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(Operation Inherent Resolve)

Coalition strikes took out three Islamic State camp sites in Iraq’s Kirkuk province on Friday, while a jet “blasted” an ISIS cave in Nineveh province.

The “summer camp" in rural Kirkuk was located about 16 miles west of the city of Tuz Khurmatu in “densely vegetated austere terrain," the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement Saturday. Strike videos described them as ISIS mountain training areas.

Despite losing control of its last territory in Iraq more than two years ago, ISIS continues to wage an insurgency while hiding out in the mountains, deserts and other rural areas of the country.

While Iraqi security forces have “tactical overmatch against ISIS,” Army Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a coalition military spokesman, said in the statement that “airstrikes help destroy ISIS targets in terrain difficult to reach by standard vehicles."

An F-15E Eagle fighter jet carried out the strikes, which killed an estimated five ISIS fighters, Caggins told Stars and Stripes via text message. Iraqi forces were still conducting an assessment of the damage, he said.

Caggins also posted video of the strike in Nineveh province on Twitter, which he said killed four militants. Recent killing or capture of ISIS leaders has left “their lowly terrorists followers dazed & disillusioned,” Caggins tweeted.

Late last month, Syrian forces said that a coalition strike in Syria killed one of the top three leaders of ISIS, Mutaz Numan And Nayif Najm al-Jaburi, about a week after officials in Baghdad said they were holding senior ISIS member Abdul Nasser Qardash.

Friday’s strikes capped off a week in which the U.S. and Iraq began discussions about the future of American troops in the country, following Iraqi lawmakers’ call for a withdrawal of foreign forces in response to a U.S. drone strike in January that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian military’s elite Quds Force, on a visit to Baghdad.

But, in a video conference Thursday, U.S. Central Command boss Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said American forces will likely have a continued presence in the country to support its counterterrorism operations.

Meanwhile, a series of rocket attacks fell in areas near where U.S. personnel are based, continuing a trend of such attacks since last summer when the Trump Administration began a campaign of maximum pressure on Tehran. The Pentagon has blamed the strikes on Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq.

The rocket strikes were not fatal this week but in several past incidents similar attacks have killed Iraqi, U.S. and coalition personnel. The increased threat has complicated the U.S. mission, in which some 5,200 troops are in the country to train, advise and assist security forces battling ISIS.

As a result, the coalition sped up a plan to consolidate American forces from several small bases to a few larger ones, officials have said. The improved capabilities of Iraqi forces, plus “certain other factors” led to orders to “massively accelerate these plans,” which officials had initially planned to take until 2022, the coalition said in a statement last month.

In one case, U.S. soldiers had a little over two weeks to execute plans to hand over Al Taqaddum Air Base, where some 1,000 Marines were stationed, the statement said.

“What was planned to take two years … you did it in nine days,” Col. Matthew Brown, commander of 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, was quoted as saying during an awards ceremony for the soldiers last month at an airbase in Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdish region. “I believe what you accomplished at some point over the next year probably saved some U.S. lives."

This month, the Royal Danish Army and the Australian military ended their training operations in Iraq, and coalition officials have said Spain will hand pull its forces from the Besmaya Range Complex south of Baghdad by the end of the summer, as the coalition shifts to mentoring Iraqi instructors, rather than directly training them.

But the U.S.-led coalition continues its support of anti-ISIS operations in the region. Both Iraqi and Syrian partner forces carried out large-scale campaigns in which two-dozen operations led to the capture of 64 militants in the past two weeks, the coalition’s special operations task force said Friday in a Twitter post.

“The coalition and our partners will … maintain relentless pressure on the terrorist organization,” Inherent Resolve said in Saturday’s statement, adding that it was also working to disrupt terrorist propaganda, finance and human trafficking. Twitter: @chadgarland

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Chad is a Marine Corps veteran who covers the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. An Illinois native who’s reported for news outlets in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Oregon and California, he’s an alumnus of the Defense Language Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University.
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