Sep 24, 2014 11:44 AM

US strikes IS group in Syria, Iraq

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) U.S. warplanes bombed Islamic State militant positions on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border on Wednesday as hard-line Syrian rebels who have been battling the extremist group sought cover, fearing a wider aerial campaign against all fighters seen as a potential threat to the United States.

The airstrikes come a day after the U.S. and five Arab allies opened their military operation against the Islamic State group in Syria with more than 200 strikes on some two dozen targets. That campaign, which President Barack Obama has warned could last years, expands upon the aerial assault the U.S. has already been waging for more than a month against the extremists in Iraq.

"There's definitely a second day and there'll be a third and a fourth" in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN in an interview on Wednesday. "This will go on for some time in several forms."

Along with its Arab partners, the Obama administration aims to destroy the Islamic State group, the extremist faction that has through brute force carved out a proto-state in the heart of the Middle East, effectively erasing the border between Iraq and Syria. The United Nations has accused the group of committing war crimes.

The latest U.S. strikes, conducted by bombers and fighter jets, damaged eight Islamic State vehicles in Syria near the Iraqi border town of Qaim, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement. It also reported hitting two Islamic State armed vehicles west of Baghdad, as well as two militant fighting positions in northern Iraq.

In a separate statement, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the strikes in eastern Syria hit a staging area used by the militants to move equipment across the border into Iraq.

He did not specify exactly where the air raids took place, but the Iraqi town of Qaim is across the border from the Syrian town of Boukamal, where Syrian activists reported at least 13 airstrikes on suspected Islamic State positions on Wednesday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was not immediately clear who carried out the airstrikes in and around Boukamal, but it cited locals as saying the intensity of the air raids was similar to that of strikes on the town early Tuesday by the U.S.-led coalition.

In the opening salvo of the campaign, the U.S. on its own also hit al-Qaida's Syria branch, known as the Nusra Front. American officials said the strikes targeted the so-called Khorasan Group, which the U.S. says consists of hardened jihadis who pose a direct and imminent threat to the United States.

On Wednesday, the Nusra Front said it was evacuating its compounds near civilian areas in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. The announcement, made on a Facebook page associated with the group's Idlib operations, follows a U.S. airstrike on a Nusra Front base in the village of Kfar Derian that killed around a dozen fighters and 10 civilians, according to two activists.

Another Syrian rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, was also clearing out of its bases, weapons workshops and offices, according to the Observatory. It said the group issued a statement calling for fighters to limit the use of wireless communication devices to emergencies, to move heavy weapons and conceal them, and to warn civilians to stay away from the group's camps.

An activist in Idlib who goes by the name of Mohammed confirmed that Ahrar al-Sham was evacuating its bases throughout the northern area. He said he was not aware of any strikes against the group, but said the fighters thought they would be targeted by the coalition because of their ultraconservative Islamic beliefs.

Ahrar al-Sham has been among the steadiest and most effective forces fighting to oust President Bashar Assad in Syria's civil war. It has also been on the front lines of a nine-month battle in northern Syria against the Islamic State group. But the U.S. has long looked askance at Ahrar al-Sham, considering the group too radical and too cozy with the Nusra Front.

The U.S.-led campaign in Syria has drawn a mixed response from the country's multitude of rebel brigades, many of whom cooperate with the Nusra Front and have been locked in a deadly fight with Islamic State militants since January. But the rebels' ultimate goal is to topple Assad, while the U.S. is focused on defeating the Islamic State group.

On Wednesday, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group criticized the American-led airstrikes for being limited to the Islamic State group and other extremists while leaving Assad's government untouched.

"We regret that the international community has come up with partial solutions to the Syrian conflict in which hundreds of thousands were killed or detained by the Assad regime," said Nasr al-Hariri, secretary general of the Syrian National Coalition.

In a statement, al-Hariri also said that any effort other than helping Syrians overthrow Assad will only fuel extremism.

Despite the start of the coalition campaign, Islamic State fighters have pressed their offensive against Syrian Kurdish militiamen around the town of Ayn Arab, known to Kurds as Kobani, near the Turkish border.

A Kurdish militant fighting to protect the city said Islamic State militants were within one kilometer or about a half mile from the outskirts on Wednesday.

The fighting in villages near Kobani could be seen from hilltops in Turkey. Kurds from Turkey and Syria cheered on the fighters from one hilltop, while the fighters signaled back with mortar fire.

Halil Aslan, a 48 year-old local villager in Turkey, recounted seeing Islamic State tanks roll into a village on the Syrian side.

"They shelled the place with tanks and mortars," he said. "We could hear them falling on those hills."

A video posted online shows what appear to be Islamic State fighters toting assault rifles and fanning out across a dusty field in the Kobani area. A later clip shows a field cannon firing a shell toward a town located across a rolling expanse of brown fields, followed by a puff of smoke in the distance.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.


Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Desmond Butler in Urfa, Turkey, contributed to this report.


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