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US-Led Airstrikes Target Islamic State Militants in Iraq, Syria

by VOA News May 22, 2015

U.S.-led forces conducted 15 air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq since Thursday, concentrating on targets near Ramadi, the city that recently fell to the insurgents, the U.S. military said on Friday.

During the same period, forces conducted five air strikes in Syria, hitting targets near Al Hasakah, Dayr Az Zawr and Kobani, according to a statement.

The statement said five air strikes near Ramadi destroyed Islamic State armored vehicles, tanks, personnel carriers and improvised explosive devices and also hit a tactical unit.

The coalition conducted strikes near the Iraqi cities Al Asad, Haditha, Mosul and Sinjar, as well.

Iraqi VP criticism

Earlier Friday, Iraq Vice President Ayad Allawi criticized as ineffective the campaign of airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Jordan Friday, Allawi said the coalition 'meets and then retreats' and has no strategy. He said he has asked Iraqi leaders to put together a strategy for defeating the Islamic State group and present it to the coalition.

The comments come a week after Islamic State extremists gained control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, in Anbar province.

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama described the loss of Ramadi as a tactical setback, while insisting the war against the jihadist group is not being lost.

'I don't think we're losing,' Obama said in an interview with news magazine The Atlantic. The interview took place just after Ramadi had just fallen to Islamic State fighters.

'There's no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced," he said in The Atlantic interview.

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization units, the paramilitary group allied with Iraqi government troops, told the French news agency AFP that a counteroffensive to retake the city will happen 'in the coming days' with what he said would be 'tens of thousands' of fighters.

The Islamic State group made further inroads toward its goal of creating a transnational caliphate on Friday, seizing the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq that was held by the Damascus government, according to the Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

​​President Bashar al-Assad's fighters have suffered a series of defeats to Islamist rebels in recent days.

The Observatory said the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front had taken 'complete control' of a hospital on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour.

Dozens of government soldiers and others had been holed up inside the hospital since late April. Their fate is unknown, though al-Nusra said via Twitter the soldiers were being pursued.

Key town lost

​​Last month, al-Nusra took control of Jisr al-Shughour, a key town that had been one of the government's last strongholds in Idlib province and considered strategically important because of its proximity to the Mediterranean coastal areas that form the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawite sect.

Also, the Islamic State group this week forced government troops out of the ancient city of Palmyra, putting its irreplaceable 2,000-year-old artifacts at risk of destruction.

Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the U.N. agency's chief Irina Bokova calls it 'the birthplace of human civilization.' If Islamic State fighters destroy its antiquities, she said it would be an 'enormous loss to humanity.'

The militants consider statues and other antiquities to be blasphemous. They received international condemnation earlier this year when they took bulldozers to historic ruins in the Iraqi city of Nimrud and smashed priceless idols in Mosul.

On Friday, the Britain-based Observatory said Islamic State fighters have killed 17 men in Palmyra and that it has unconfirmed reports of the killing of dozens more.

The Observatory and Homs-based activist Bebars al-Talawy told The Associated Press the Islamic State group's next target appears to be the Tayfour air base near Palmyra, where many of the Palmyra troops had retreated. They said Islamic State fighters are sending reinforcement to the air base area.

Nearly a week ago, the Islamic State group in Iraq also took control of Ramadi in Anbar province. The United Nations said Friday at least 55,000 people had fled Ramadi alone since mid-May.

Calls for Syria peace deal

French President Francois Hollande called Friday for a new international push for a peace deal in Syria, saying the fall of Palmyra to Islamic State showed President Bashar al-Assad was gravely weakened.

'Once again we call for the preparation of a new Geneva,' he said after an EU summit in Riga, referring to earlier conferences aimed at brokering a transition from Assad to Western-backed rebels who have also lost ground to Islamic State militants. He stressed a political solution over a military solution.

'With a regime that is clearly weakened, and with a Bashar al-Assad who cannot be the future of Syria, we must build a new Syria which can be rid, naturally, of the regime and Bashar al-Assad but also, above all, of the terrorists,' Hollande said, adding that Russia and the United States should be involved. 'We should do all we can so that a political solution can be worked on, prepared, in the coming weeks.'

With the latest Islamist victories, the Observatory said the Syrian government now controls less than half the country.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday the U.S. does not agree with the Syrian Observatory's assessment. She also defended the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, amid calls from some U.S. lawmakers to strengthen the effort.

Harf said U.S. strategy has 'taken out parts of their (Islamic State's) command and control. It's taken out their communications. It's taking out their majority funding source when it comes to taking out the oil. ... So we have a strategy that is choking off their funding, that is taking off their fighters ... cutting off ways for them to get more foreign fighters, that's taking them off the battlefield every single day.'

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said Thursday that the U.S. will deliver 2,000 anti-tank rockets next week to help Iraqi forces meet the threat of suicide car bombers.

Warren said the AT-4 rockets are portable, do not need much training to use and can destroy a speeding vehicle much more efficiently than small-arms fire.

Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.

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