BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed fighters in Syria converged from three sides on an Islamic State stronghold near the Turkish border Thursday, while Iraqi special forces pushed deeper into Fallujah, one of the last bastions of the militant group in western Iraq.
In Libya, IS militants were fleeing their stronghold of Sirte as forces loyal to a U.N.-brokered government advanced, with some fighters reportedly cutting off beards and long hair to blend in with civilians.
The anti-IS offensives posed a significant challenge to the extremist group as it tries to stave off multiple attacks across parts of Syria and Iraq, where it declared a so-called caliphate in 2014, and in more recently seized territory in chaotic Libya.
If the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces capture Manbij, it will be the biggest strategic defeat for IS in Syria since July 2015, when it lost the border town of Tal Abyad, a major supply route to the militants’ de facto capital of Raqqa.
Manbij, which had a prewar population of 100,000, is one of the largest IS-held urban areas in northern Aleppo province and is a waypoint on an IS supply line between Raqqa and the Turkish frontier.
In a sign of the town’s perceived significance, the SDF’s advances were accompanied by intense airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition battling the IS militants. The U.S. Central Command said the coalition has conducted more than 105 strikes in support of the battle to liberate Manbij.
The airstrikes recalled the battle for the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria. That campaign saw hundreds of U.S. airstrikes to support Kurdish forces who wrested Kobani from IS in January 2015 after four months of fighting that left the town in ruins.
Since then, members of the U.S. and French military have joined in to advise the anti-IS forces in northern Syria.
Syrian journalist Mustafa Bali, who visited the front lines in Manbij, told The Associated Press the extremists didn’t appear to be preparing to withdraw from the town as they had from other areas. On Wednesday, black smoke covered Manbij as militants set tires ablaze in an apparent attempt to cut visibility from coalition warplanes, he said.
“Daesh is preparing for a battle inside the city,” Bali said, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group. SDF official Nasser Haj Mansour said Wednesday about 15,000 civilians had fled.
A statement by the Military Council of the City of Manbij, which is part of the SDF, said all roads from the east, north and south have been cut. Its forces are now close enough to target IS militants inside the town, but they are holding off storming it to avoid civilian casualties, the statement added.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters are about 800 meters (yards) from the last main road linking Manbij with the city of Aleppo. At least 132 IS militants, 21 SDF fighters and 37 civilians have been killed since the SDF offensive began on May 31, the Observatory said.
In France, an official confirmed that French special forces are offering training and advice to SDF fighters. The French forces are with SDF fighters who are fighting IS, according to the official from French Defense Ministry. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.
Last week, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his country’s forces were participating.
“We are helping with arms, we are helping with aerial support, we are helping with advice,” he said. The U.S. also has about 300 special operations forces embedded with the SDF in northern Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that while the time is not yet right for new peace talks on the Syrian civil war, the failure to reach an agreement soon will probably mean an escalation in the conflict,
Ban stressed the urgency of an early August deadline set by the U.S. and Russia, co-chairs of the International Syria Support group, for “at least the beginnings of a serious agreement.”
He also urged the Syrian government to allow unhindered humanitarian access to civilians under siege in the country.
The Islamic State group has suffered setbacks on several fronts in the region where it captured large swaths of territory two years ago, including the loss of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra earlier this year.
In Iraq, elite counterterrorism forces rolled into southern Fallujah on Wednesday under U.S.-led coalition airpower, the first time in more than two years that government troops have entered the IS-held city west of Baghdad. The militant group fired back with mortars and rockets.
Fallujah is one of the last IS strongholds in Iraq and government forces last month began a large-scale operation to recapture it. Iraqi troops have slowly won back territory, although IS still controls parts of the north and west, as well as the second-largest city of Mosul.
An online statement from the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for two suicide attacks in Iraq — one that killed 19 people and wounded 46 in a mostly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad and another that killed 12 people and wounded 32 in the town of Taji, north of the capital. The figures were confirmed by medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the bombings as “barbaric terrorist attacks,” and he praised the “progress being made by Iraqi forces on the battlefield” in Fallujah.
The Sunni militant group often targets Iraq’s Shiite majority, security forces and government officials. Baghdad has experienced near-daily attacks recently that officials see as an attempt by IS militants to distract the attention of security forces from the front lines in places like Fallujah.
In Libya, IS militants were retreating from the city of Sirte as militia fighters allied to a unity government pushed into the city in tanks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, according to officials and video posted on social media.
The capture of Mediterranean coastal city capped a monthlong offensive by Libyan militias. Sirte is the only major IS-held city outside Syria and Iraq.
The pro-government militias, mostly from Misrata in western Libya, have been the main fighting force for the U.N.-brokered unity government installed in Tripoli this year.
Reflecting the stepped-up fight against IS, the U.S. military said a second carrier group is nearing the Mediterranean to bolster operations, the first time two U.S. carriers will be in those waters at the same time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
U.S. European Command spokesman Lt. Col. David Westover said the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group of guided-missile cruisers and destroyers were in EUCOM’s area of responsibility in the Atlantic en route to the Mediterranean.
The USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group already is in the Mediterranean. U.S. 6th Fleet spokesman Lt. Shawn Eklund says the warships are there to carry out anti-Islamic State actions and to reassure European allies. “When we put carriers in place, it sends a signal,” he said.
In Iran’s capital of Tehran, meanwhile, Russian, Syrian and Iranian defense ministers met to discuss developments in the region, according to Iran’s state TV.
Iran is for a cease-fire in Syria “that doesn’t help terrorists to get more powerful,” Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan was quoted as saying by Iranian media. There were no reported comments from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Syrian counterpart, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, on a cease-fire.
Russia and Iran are the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Tehran has provided the Syrian government with military and political backing for years. A number of Iranian soldiers have been killed in Syria.