Obama says US troop increase in Iraq signals 'new phase'
US President Barack Obama said Sunday that deploying additional troops to Iraq signals a "new phase" in the fight against the Islamic State group, as Baghdad investigated whether strikes killed the jihadists' leader.
After earlier unveiling plans to send up to 1,500 more US troops to Iraq to advise and train the country's forces, Obama told CBS News on Sunday the US-led effort to defeat IS was moving to a new stage.
"Phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible -- and we now have done that," Obama told CBS News on Sunday.
"Rather than just try to halt (IS's) momentum, we're now in a position to start going on some offence," the president added, stressing the need for Iraqi ground troops to start pushing back IS fighters.
"We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offence against (IS)," Obama said.
"But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.
"Going on the offensive will be a signficant challenge for Iraq's forces, which saw multiple divisions fall apart in the early days of the jihadist offensive, leaving major units that need to be reconstituted.
The additional troops announced by Obama would roughly double the number of American military personnel in the country to about 3,100, marking a significant return of US forces to Iraq by a president who has hailed his role in their 2011 departure.
- IS chief's fate unclear -A US-led coalition has already been carrying out air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq, where the extremist group has declared an Islamic "caliphate" in large areas of the two countries under its control.
Some of those strikes targeted a gathering of IS leaders near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul late on Friday, the Pentagon said, and Iraqi authorities were seeking to determine if the group's chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official said there was no "accurate information" on whether Baghdadi was dead but that authorities were investigating.
"The information is from unofficial sources and was not confirmed until now, and we are working on that," the official said.
The death of the elusive IS leader would be a major victory for the US-led coalition but officials said it could take time to confirm who had been hit in the strikes.
"I can't absolutely confirm that Baghdadi has been killed," General Nicholas Houghton, the chief of staff of the British armed forces, told BBC television on Sunday.
"Probably it will take some days to have absolute confirmation," he said.
A spokesman for US Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East, also could not confirm if Baghdadi was present at the time of the raid, which he said had intentionally targeted the group's leadership.
The strikes were a further sign of "the pressure we continue to place on the (IS) terrorist network," spokesman Patrick Ryder said.
The aim was to squeeze the group and ensure it had "increasingly limited freedom to manoeuvre, communicate and command".
- Kobane battle kills 1,000 -Highlighting the enormous security challenges Iraq faces, a wave of car bombs struck Shiite-majority areas of Baghdad on Saturday, killing at least 37 people.
IS meanwhile said that a British national had carried out a suicide bombing that killed a senior Iraqi police officer.
The group said in a statement posted online that "Abu Sumayyah al-Britani" detonated a truck carrying eight tonnes of explosives on the outskirts of the northern town of Baiji, killing Major General Faisal al-Zamili.
The attack on Friday came during fighting to capture Baiji, which has been the scene of heavy clashes as pro-government forces seek to fully retake the town.
A senior officer said Friday that government forces now hold "more than 70 percent" of the town, which is near where Iraqi soldiers have been holding out for months against a jihadist siege of Iraq's largest oil refinery.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, meanwhile said Sunday that fighting for the town of Kobane in neighbouring Syria had now killed more than 1,000 people, most of them jihadists.
© 2014 AFP