(Reuters) – Islamic State militants are changing tactics in the face of U.S. air strikes in northern Iraq, ditching conspicuous convoys in favor of motorcycles and planting their black flags on civilian homes, tribal sources and eyewitnesses say.
They reported fewer militant checkpoints to weed out “apostates” and less cell phone use since the air strikes intensified and more U.S. allies pledged to join the campaign that began in August, saying the militants had also split up to limit casualties.
A tribal sheikh from a village south of Kirkuk said Islamic State elements “abandoned one of their biggest headquarters in the village” when they heard the air strike campaign was likely to target their area.
“They took all their furniture, vehicles and weapons. Then they planted roadside bombs and destroyed the headquarters,” said the tribal sheikh who declined to be named.
“They don’t move in military convoys like before. Instead they use motorcycles, bicycles, and if necessary, they use camouflaged cars,” he said.
The militants have also taken to erecting their notorious black flag on the rooftops of several mostly empty residential houses and buildings, to create confusion about their actual presence.
Civilian casualties are a major concern as U.S. war planes venture deeper into the Tigris River valley and to Iraq’s western desert in the name of breaking Islamic State’s grip on mostly Sunni parts of Iraq — nearly one-third of the country. France has also taken part in the air campaign.
Tribal and local intelligence sources said an air strike on Thursday near Bashir town, 20 km (12 miles) south of Kirkuk, had killed two local senior Islamic State leaders while they were receiving a group of militants from Syria and Mosul. Ongoing fighting makes it impossible to verify the reports.