Several Top ISIS Leaders Have Been Killed in Iraq, U.S. Says
Three Key Islamic State Figures Killed in Recent Weeks, Chairman of Joint Chiefs Says
By Julian E. Barnes
WASHINGTON—U.S. airstrikes have killed several very senior military leaders of Islamic State forces in Iraq, the Pentagon’s top uniformed officer disclosed Thursday.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that three key Islamic State military leaders in Iraq were killed there in recent weeks during operations that are part of an expanding coalition effort ahead of a planned offensive next year.
The strikes in which the Islamic State leaders were killed were designed to hamper the group’s ability to conduct its own attacks, supply its fighters and finance its operations, Gen. Dempsey said.
“It is disruptive to their planning and command and control,” Gen. Dempsey said. “These are high-value targets, senior leadership.”
Islamic State is also known as ISIS or ISIL and by its in Arabic label, Daesh.
Between Dec. 3 and Dec. 9, American military airstrikes killed Abd al Basit, the head of Islamic State’s military operations in Iraq, and Haji Mutazz, a key deputy to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group, officials said.
In late November, another strike killed a midlevel commander, Radwin Talib, Islamic State’s wali, or governor, in Mosul, Iraq, officials said.
Other defense officials said that in addition to the most recent strikes, the U.S. has killed a number of senior and midlevel Islamic State commanders, and believe those operations are beginning to significantly weaken the group’s leadership structure in Iraq.
Ahmed Ali, an analyst at the Institute of the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that closely monitors the developments, said the recent strikes were significant.
“These are big hits and eliminating these figures always temporarily disrupts the organization,” Mr. Ali said.
Mr. Ali described Mr. Mutazz, also known as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, as one of Mr. Baghdadi’s “closest and most senior aides.”
Mr. Basit, also known as Abd al-Basit Inad Allah Mulla Gaidh, was considered the group’s top military expert, Mr. Ali said.
He said Mr. Talib was also sometimes identified as Radwin Talib Hamdun.
Despite those losses, Mr. Ali said the Islamic State organization has shown an ability to replace fallen commanders and said that killing senior leaders “will not end the organization.”
“Hitting Baghdadi will represent a make-or-break moment for ISIS,” Mr. Ali said. “But for now, ISIS leadership bench and command structure are deep.”
Defense officials said they understand Islamic State will quickly move to replace the leaders, but believe nevertheless that killing top military commanders is a critical part of weakening Islamic State ahead of a planned Iraqi counteroffensive next year.
In the interview, Gen. Dempsey shed light on the U.S. view of Islamic State, which has seized large tracts of land across Iraq and Syria. U.S. and Iraqi forces are fighting Islamic State not as a nation-state, but as a network of militants, much as the U.S. faced during its last war in Iraq, he said.
“It is in the context of how to fight a network,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It is not a country. They have claimed it, but they are not. They are a network, so they have finances, they have logistics and they have leaders.”
The operations against top leaders come as the U.S. is increasing strikes around Sinjar, Iraq, in support of Kurdish forces, and is working to open a corridor between Dahuk, in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, and Mosul, the largest city controlled by Islamic State forces.
U.S. officials wouldn’t say precisely when the Iraqis intend to begin operations being planned for retaking Mosul. But the strikes by the U.S. are intended to help Iraqi forces isolate the city, cut off Islamic State’s supply lines and establish supply lines for Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
“All these operations are with an intent to isolate Mosul,” said a senior military official. “We are trying to set the conditions for the eventual operation in Mosul.”
At a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the U.S. mission in Iraq and Syria, said that while significant progress has been made in halting Islamic State’s offensive, it still will take a minimum of three years for Iraqi security forces to fully establish their capabilities.
Gen. Terry said the U.S. had conducted 1,361 airstrikes as of Thursday, many in support of Iraqi operations
“Combined efforts like these are having a significant effect on Daesh’s ability to command and control, to resupply and to conduct maneuvering,” he said. “We will continue to be persistent in this regard and we will strike Daesh at every possible opportunity.”