Iraqi ground offensive against ISIL ‘within weeks’

Iraqi forces are preparing to take back ground from ISIL in the weeks to come, said the US coordinator for the international coalition against ISIL.

FILE – Lt Gen John Allen, who is currently the US coordinator for coalition attacks against ISIS, said Iraqi forces are preparing for a major offensive against the extremists. Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
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BAGHDAD // A top US envoy said Iraqi troops would launch a major ground offensive against ISIL in the coming weeks, as a suicide bomber killed at least 14 people in Baghdad on Monday.

The extremist group spearheaded an offensive that swept through large areas north and west of Baghdad last June, and Iraqi forces are battling to regain ground with support from US-led air strikes.

John Allen, the US coordinator for the anti-ISIL coalition of Western and Arab countries, said on Sunday that Iraqi troops would begin a major offensive “in the weeks ahead”.

“When the Iraqi forces begin the ground campaign to take back Iraq, the coalition will provide major firepower associated with that,” he told Jordan’s official Petra news agency.

Iraqi forces have already carried out operations near Baghdad and in the provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin, north of the capital.

ISIL-led militants were stopped short of Baghdad in June and have since been pushed back, but still carry out deadly attacks.

On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite-majority area of north Baghdad, killing at least 14 people and wounding at least 43, officials said.

The bomber struck near pavement vendors in Kadhimiyah district’s crowded Aden Square.

It was the second suicide bombing to hit the capital in three days. On Saturday, an attack inside a restaurant in the Baghdad Jadida area killed at least 23 people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday’s attack, but suicide bombings are almost exclusively carried out by Sunni extremists in Iraq, including ISIL.

Jordanian air force chief Major General Mansour Al Jobour said on Sunday that the kingdom had launched 56 strikes against the extremists since Thursday as part of the US-led air campaign.

Jordan had vowed an “earth-shattering” response after ISIL captured one of its pilots and released gruesome video of him apparently being burned alive.

“On the first day of the campaign to avenge our airman Maaz Al Kassasbeh, 19 targets were destroyed, including training camps and equipment,” Gen Al Jobour said.

US secretary of state John Kerry said the air campaign, launched in Iraq in August and expanded to Syria the following month, was helping ground forces win back territory and depriving ISIL of key funds.

There have been 2,000 air strikes on ISIL so far, Mr Kerry told a global security conference in the German city of Munich.

These had helped ground forces retake some 700 square kilometres of territory from the militants, or “one-fifth of the area they had in their control”, he said.

Mr Kerry did not specify whether the recaptured territory was in Iraq or Syria.

But he added that the coalition had “deprived the militants of the use of 200 oil and gas facilities ... disrupted their command structure ... squeezed its finance and dispersed its personnel”.

Coalition warplanes launched three air strikes against ISIL in Syria in the 24 hours before 6am on Monday, the Pentagon said, with another six being launched in Iraq.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said on Monday that foreign troops would not be allowed on the ground in Syria to battle ISIL, adding that Jordan had not responded to a Damascus request to coordinate efforts against the extremists.

Also Monday, at least 15 people were killed and dozens wounded in government air strikes on an area outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

There were no immediate details on the breakdown of those killed in the strikes, which are the latest to hit the town of Douma in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta.

The opposition bastion, east of Damascus, was still reeling from a massive government aerial assault on Thursday that came after rebels fired more than 120 rockets and mortar rounds into the capital.

The rebel barrage killed 10 people in Damascus, including a child, while the government air strikes and surface-to-surface missiles fired at Eastern Ghouta killed at least 82 people, among them 18 children.

Eastern Ghouta has been under government siege for nearly two years as the army tries to break the rebel hold over the area.

The siege has created medical and food shortages, exacerbating dire humanitarian needs created by regular government bombardment of the area.

* Agence France-Presse