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US airstrikes against Islamic State grow more lethal in Iraq

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, and Stephanie Carter talk after the secretary's arrival at Baghdad International Airport in December 2015. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria have killed more than 6,400 Islamic State fighters in the past three months, and MacFarland said defections in Islamic State's ranks appear to be increasing.

Chris Church/Stars and Stripes

By Jim Michaels | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 21, 2016

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria have killed more than 6,400 Islamic State fighters in the past three months, and the militant group is showing the effect of the losses, according to coalition military statistics.

Casualty counts have not been a reliable measure of success against the Islamic State in the past because it replaced fallen fighters with new recruits. But as offensives by Iraqi troops reclaim territory from the radical group, the Islamic State is losing its ability to conscript fighters from areas it had controlled, which had been the major source of new troops.

U.S. commanders say the combination of airstrikes and Iraqi ground offensives has weakened the terror group in Iraq and Syria and hurt its morale.

"We are noticing they are not quite the same skill level that they once were," Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top coalition commander, said in an interview. "Maybe they're having trouble replacing quality with quality."

Defections appear to be increasing, and the group's ability to mount offensives has waned, MacFarland said. "We take that as a positive indicator that we're starting to hit them where it hurts."

The casualty statistics suggest that the air campaign has become more lethal as U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces have grown more aggressive, and coordination with coalition teams conducting the airstrikes has improved.

The statistics show that the airstrikes have killed nearly 500 fighters a week on average over the past three months. More than 25,000 fighters have been killed by coalition airstrikes since the bombing campaign began nearly 18 months ago, soon after the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, seized large portions of Iraq.

The U.S. military estimates that the extremist group has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria but acknowledges that the numbers are rough.

Ground operations have forced militants into the open as they try to defend their positions, making them vulnerable to air attack. "They're flushing them out," MacFarland said.

Iraq's military recently captured the city of Ramadi after a six-month-long siege. In a single week in late December, during the final assault on Ramadi, airstrikes killed 1,036 fighters, the statistics show.
In addition to Ramadi, Iraqi forces have seized ground from the Islamic State in Beiji, an oil-refining region north of Baghdad, and Sinjar in northern Iraq.

The statistics do not include enemy fighters killed by Iraqi ground forces or U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting the militants in war-torn Syria, where the Islamic State is headquartered. The death counts are estimated primarily from air surveillance.

Michael Knights, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said estimates of enemy casualties are more accurate than in previous conflicts because surveillance aircraft can closely monitor targets after strikes.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has criticized the military's air campaign, saying pilots are less effective in hitting targets because U.S. air controllers who call in airstrikes are barred from operating on the ground.

McCain, who said aircraft often return to their bases without dropping bombs, wants to deploy American air-control teams with Iraqi forces to make the air campaign more effective. President Barack Obama opposes that move to prevent a U.S. return to ground combat, which he ended in 2011.

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