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Fights to Retake Fallujah, Manbij City From ISIL Begin

WASHINGTON, June 03, 2016 — The fights started last week aimed at wrenching control of two major cities in Iraq and Syria from the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are expected to be difficult, U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Pat Ryder said today. 

Giving his weekly counter-ISIL campaign operational update to Pentagon reporters by teleconference, Ryder said local forces in Iraq and Syria, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, are allowing movement to retake Fallujah, Iraq, and Manbij City, Syria. 

Since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of Fallujah operations last week, Ryder said, the city has been further isolated and Iraqi forces continue operations to clear the outskirts of the city enabled by coalition airstrikes.

Retaking Fallujah A Challenge

Fallujah lies roughly 43 miles west of Baghdad and is the second-largest city in Anbar province. Covering an area of 53,476 square miles -- a region about the size of North Carolina -- Anbar is the largest of Iraq’s provinces and shares borders with Syria, Jordan and Kuwait. Ryder said ISIL’s continued fight to hold control of Fallujah is marked by three factors:

First, Fallujah is the first Iraqi city over which ISIL took control, and Ryder said it’s “symbolic” to ISIL. The terrorist group seized the town in January 2014, he said, and “Though it’s been increasingly isolated over the last year, it remains one of their last major strongholds in the Anbar province.”

Second, Anbar’s population centers are a source of ISIL money and the organization’s operations base, Ryder said.

Finally, Anbar’s road networks, which stretch from southern and central Syria to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, connect ISIL- held territories, he said. With ISIL losses in Rutbah, Ramadi, Haditha, and other towns along the Euphrates, “ISIL has lost those revenue sources and … its ability to connect its territory,” Ryder said.

Coalition Leads With Airstrikes

As of this morning, the coalition has supported the Iraqi-led operation with 65 airstrikes in the Fallujah area, striking 20 weapons caches and more than 300 enemy fighters, Ryder said.

Ryder noted that urban fighting is always difficult and the Iraqis have met with heavy ISIL resistance as its fighters use networks of trenches and tunnels, homemade bombs, suicide bombers, heavy machine guns and small-arms fire, he said.

“We're watching the intensity of their resistance carefully, as this is an indicator of how hard they intend to defend and try to keep Fallujah,” the Centcom spokesman said of enemy tactics, including ISIL trying to distract and delay Iraqi forces and the Iraq government from the Fallujah offensive by conducting high-profile terror attacks against Baghdad civilians.

Syria’s Manbij Fight Led by Locals

In Syria, operations to expel ISIL fighters from Manbij city and surrounding areas began May 30, with U.S.-led coalition forces operating in support of Arab counter-ISIL forces largely comprised of local leaders and fighters, Ryder said.

“The operations are led by the Manbij Military Council of the Syrian Arab Coalition, an indigenous Arab force from Manbij seeking to reclaim their hometown from ISIL,” he added.

Since the Manbij offensive began five days ago, more than 55 coalition airstrikes have supported Arab-led forces as they secured western lodgments on the Euphrates River, and extended the forward line of troops over 38.6 square miles, he said.

More ISILSetbacks

Liberating Manbij will cut further into ISIL’s territorial hold in the region and take out its key route to hinder the Islamic terrorists from moving fighters, finances, weapons and supplies in and out of Syria and Iraq, Ryder said.

Retaking Manbij would also impede ISIL’s ability to threaten Turkey and the rest of Europe while freeing 35,000 to 40,000 people from ISIL control, he added.

The coalition’s building partner capacity program has helped Iraqi forces generate combat power with sufficient capabilities to maintain operational momentum, sustain security gains and enable future stability, Ryder said.

Since training began, several thousand coalition trainers, advisors and support personnel have trained more than 23,000 Iraqi forces that include “individual soldier skills, small arms and indirect fire weapons, obstacle breaching, medical training, and law and order,” he said.

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)