BAGHDAD: US President Barack Obama said on Sunday that deploying additional troops to Iraq signalled a “new phase” in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, as Baghdad investigated whether strikes had killed the militants’ leader.
After earlier unveiling plans to send up to 1,500 more US troops to Iraq to advise and train the country’s forces, Mr Obama told CBS News the US-led effort to defeat IS was moving to a new stage.
“Phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible — and we now have done that,” he told CBS News on Sunday.
Monitoring group says fighting for Kobane has left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them militants
“Rather than just try to halt (IS’s) momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offence,” the president added, stressing the need for Iraqi ground troops to start pushing back IS fighters.
“We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offence against (IS),” Mr Obama said.
“But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.”
Going on the offensive will be a significant challenge for Iraq’s forces, which saw multiple divisions fall apart in the early days of the militant offensive, leaving major units that need to be reconstituted.
The additional troops announced by Mr Obama would roughly double the number of American military personnel in the country to about 3,100, marking a significant return of US forces to Iraq by a president who has hailed his role in their 2011 departure.
A US-led coalition has already been carrying out air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq, where the extremist group has declared a “caliphate” in large areas of the two countries under its control.
Some of those strikes targeted a gathering of IS leaders near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul late on Friday, the Pentagon said, and Iraqi authorities were seeking to determine if the group’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official said there was no “accurate information” on whether Baghdadi was dead but that authorities were investigating.
“The information is from unofficial sources and was not confirmed until now, and we are working on that,” the official said.
The death of the elusive IS leader would be a major victory for the US-led coalition but officials said it could take time to confirm who had been hit in the strikes.
“I can’t absolutely confirm that Baghdadi has been killed,” General Nicholas Houghton, the chief of staff of the British armed forces, told BBC television.
“Probably it will take some days to have absolute confirmation,” he said.
IS, meanwhile, said a British national had carried out a suicide bombing that killed a senior Iraqi police officer.
The group said in a statement posted online that “Abu Sumayyah al-Britani” detonated a truck carrying eight tonnes of explosives on the outskirts of the northern town of Baiji, killing Major General Faisal al-Zamili.
The attack on Friday came during fighting to capture Baiji, which has been the scene of heavy clashes as pro- government forces seek to fully retake the town.
A senior officer said that government forces held “more than 70 per cent” of the town, which is near where Iraqi soldiers have been holding out for months against a militant siege of Iraq’s largest oil refinery.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Sunday that fighting for the town of Kobane in neighbouring Syria had now killed more than 1,000 people, most of them militants.