US soldiers engage ISIL in first Iraq combat since 2011
BAGHDAD // US soldiers clashed with ISIL militants on Saturday, helping the Iraqi army to repel attacks on the town of Al Baghdadi in western Anbar province.
The US troops were from Al Assad military base, the biggest in Anbar, Iraqi police first lieutenant Muneer Al Qoud said.
A US central command spokesman said the US was aware of the reports from Al Jazeera TV and was looking into them.
If confirmed, the clashes would mark the first time that US ground forces have engaged ISIL militants since President Barack Obama authorised air strikes on the group in August. A ground conflict would mark a policy shift for Mr Obama, who made pulling the US out of Iraq the centrepiece of his first presidential campaign and oversaw the withdrawal of combat forces from the country in 2011.
US troops are protecting American facilities in the country, and assisting the Iraqi military in Baghdad and Kurdish fighters in Erbil in the north. Mr Obama has authorised more than 3,000 US troops to be sent to Iraq to help national units fighting ISIL and to conduct training at several sites around the country.
ISIL captured almost a third of Iraq and Syria earlier this year, and continues to hold much of northern Iraq after ousting government forces from the city of Mosul in June.
The Pentagon hailed the deaths of several top leaders of the group on Friday, but experts say this is far from enough to cripple what has proven to be a resilient organisation.
“Eliminating key leaders is a means to disrupt plots and degrade capabilities. But they do not defeat or destroy terrorist organisations,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA agent and adviser to Mr Obama who is now a leading terrorism expert.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq lost its top leadership twice but still thrived sufficiently to give birth to the Islamic State,” he added, referring to the group by its self-declared name.
The command structure of ISIL remains largely a mystery to American intelligence services, with its members proving masters at disguising themselves through a multitude of false identities, nicknames and noms de guerre.
Also on Saturday, the US government said it had approved the sale of 175 Abrams tanks to Iraq in a deal worth an estimated US$2.4 billion (Dh8.8bn).
A government statement said the tanks will help Iraq “quickly mobilise and defend its border” and demonstrate US commitment to the country’s self-defence.
The deal includes equipment, parts and logistical support, and will take up to five years to complete.
* Bloomberg, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse
Updated: December 21, 2014 04:00 AM