“The thought that we’re observing large numbers of [Isis] terrorists and not killing them, anywhere, is fiction,” said Air Force Lieutenant General John W Hesterman III.
US-led coalition attacks 21 sites in Iraq and Syria. Air Force general said more than 1,000 militants have been killed a month while avoiding civilian casualties
A day after a senior general offered an emphatic defense of the air campaign that has not stopped advances by Islamic State militants, the US military said it and its allies had carried out another 14 strikes in Iraq and seven in Syria.
In a news conference he said was called to counter misconceptions about the use of air power in an unconventional war, Air Force Lieutenant General John W Hesterman III said on Friday that pilots serving the US-led coalition were killing more than 1,000 militants a month while avoiding casualties among civilians and Iraqi government forces.
Isis has recently made territorial gains in the Anbar province of Iraq, including taking the capital Ramadi. Critics have accused US commanders of being too cautious, missing opportunities to kill militants and disrupt supply lines.
“The thought that we’re observing large numbers of [Isis] terrorists and not killing them, anywhere, is fiction,” said Hesterman, who leads US Central Command’s air forces and the coalition air campaign.
“We kill them wherever we find them.”
The US and its allies have conducted thousands of strikes in Iraq, since August, and Syria since September. Isis militants hold large swathes of territory in the two countries and have executed captives and western hostages and destroyed ancient cultural sites and artifacts.
Between Friday and Saturday morning local time, the coalition said in a statement, in Syria, air strikes using bomber, attack and fighter aircraft hit near al Hasaka and Kobani. In Iraq, strikes using fighter and drone aircraft targeted areas near Baghdadi, Baiji, Habbaniyah, Haditha, Makhmur, Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar.
Iraqi officials later said government forces and Shia militiamen had repelled two Islamic State group attacks in Anbar province. In one attack, they used anti-tank missiles to stop four would-be suicide car bombers, officials said.
Civil Defence members search for survivors at al-Qaida headquarters that was targeted by what Nusra members said was a US-led air strike in Syria. Photograph: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Police and military officials said Isis fighters attacked the government-held town of Husseiba with heavy mortar fire early on Saturday. They said the attackers retreated after an hours-long battle, leaving behind three destroyed vehicles and five dead fighters. At least 10 troops and militiamen were wounded.
Hesterman spoke by telephone to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters at al-Udeid airbase in Qatar. His remarks followed a wave of skepticism about repeated US assertions that Isis fighters are on the defensive.
On Friday, Hesterman was on the defensive. He pushed back, for example, on reports that a US air strike earlier this week in Hawija, an Isis stronghold west of Kirkuk, killed dozens of Iraqi civilians. The US military has acknowledged that it attacked what it said was a facility used to build vehicle-borne suicide bombs but has not confirmed casualties.
Hesterman said “a fairly small weapon” was used against the target, which he described as a known bomb factory in an industrial area. If civilians were killed the blame rested with the Islamic State, he said, for having stored “a massive amount” of high explosives that were ignited by the airstrike.
He said the US would look into the reports of large numbers of civilian deaths. One of four such reports already conducted showed two civilian deaths in Syria by coalition aircraft. The other three have not yet been released.
“Let’s be clear. What did the damage was the huge amount of high explosives that [Isis] intended to turn into murderous weapons to kill Iraqi forces and innocent civilians,” Hesterman said. “If there were unintended injuries that responsibility rests squarely on [Isis].”
He more broadly defended the US approach to using air power in Iraq and Syria as the main component of the military campaign.
He mentioned no critics by name, but Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate armed services committee, has complained loudly that the bombing campaign lacks vigor. McCain and others in Congress, as well as some retired military officers, have argued that the campaign could be strengthened by deploying American troops as spotters for airstrikes.
In line with a White House policy of not placing American troops in combat danger in Iraq, the Pentagon thus far has avoided putting such “tactical air controllers” in the field with Iraqi ground forces.
Hesterman said such spotters were “always value-added” and were being used away from the front lines.
“Would it be helpful” to have them on the front lines with Iraqi forces? “Probably,” Hesterman said. “Is it necessary? Not so far.”
Hesterman’s assertion that airstrikes were taking more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters off the battlefield each month echoes a claim earlier this week by Tony Blinken, the Obama administration’s deputy secretary of state, that airstrikes have killed 10,000 fighters since August. Military officials have refused to say how they calculate that number, while critics say that even if it is accurate it says little about progress toward defeating Isis, which has refilled its ranks with new recruits.
Asked about the perception among many in Washington and elsewhere that a well-financed and adaptive Islamic State army is on the march in Iraq and Syria and that the US military strategy is failing, Hesterman said the perception was based on a flawed notion of how air power should be used.
He said the bombing campaign should not be compared to past wars because the adversary is neither a state nor an established army.
“The comparison is not valid,” he said, adding: “This enemy wrapped itself around the civilian population before we even started.”
The military has never had a blueprint for how to use airstrikes in such a setting, he said.
With this enemy we have to be available 24/7 with coalition air power, differentiate them from the population and go after them every time we find them. It’s an order of magnitude more difficult than what we’ve done before.