US urges more anti-ISIS efforts

Ash Carter (AP)
Ash Carter (AP)

Baghdad - Washington called on Wednesday for allies to intensify efforts against the Islamic State group and expressed willingness to support Iraqi forces with attack helicopters as they battle the jihadists in Ramadi.

Baghdad's forces have been fighting for months to close in around Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and took a large part of the key city on Tuesday.

But as Iraqi forces cemented their hold on the newly-recaptured Al-Tameem area, an ISIS suicide bomber killed at least eight people in Baghdad, illustrating the danger posed by the jihadists even far from the front lines.

"The international community - including our allies and partners - has to step up before another attack like Paris," US defence chief Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, referring to a militant assault with guns and bombs that killed 130 people.

Carter outlined increased US military efforts against ISIS and said Washington is willing to use attack helicopters to provide air support for Iraqi forces in Ramadi.

"The United States is prepared to assist the Iraqi army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers," Carter said.

This would be done "if circumstances dictate and if requested by Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi," he said.

Backed by sustained air strikes from the US-led coalition, elite troops recaptured Ramadi's southwestern area of Al-Tameem on Tuesday.

Clearing bombs, solidifying control

The advance was hailed as a significant step in efforts to retake Ramadi, a key ISIS hub 100km west of Baghdad, and fragment the jihadists' self-proclaimed "caliphate".

As the counter-terrorism forces that led the offensive prepared their next move, local forces from Anbar province moved in to hold recaptured territory.

Local police "moved from Habbaniyah to hold the land in Al-Tameem following its liberation", a local councillor in the nearby Khaldiyah area, Ali Dawood, told AFP.

The force consists of around 500 fighters, a military source said.

One of the main tasks for Iraqi forces now is to clear the area of bombs planted by ISIS, a favoured tactic of the jihadists that means they can kill security personnel and civilians long after they have withdrawn from an area.

Iraqi forces spent months cutting off ISIS supply lines around Ramadi and slowly closing in on the city by taking suburban areas one after the other.

"The liberation of Al-Tameem was very important and... enables other forces to advance toward the centre of the city of Ramadi," said Sabah al-Noman, the spokesperson for Iraq's counter-terrorism forces.

He and other military sources said Iraqi forces had also retaken the Anbar Operations Command headquarters, which lies at a fork of the Euphrates River on the northern side of the city.

Speaking in Baghdad, Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama's envoy to the international anti-ISIS coalition, said the presence of civilians in Ramadi will require a cautious approach as the operation moves forward.

Concern over civilians

"There are still civilians inside Ramadi - Daesh is not allowing any civilians to leave," he told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"They're holding civilians as hostages, and as human shields, and so we want to do this in a very careful and deliberate way," he said.

An Iraqi brigadier general involved in the Ramadi operation said civilians who are able to move are being urged to head to Humayrah, a staging ground controlled by Iraqi forces on the southern edge of Ramadi.

But he admitted that it was difficult for those residents still inside the city to leave.

ISIS overran large parts of Iraq in June 2014, including major territory in Anbar, which stretches from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad.

Shifting parts of Ramadi had been held by anti-government fighters since the beginning of 2014, but ISIS did not succeed in completely overrunning it until May of this year.

There was no immediate reaction to the developments in Ramadi from ISIS, but the group claimed a suicide attack that killed eight people in the capital Baghdad on Wednesday.

The blast near a Shi'ite mosque in the eastern Obeidi area also wounded at least 19 people, security and medical officials said.

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