British military conducts first airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq
Irbil, Iraq (CNN) — British military aircraft carried out their first airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq Tuesday, Britain’s defense ministry said.
RAF Tornadoes dropped a bomb on an ISIS heavy weapon that was attacking Kurdish ground forces in northwestern Iraq, and shot a missile at an armed pickup truck, the ministry said.
Shortly after ISIS claimed to have carried out attacks within miles of Baghdad, police officials confirmed Tuesday that the ISIS militants had struck Iraqi military checkpoints on the southern outskirts of the capital during the weekend.
Police officials told CNN that ISIS fighters had carried out several attacks on Iraqi army patrols and checkpoints in Arab Ejbur, also known as the Albu Aytha area, roughly five miles south of Baghdad, on Saturday.
At least eight Iraqi soldiers were killed in these attacks, authorities said, adding that ISIS militants could not keep footholds in this area but had carried out a hit-and-run operation.
Iraqi security forces are in control of the area, the police officials said. Albu Aytha is a predominantly Sunni area, mainly rural with many orchards and swampy areas.
The attacks, so close to Baghdad, are bound to increase nervousness in the capital even as the U.S.-led coalition continues to attack ISIS forces from the air.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, said U.S. airstrikes overnight hit the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.
A civilian inside Kobani, near the Turkish border, told CNN on Monday that ISIS was closing in.
The terror group is three kilometers (nearly two miles) east of the town, the civilian said on the condition of anonymity, basically confirming a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group.
If ISIS takes Kobani, it would control a complete swath of land from its self-declared capital of Raqqa to the Turkish border, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.
“My question is: why don’t you attack ISIS near Kobani?” asked Rami Abdulrahman, founder and director of the Observatory.
When asked why strikes in the Kobani area may appear to be limited, a senior U.S. official said — speaking separately on background — that factors which may make it appear that way include that the United States has no direct reliable intelligence on the ground and that precise and careful targeting is needed to avoid civilian casualties.
The threat to Kobani, also known as Ayn al Arab, has already led thousands of Syrians to seek refuge over Turkey’s border.
Peshmerga ‘need more support’
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Hazhar Ismail at the Peshmerga Ministry in Irbil told CNN that two operations had begun Tuesday morning in northern Iraq.
The first is in Al-Rabi’a, on the Iraq-Syria border. It is a major crossing point between ISIS-controlled territory and Iraq, and ISIS was collecting revenue from travelers there, he said. This operation is close to completion, he added.
The second ongoing operation is outside Daqouq, southeast of Kirkuk, he said, where several Peshmerga fighters, as the Kurdish forces are known, have been killed by homemade bombs and mines.
Both operations, Ismail said, were preceded by coalition airstrikes.
On Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. conducted 11 more airstrikes in Syria and 11 in Iraq. In Syria, two strikes near Dayr ar Zawr destroyed an ISIS armored vehicle and armed vehicle, according to the U.S. military. Five strikes in northeast Syria near Sinjar destroyed an artillery piece and a tank and three armed vehicles, two ISIS facilities and an observation post used by the militants.
Three strikes near Mazra al Duwud near the Syria and Turkey border destroyed an artillery piece and two rocket launchers. One strike northeast of Aleppo obliterated four ISIS buildings, the U.S. said.
In Iraq, the strikes destroyed more ISIS transport and armored vehicles. There were successful strikes near Mosul Dam, a hugely important location, the U.S. military also said, and strikes northwest of Baghdad and one that hit west Fallujah, according to the military.
On the ground, Brig. Gen. Hazhar said the Kurdish forces needed closer air support in the form of helicopter cover during operations.
He complained that the Peshmerga’s budget, weapons and training must go through Baghdad and claimed that the Peshmerga “have not received one dollar from Iraq, even though Parliament has approved funds.”
Since June, ISIS has become very capable, with artillery, mortars, heavy machine guns and heavy armor, he said, while the Iraqi Army disappeared.
“There are no good forces in the Iraqi Army,” the general said. “Most of the fighting is being done by Shia militias. We are not confident in the Iraqi army.”
Provincial official: Military base seized
In another apparent gain for the militants, Albu Aytha, a town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Baghdad (the town shares a name with the area outside the capital attacked on Saturday) is now under ISIS control, according to Anbar Provincial Council Deputy Head Faleh al-Essawi.
Dozens of ISIS militants attacked the Albu Aytha military base, where about 180 Iraqi soldiers were stationed, on Sunday, al-Essawi said. While the majority withdrew prior to it being overrun by the extremist militants, some were killed.
The ISIS militants also seized a large weapons cache left behind at the base, al-Essawi said.
Images posted by ISIS purport to show the takeover of the base in question, and include images of men dressed in uniform who appear to be dead Iraqi soldiers.
While CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of the ISIS images, giveaway features on the base and in the landscape do appear to show western Iraq specifically, and very likely the base in question.
ISIS has been fanning out across the Sunni-dominated Anbar region in recent months, targeting bases one by one across the vast area.
About a week ago, details emerged regarding the killing of more than 100 Iraqi soldiers on the Saqlawiyah and nearby Sejar bases, also in Anbar province.
A handful of survivors accused the Iraqi government of failing to respond to pleas for help ahead of the final ISIS assault on the base, after a days-long siege by ISIS.
Amid the continuing violence, several car bombs also exploded Tuesday in the predominantly Shiite cities of Hilla, Karbala and Basra, Iraqiya state TV reported. All three are south of Baghdad.
Command and control degraded?
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, assistant deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, told reporters at a briefing Monday that the U.S. military believes the ongoing bombing campaign in Syria has degraded ISIS command and control capabilities.
There is evidence that ISIS is unable to amass troops, he said.
The Air Force reports that its F-22s are achieving good results not just by dropping bombs, but by keeping an eye out for anything being fired from the ground.
About three-fourths of the airstrikes in Iraq have been carried out by the U.S. Air Force, which is also responsible for about half of the strikes in Syria.