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Elite U.S. targeting force has arrived in Iraq to fight the Islamic State

U.S. Special Operations troops wait in line to load gear onto a truck after a static-line parachute jump at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., April 21, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter/Released)
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – An elite U.S. Special Operations targeting force has arrived in Iraq and will carry out operations against the Islamic State, part of a broader effort in 2016 to strike at the militants and that also includes U.S. Special Operations troops in Syria, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Wednesday.

A new U.S. targeting force has arrived in Iraq and is preparing to work with Iraqi forces to go after Islamic State targets, U.S. (Video: Reuters)

The targeting force is now in place and is prepared to work with Iraqis to begin going after militant fighters and commanders, “killing or capturing them wherever we find them,” Carter said, speaking to about 200 soldiers at the home of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which is expected to deploy about 500 soldiers next month to Iraq and Kuwait as part of the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

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U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria, meanwhile, played an advisory role to help local fighters take back the strategically important Tishreen Dam late last month, a victory that is expected to put additional pressure on the Islamic State in Raqqa, the Syrian city that serves as its de facto capital.

“While I cannot give you specifics, I can tell you these forces have already established contact with new forces that share our goals, new lines of communication to local, motivated and capable partners, and new targets for airstrikes and strikes of all kinds,” Carter said. “These operators have helped focus the efforts of the local, capable forces against key ISIL vulnerabilities, including their lines of communication. They are generating new insights that we turn into new targets, new strikes and new opportunities.”

Carter’s comments follow a victory by Iraqi forces in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi that the Obama administration has characterized as the prelude to other offensives. Carter said there are now “big arrows pointing at” Raqqa and Mosul, an Iraqi city of more than 1 million people that fell to the Islamic State in June 2014.

About 1,300 more soldiers from the 101st’s “Screaming Eagles” are expected to deploy later this spring to train Iraqi forces as the U.S.-led military coalition and the Iraqi government prepare for an assault on Mosul. Soldiers from the 101st also played a major role in taking Mosul back from insurgents during the Iraq War, but Carter stressed Wednesday that Iraqi forces must do it this time, with the U.S. in a supporting role.

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“Frankly, I know the 101st has taken Mosul before, and you could do it again,” Carter said. “We could deploy multiple brigades on the ground and arrive in force. But then it would likely become our fight, and very likely our fight alone. Moreover, we’d have to fight on the enemy’s terms, and give away our greatest advantages – mobility, firepower and precision.”

The training the U.S. soldiers will provide to both the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces will prove critical, with the peshmerga approaching Mosul from the north and Iraqi troops coming from the south in a “pincer movement,” Carter predicted. Some analysts, however, say that communications between regular Iraqi forces and the Kurds need to improve significantly before any kind of joint operation can be undertaken.

“Reaching and retaking Mosul will not be easy, and it will not be quick,” Carter said. “There will be many engagements in between.”

Carter’s speech came ahead of a planned trip to Paris next week in which he will meet with leaders from France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain – the largest contributors in the U.S.-led military coalition. He suggested Wednesday that he would seek more help from them.

“Each of these nations has a significant stake in completing the destruction of this evil organization, and we must include all of the capabilities they can bring to the field,” Carter said. “And I will not hesitate to engage and challenge current and prospective members of the coalition as we go forward.”