TBLISI, Georgia- The U.S military opened a new phase in an expanding campaign against Islamic State militants, launching airstrikes on Sunni extremists threatening a major Iraqi dam, defense officials said Sunday. American aircraft hit Islamic State fighters near Haditha Dam a strategic site in the country’s Sunni Heartland northwest of Bagdad, according to rear Adm. John Kirby the pentagon press secretary.
Defense secretary Chuck Hagel said the strikes against fighter from Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, came at the request of the Iraqi government and were in line with the limited objectives of the current U.S. military mission in Iraq to protect infrastructure in the country. “If that dam was to fall into ISIL’s hands, or if the dam were to be destroyed, the damage that that would cause would be very significant,” Mr. Hagel said during a joint news conference in Tblisi with Georgia Defense minister Irakli Alasania.
The U.S. military strikes came as President Barack Obama and his national security team was working to create a global alliance to destroy Islamic State forces, who control vast tracts of territory in Iraq ans Syria. On Friday, France, Turkey, the U.K. and six other nations agreed to join the U.S. in a global war against the group, which is likely to stretch on for years. On Sunday, Georgia’s defense minister said his country would also help in the effort, possibly by training Iraqi forces.
The strikes brought the mon-thold U.S air war to the Sunni strongholds near Bagdad for the first time Sunni leaders in Anbar province have been asking the U.S. for help in fighting the insurgents. Until now, the U.S. strikes have largely focused on hitting the fighter in Northern Iraq.
The U.S military said the four strikes destroyed five Humvees , an armored vehicle and an Islamic State Checkpoint near the dam.
Since early August, the U.S. has conducted more than 135 strikes on the militants in Iraq. Some helped Kurdish and Iraqi military forces retake the country’s largest dam, while others prevented the militants from advancing on the Kurdish capital of Ebril and thwarted attempts by the group to target minority groups.
For now, American airstrikes remain confined by a narrow set of guidelines established by Mr. Obama. But the U.S. military continues to expand its targets in Iraq as it develops plans for a broader campaign against Islamic State Forces in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
In response to the U.S. airstrikes, the Islamic State has released two videos documenting the beheading of two American journalists held by the group in Syria. In the most recent video, released on Tuesday, the group threatened to kill a British hostage if the U.S. continued its air strike. The U.K. is expected to be a key member of the new alliance. The British military is already helping to supply Kurdish forces with weapons and ammunition. And British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is considering authorizing airstrikes targeting Islamic State forces in Iraq.
As part of the U.S. coalition-building campaign, Mr. Hagel also plans to meet with Turkish leader on Monday. Secretary of State John Kerry and Lisa Monaco, the top white House counterterrorism official, are joining the effort this week as well.
Mr. Obama is trying to develop a broad-based international strategy to neutralize the Islamic State threat by arming Kurdish and Arab forces, expanding airstrikes, choking off global financing for the extremists, and developing a campaign against thousands of foreign fighters in the organization’s ranks. For now, the effort is focused largely on the threat in Iraq. But Mr. Obama has said that the threat cannot be addressed without hitting the group’s strongholds inside Syria. He has asked the Pentagon to develop option for targeting Islamic State forces in Syria, but the U.S. military has yet to present new proposals, according to a white House official.
Mr. Obama authorized U.S. airstrike against Islamic State forces in early August after the group expanded its control in northern Iraq. At the time, the president said the strike were meant to protect Americans working in Iraq and prevent Islamic State forces from eradicating the Yazidi religious minority being targeted by the militants.
Since then, the U.S. has broadened its targets. Last month, U.S. airstrikes helped the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces retake the Mosul Dam. Last week, they helped break a two month siege that trapped thousands of Shiite Turkmen in the town of Amirli.
The U.S. has tried to limit its military presence in Iraq. Mr. Obama has said that he doesn’t plan to send U.S. forces back into combat in the country. But nearly 1,000 U.S. military personnel are there to provide security for Americans working in Iraq and help the nation’s military forces fight Islamic State forces.
Last week, Canada became the first nation to dispatch several dozen military advisers to help the U.S. in the new effort.