Islamic State ‘caliphate’ is fast shrinking, with Iraqi territory almost halved, says Pentagon
The Islamic State group is fast losing control over much of its so-called “caliphate”, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday, including almost half of what it had once held in Iraq.
The Defence Department had previously estimated that IS fighters had lost control of about 40 per cent of the territory they claimed in Iraq and about 10 per cent of the land they held in Syria.
Those tallies had gone up in recent weeks, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
“The number right now in Iraq is about 45 per cent of the territory they once held has been recovered,” Cook said. “The number in Syria is anywhere between 16 to 20 per cent.”
IS jihadists stormed across large parts of Iraq and Syria in early 2014, meeting little resistance from Iraqi security forces and exploiting the chaos in civil-war-torn Syria.
But the militant movement has not gained significant ground since it took the Iraqi city of Ramadi a year ago. It then lost Ramadi in December, as the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has been helped by better intelligence and better equipped local forces, senior US official Brett McGurk said on Sunday.
Islamic State “is shrinking so they are very much on the defensive,” McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy in the fight against Islamic State, told a news conference in Amman.
Since August 2014, the United States has led an international coalition fighting back against the IS group, using a combination of air strikes and training and outfitting local partners.
In addition to Ramadi, IS fighters have lost control of Heet in Iraq, but still control other important cities including Mosul and Fallujah. In Syria, the group maintains control of Raqa, the capital of their so-called caliphate.
The group is also still proving a potent threat abroad, claiming credit for major attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.
McGurk said that US-led coalition effort to capture Mosul and Raqa was making progress.
“We are doing precision strikes in Mosul almost every day,” he added. “There is constant synchronised pressure,” he said.
McGurk cited a recent operation in which the coalition located and targeted Islamic State’s cash stores in Mosul and “took out hundreds of millions of dollars out of their coffers.”
This triggered a cash crunch that forced the militants to cut the pay of their fighters by half. He did not say when the operation took place.
Islamic militants’ nervousness was evidenced by the recent public executions in the city’s main square and a widespread clamp down on internet services in Mosul, McGurk said.
In Raqa, McGurk said valuable intelligence gathered from a major trove of data and information obtained by US special forces in a raid in eastern Syria last year allowed the coalition to better target militants.
“We will be beginning over the coming weeks and months a pressure campaign on Raqa in all its aspects,” said McGurk.
President Obama’s decision last month to raise the number of special forces in northern Syria which was the biggest expansion of US ground troops since its civil war began, would help accelerate recent gains by US-backed local forces, McGurk said.
He cited the militants’ loss of the strategic town of Shadadi in northeast Syria in February to the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces formed from Kurdish and Arab forces.
“We don’t want US forces cleaning these cities... We believe a sustainable model is for local people to take back their territories and homes and it’s took some time to organise local forces to do that. You can see we are starting to have some real momentum now,” he added.