By Michael Evans and Sara Elizabeth Williams
American military chiefs are pushing for an expanded airstrike campaign against Isis militants in Iraq, picking off targets as the fighters move back and forth across the border with Syria.
US Central Command, which is running the bombing raids in northern Iraq, is at present restricted to hitting Isis when its fighters are threatening US military or civilian personnel, directly or indirectly, or Iraq’s critical infrastructure, or when its attacks are adding to the humanitarian crisis.
However, military planners at Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida, and headed by General Lloyd Austin, a veteran Iraq commander, are eager to exploit the perceived success of the strikes so far by hunting down Isis fighters wherever they are.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, said last night that Isis posed one of the biggest terror threats the world had ever seen, and warned that defeating the group would be a long-term mission. “They are beyond just a terror group. This is beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” Mr Hagel said.
Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that there was an immediate threat from the risk of jihadists from Europe returning to their home nations with plans of attack on their own soil. “They can go home at any point,” General Dempsey said.
He added that to defeat the group it was not enough merely to target militants in Iraq, and that Syria would have to feature in the broader strategy. Mr Hagel pointedly refused to rule out US action in Syria, saying that the administration was “exploring all options”.
“This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end of days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” General Dempsey said. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria? The answer is no.”
Central Command is understood to have sent recommendations to the Pentagon and the White House, and fighters fleeing towards the Syrian border are seen as “rich pickings”.
“Hunt while the hunting’s good, but under the authorisation criteria set by President Obama these type of attacks are currently forbidden,” one defence official told The Wall Street Journal.
After the murder of James Foley, the American journalist held captive by Isis for two years, Mr Obama is under pressure to give the military greater flexibility to target Isis. US defence officials suggest that airstrikes have had an impact on the morale of Isis fighters.
Iraqi military commanders have even claimed that leading Isis figures have moved out of Iraq and crossed back into eastern Syria, where the group has operational base camps in Raqqa and Deir el-Zour. These provide a relatively safe haven for Isis, away from the threat of US aerial strikes, although there have been recent attacks by Syrian government aircraft.
The Pentagon says that there is no evidence that Isis commanders have abandoned Iraq. In its estimation, the group continues to cement its territorial gains in the north and west of Iraq, although an official said that while the militants remained potent “they’re not 10ft tall... and they’re not invincible, either”.
There have been 89 US airstrikes in Iraq since August 8, 51 of which were in support of Kurdish and Iraqi forces during the operation at the Mosul dam. The problem for the US is that there are no American ground-based forward air controllers, directing airstrikes using laser-guided target-markers.
When talking of the attacks on Isis around the Mosul dam, Iraqi commanders had claimed that American personnel had been involved on the ground in liaising with the pilots of US fighter jets. This was firmly denied by the Pentagon.
Senior Kurdish officials said yesterday that French and US special forces had begun training hundreds of peshmerga fighters in the use of heavy weapons. Forty had completed a first week of training. The course includes training on heavy machineguns and Milan anti-tank weapons.
Britain has been flying supplies of arms to Kurdistan for the past two weeks. Peshmerga forces have largely been outgunned by Isis militants armed with American-made armoured vehicles looted from the Iraqi army.
A peshmerga colonel based on a front line near Kirkuk said that western weapons, including sniper rifles and small arms, had arrived in his sector and were awaiting distribution.
He said a shipment of heavy weapons was being held under maximum security. He thought these were guided anti-tank systems. “There’s going to be a special western team to train peshmerga in how to use them,” he said.
“The Milans are the most significant part because the peshmerga struggled with the captured US armour,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.