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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford speak to reporters about counter-Islamic State operations, March 25, 2016 at the Pentagon.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford speak to reporters about counter-Islamic State operations, March 25, 2016 at the Pentagon. (Tim D. Godbee/DOD)

WASHINGTON — The United States killed the Islamic State’s second highest-ranking leader, one of several key figures in the terrorist group that the military eliminated this week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Friday.

Carter made the announcement during a news conference with Gen. Joseph Dunford, in which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the Pentagon also is preparing military options in Iraq for the White House to consider that could increase the number of U.S. forces there.

The Islamic State leader killed -- Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, known as Haji Imam -- was one of four top officials for the group that the U.S. State Department had designated as a “specially designated global terrorist” and offered up to $7 million in rewards for information on his whereabouts.

The Syria-based terrorist had joined the Islamic State in 2012 after his release from prison in Iraq. He was previously a top deputy of al-Qaida in Iraq, and was serving as the Islamic State’s finance minister, Carter said.

The strike was part of the U.S. and coalition effort to eliminate the Islamic State’s ability to fund terror operations and pay its fighters. In a breakfast with reporters Thursday, the deputy of Air Force operations, Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond said airstrikes against Islamic State cash distribution sites since last year have destroyed more than $500 million of the terrorist group’s cash.

“Now we’ve taken out the leader who oversees all the funding for [the Islamic State] operation, hurting their ability to pay fighters,” Carter said Friday. Haji Imam was “an [Islamic State] senior leader, serving as a finance minister and who is also responsible for some external affairs and plots.”

However, Carter would not say Friday where or how Haji Imam was killed.

More so, the successful strike against the Islamic State’s second-in-command comes as the Pentagon prepares proposals for President Barack Obama on an expanded role for the United States in Iraq, after a deadly week in which members of the terrorist group killed more than 30 people in Belgium.

Carter said the death of Haji Imam was an important step in taking down the Islamic State, but “it's far from sufficient.”

Dunford said he expects more ground forces in Iraq will be part of additional pressure the United States puts on the terrorist group.

There are at least 3,870 U.S. forces in Iraq now, though various news outlets have reported this week that it could be as many as 5,000.

“We have a series of recommendations that we will be discussing with the president in the coming weeks to further enable our support for the Iraqi security forces,” Dunford said. “So again, the secretary and I both believe that there will be an increase to the U.S. forces in Iraq in the coming weeks.”

Increased U.S. forces would be deployed in support of the upcoming battle for Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, Dunford said. Since the city’s capture by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014, Mosul has been used as its de-facto capital in that country.

“It is going to be decided in the context of the broader issue that the secretary will bring to the president again, focused on …what specifically do we need to do to enable operations in Mosul,” Dunford said.

On Monday, the Pentagon revealed the Marines from Task Force Spartan, from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, had established the independent firing post, Fire Base Bell, outside of the northern Iraqi training base at Makhmour because the base came under fire from Islamic State militants almost immediately after the Marines arrived there.

Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed and eight other Marines were wounded when the base was targeted last Saturday by two Katuysha rockets. The base was attacked again Monday by a squad-sized group of Islamic State fighters who attacked with small arms fire. No Marines were injured in that second attack and two Islamic State fighters were killed. On Thursday, the Marines provided artillery fire from four 155mm M777A2 Howitzers in support of Iraqi forces who began the battle for Mosul by attacking some small villages on the outskirts of the city.

Dunford said Friday that the Marines were providing support to the Iraqi offensive, not maintaining a defensive role as previously described. But he also said it did not signify a change of mission for U.S. ground forces in Iraq.

“From my perspective, this is no different than aviation fires we've been delivering. This happens to be surface fires, artillery,” Dunford said. “But certainly no different conceptually than the fire support we've been providing to the Iraqis all along.” Twitter: @TaraCopp

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