BEIRUT, March 31, (Agencies): A drone strike near the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqa killed a jihadist commander heading to Aleppo province on orders from the organisation’s chief, a monitoring group said Thursday. His death is the latest in a series of blows to the jihadist group in recent weeks, and comes days after Russianbacked Syrian government forces recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from its grip. Abu al-Hija, a high-ranking Tunisian IS commander, was killed late on Wednesday in a strike by a drone that was “most likely operated by the US-led coalition”, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. He had travelled to Syria from Iraq just 24 hours earlier at the behest of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Britainbased monitoring group said. Abu al-Hija is the latest senior IS member to be killed in recent weeks.
Last week, US forces killed IS deputy leader Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli. Earlier this month one of the group’s most notorious commanders, Omar al-Shishani, also died. “IS’s leadership is being debilitated,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. “Without infi ltration of IS, these killings would not have been possible.”
The latest killing came after Syrian government troops backed by Russian forces seized Palmyra on Sunday. The recapture of Palmyra, known as the “Pearl of the Desert” for its colonnaded alleyways and stunning temples, was seen as the biggest blow so far in the war against IS in Syria. While Russia and the United States back opposing sides in the conflict between the Syrian government and rebels, both are intent on crushing the jihadists. “It is clear that Russia and the United States are coordinating in the fight against IS,” Abdel Rahman said.
Abu al-Hija had been ordered by Baghdadi to travel from Iraq to Aleppo province near Turkey’s border, to oversee IS resistance to an offensive by US-backed fi ghters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. “The fighting, which has been especially fierce in the past four or five days, could lead to IS being expelled from the area and pushed eastwards into Raqa province,” Abdel Rahman said.
A top Pentagon official said earlier this week that IS was losing the fight against the USled coalition in both Syria and Iraq, even as it continues to mount attacks overseas, like the suicide bombings that killed 35 people in Brussels on March 22.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s counterterrorism forces backed by army troops and US-led coalition air strikes advanced towards the western town of Hit on Thursday in an attempt to dislodge Islamic State militants, the military said. A senior offi cer from the counter-terrorism forces, the elite US-trained units which led the recapture of nearby Ramadi three months ago, said his troops were one kilometre from the town centre, 130 km (80 miles) west of the capital Baghdad.
The recapture of Hit, strategically located on the Euphrates River near Ain al-Asad air base where several hundred US forces are training Iraqi army troops, would push Islamic State further west towards the Syrian border, cutting a connection to the northern town of Samarra and leaving Falluja their only stronghold near the capital.
Baghdad has had success in pushing back the militants in recent months and has pledged to retake the northern city of Mosul later this year, but progress has often been fitful. Another officer, on a frontline less than 3 km from Hit, said the operation had begun at 0600 (0300 GMT) and was progressing swiftly. “There are some IEDs along the movement but it’s still good to go and we are moving,” he said by phone. In a statement announcing the advance, the military said the offensive was backed by airstrikes from the Iraqi army and air force as well as the international coalition fighting Islamic State in the areas of Iraq and neighbouring Syria where the militants declared a “caliphate” in 2014.
The statement called on civilians in Hit, thought to number in the tens of thousands, to move away from Islamic State positions: “Those targets will be destroyed”. The jihadists have regularly used civilians as human shields, a tactic aimed at slowing the advance of Iraqi forces and complicating air strikes essential to the ground advance. Elsewhere, US President Barack Obama will have the chance to decide on whether to increase the number of US forces in Iraq in the “coming weeks,” the top US general said on Wednesday.
The extra troops would bolster the capabilities of Iraqi forces preparing for a major offensive against the Islamic State militant group in Mosul, US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news briefing. US and Iraqi military officials have been discussing a plan to retake Mosul, which fell to Islamic State in June 2014, and how US forces could support their efforts, Dunford said. “Those recommendations are being made and the president will have an opportunity to make some decisions here in the coming weeks,” Dunford said. “I brought it to the secretary (Defense Secretary Ash Carter).
The secretary will engage with the president.” Dunford said last week he expected an increase in the level of US forces in Iraq from the current 3,800, but that those decisions had not been finalized. US officials have said they hope to capitalize on recent battlefield successes against Islamic State, such as the retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi forces late last year. “The timing really now is focused on the next phase of the campaign, which is towards Mosul, and maintaining the kind of momentum that we had in Ramadi,” Dunford said.