Iraq by young men from a crowd assembled for the execution.
The 12-minute video released on social media on Wednesday mimics a participatory television show, in which members of the public are interviewed and invited to take part.
Produced by the group’s branch in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, the video starts with footage of destruction it presents as the result of US-led air strikes against it.
It also shows the bodies of dead children.
The video moves on to the “confessions” of five men from Mosul, detailing how they passed on intelligence on the activities and positions of the jihadists in Nineveh, most of which is still controlled by IS.
Five IS executioners are then shown standing behind the five accused in orange jumpsuits, holding knives.
One fighter turns to the crowd: “O Muslims, who amongst you wants to get closer to God through these disbelieving apostates?”
Hands go up, he picks “volunteers” and the five IS fighters in combat gear are replaced by “civilians” to whom they give their handguns to shoot the accused in the back of the head.
Residents are subsequently interviewed about the group execution, with one saying he wished he had been selected to take part.
The video was released the same day IS claimed responsibility for three Baghdad bombings that killed at least 94 people, the deadliest spate of attacks to hit the Iraqi capital this year.
Most of the victims of the attacks were civilians and included many women and children.
Elsewhere, Turkish artillery pounded Islamic State targets in northern Syria overnight and the US-led coalition carried out air strikes, killing 28 militants near a Turkish border town repeatedly hit by rocket fire, Turkish military sources said.
The artillery strikes near Kilis, north of the Syrian city of Aleppo, started at about 8 pm (1700 GMT) and ended in the morning, the sources said. Intelligence reports had suggested the militants were preparing attacks, they said.
The air strikes destroyed a two-storey building used by the militants as a base, along with 11 fortified defensive positions, they said. The Turkish and coalition operations targeted an area about 10 km (6 miles) south of the border.
Turkey’s armed forces have stepped up attacks on Islamic State in Syria in recent weeks after rockets fired by the group repeatedly landed in Kilis, in what appeared to be a sustained and deliberate assault. More than a dozen hit the town last week alone.
Gunfire and occasional blasts from across the border could be heard on Wednesday from a hill in Kilis, which is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.
Abdullah Karasu, a Kilis resident who works in a packaging firm, said he came to the hill every day to watch the action on the other side of the border, partly because it was a safer place to be than in the town centre.
“I am not going to work anymore because the office is closed due to the rockets,” he said, standing with his son. Fewer rockets had landed in Turkey over the past three days, perhaps because of the military response, he said.
“But I doubt it’s finished … This silence is ominous. It’s almost as unnerving as the rockets landing,” he told Reuters.
NATO member Turkey was initially a reluctant partner in the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State and faced criticism in the earlier stages of the Syrian war for failing to stop foreign fighters crossing its borders and joining the militant group.
But it has suffered several attacks blamed on the radical militant group, including two suicide bombings in Istanbul this year. Those attacks targeted foreign tourists, killing a total of 16 people, most of them German and Israeli.
President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey’s armed forces had killed 3,000 Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, where Turkish soldiers are training local forces to fight the insurgents. He did not give a time frame.
Meanwhile, Islamic State group jihadists, including two suicide bombers, killed four Libyan soldiers and wounded 24 in their latest foray into territory controlled by the UN-backed government, the army said Thursday.
Wednesday evening’s attack on a highway checkpoint in the desert interior comes after the jihadists thrust west along the Mediterranean coast from their stronghold of Sirte last week, overrunning a major crossroads.
The checkpoint at Saddada lies 50 kms (30 miles) west of the Abu Grein crossroads and marks a new advance into territory held by forces loyal to the unity government in Tripoli.
“Two suicide bombers, one in a vehicle and one on a motorbike, blew themselves up at the checkpoint where troops had gathered and clashes then broke out between our forces and IS fighters,” a spokesman for the anti-IS operations command told AFP.
Libya’s LANA news agency said the ensuing fighting lasted six hours.
Abu Grein, where the highway along the Mediterranean meets the main road south into the desert interior, lies 120 kms south of Misrata and its capture by IS prompted militia in Libya’s third city to mobilise.
Saddada is just 100 kms from Misrata.
It is 190 kilometres from Sirte, the hometown of slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi which IS overran in June last year and has since transformed into a training camp for Libyan and foreign militants.
With its port and airport, there are fears the jihadists could use the city as a staging post for attacks on European soil.
The IS capture of the Abu Grein crossroads on June 5 was its first expansion to the west of Sirte and has led to hundreds of families taking flight from the neighbouring town of the same name.
The jihadist group controls zones to the east of its Mediterranean bastion.
The group is estimated to have about 5,000 fighters in Libya, and it is trying to attract hundreds more.
Western powers including the United States, Britain and France have openly considered international military intervention in Libya against IS.
They have expressed strong support for the new unity government which has slowly asserted its authority in Tripoli since the end of March.