US expands air campaign against militants to Sunni areas in Iraq

BAGHDAD: US warplanes carried out four strikes on Islamic State (IS) militants menacing Iraq’s Haditha Dam on Sunday, witnesses and officials said, widening what President Barack Obama called a campaign to curb and ultimately defeat the group.

Mr Obama has termed IS, formerly known as ISIS, an acute threat to the West as well as the Middle East and said that key Nato allies stand ready to back Washington in action against the well-armed sectarian force, which has seized expanses of northern Iraq and eastern Syria and declared a border-blurring ‘caliphate’.

The leader of a pro-Iraqi government paramilitary force in western Iraq said the air strikes wiped out an IS patrol trying to attack the dam — Iraq’s second biggest hydroelectric facility that also provides millions with water.

“They (the air strikes) were very accurate. There was no collateral damage … If Islamic State had gained control of the dam, many areas of Iraq would have been seriously threatened, even Baghdad,” Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha said.

The aerial assault drove IS fighters away from the dam, according to a police intelligence officer in the vast western province of Anbar, a hotbed of Islamist militancy.

A mix of fighter and bomber aircraft destroyed five IS Humvees, one armed vehicle, a checkpoint and also damaged an IS bunker, the US military added in a statement.

The strikes were Washington’s first reported offensive into Anbar since it started attacks on IS forces in the north of Iraq in August.

Almost three years after US troops withdrew from Iraq and 11 years after their invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, the war on IS is drawing Washington back into the middle of Iraq’s power struggles and bloody sectarian strife.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the strikes on the Sunni insurgents had been carried out at the request of the central government in Baghdad.

“If that dam would fall into (IS) hands or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that that would cause would be very significant and it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq,” Mr Hagel told reporters during a trip to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.

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