BAQIRTA Iraq/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After their lightning takeover in June, flag-waving Islamic State militants paraded through the captured Iraqi city of Mosul in looted U.S.-built Humvees, armored cars and pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns.
Today, many have ditched military-type vehicles that could make them easy targets of U.S. air strikes, and try to blend in with residents, say witnesses. While still terrifying, they are now a far more discreet force.
A Reuters examination of three weeks of U.S. air strikes reveals significant changes in the way the Islamic State operates since the U.S. joined the struggle against them, with fewer militants on the streets of Mosul the clearest sign. It is unclear how the Islamic State’s tactics will further change as a result of the reclaiming of the strategic Mosul Dam by Iraqi government and Kurdish forces or Sunday’s dramatic retaking of Amerli, where thousands had been cut off from food and water, but clearly battlefield strategies are involving on both sides.
The way the Islamic State is adapting shows the scale of problems ahead for President Barack Obama, the Pentagon and U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as they struggle to reclaim ground from the Sunni militants, who have seized a third of both Iraq and Syria, and want to establish a jihadist hub in the heart of the Arab world.
After forging working arrangements with other armed Sunni groups and tribes angry at the Shi’ite Islamist-dominated central government in Baghdad, the Islamic State is now the most powerful force in parts of northern and western Iraq, with its ranks ranging from 8,000 to 20,000 fighters, according to Iraqi government estimates.
Large areas are under control of the radical offshoot of al Qaeda, and will be difficult to wrest away from them if Iraq’s Shi’ite political leaders fail to appease disgruntled Sunnis, many of whom have embraced Islamic State after what they describe as years of discrimination and persecution.
Ousting the jihadists altogether will likely require a two-pronged approach, including ground combat in Iraq carried out by Iraqi security forces, Sunni tribesmen and ethnic Kurdish peshmerga fighters, perhaps with guidance by U.S. Special Operations Forces and American advisers, say Iraqi security officials and experts.
Defeating them would almost certainly require air strikes on Islamic State strongholds in neighboring Syria that could be risky, including the possibility of high civilian casualties given patchy American intelligence on the ground.
“To retake areas requires more than airstrikes. It requires specially trained fighters and the support of the population in these areas,” said Ali Al-Haidari, an Iraqi security expert and former officer in the Iraqi military.
Washington needs to decide whether it wants to halt and contain Islamic State or wipe it out entirely, said Hayat Alvi, professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.”If they really want to destroy the Islamic State and stop them being a threat, they are going to have to get a lot more committed,”
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