U.S. officials say they are not striking significant — and obvious — Islamic State group targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians. Killing such innocents could hand the extremists a major propaganda coup.
WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence analysts have identified seven buildings in downtown Raqqa in eastern Syria as the main headquarters of the Islamic State group. But the buildings have gone untouched during the 10-month allied air campaign.
And just this past week, convoys of heavily armed Islamic State group fighters paraded triumphantly through the streets of the provincial capital, Ramadi, in western Iraq after forcing Iraqi troops to flee. They rolled on unscathed by coalition fighter-bombers.
U.S. and allied warplanes are equipped with the most precise aerial arsenal ever fielded. But U.S. officials say they are not striking significant — and obvious — Islamic State group targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians. Killing such innocents could hand the extremists a major propaganda coup and alienate both the local Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the fighters, and Sunni Arab countries that are part of the U.S.-led coalition.
But many Iraqi commanders, and even some U.S. officers, argue that exercising such prudence is harming the coalition’s larger effort to destroy the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, and that it illustrates the limitations of U.S. air power in the Obama administration’s strategy.
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“The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar,” said Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar province, which contains Ramadi.
Civilians from Raqqa, who were interviewed in Turkey and often go back and forth across the border, said the Islamic State offices were well known around the city and had not been targeted by coalition airstrikes. Locals assume that this is because the Islamic State holds civilian prisoners in each location to deter the coalition.
The Islamic State’s primary security office is inside a soccer stadium, where its central prison is also believed to be. The extremists’ Islamic court is in a building that used to belong to the Syrian Finance Ministry; it, too, holds prisoners, residents say. Civilians who now rely on the Islamic State group for services often come and go from the offices, a local man said.
In Iraq, more than 80 percent of the allied airstrikes are supporting Iraqi troops in hotly contested areas like Ramadi and Beiji, the home of a major oil refinery. Many of the other strikes focus on so-called pop-up targets — small convoys of extremists or heavy weaponry on the move. These have been a top priority of the campaign, even though only about 1 of every 4 air missions sent to attack the extremists have dropped bombs. The rest of the missions have returned to the base after failing to find a target they were permitted to hit under strict rules of engagement designed to avoid civilian casualties.
In Syria, the United States has a very limited ability to gather intelligence to help generate targets, although the commando raid there this month that killed a financial leader of the Islamic State group may signal a breakthrough. Many of the group’s training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities and other fixed sites were struck in the early days of the bombing, but the military’s deliberate process for approving other targets has frustrated several commanders.
“We have not taken the fight to these guys,” the pilot of a U.S. A-10 attack plane said in a recent email. “We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely.”
Critics describe an often cumbersome process to approve targets, and they say there are too few warplanes carrying out too few missions under too many restrictions.
“In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage,” the A-10 pilot said, referring to an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. “It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not.”
The air campaign has achieved several successes in conducting about 4,200 strikes that have dropped about 14,000 bombs and other weapons. The campaign has killed an estimated 12,500 fighters and helped Iraqi forces regain about a fourth of the territory seized in Iraq by the Islamic State group, according to U.S. military figures.
It has blunted the advance of Islamic State group fighters in most areas by forcing them to disperse and conceal themselves. Allied warplanes have attacked oil refineries, weapons depots, command bunkers and communications centers in Syria as part of a plan to hamper the Islamic State group’s ability to sustain its operations in Iraq and to disrupt communications among its senior leaders.
But U.S. officials acknowledge that the Islamic State group has remained resilient and adaptive. Fighters mingle with civilians more than ever. Islamic State group commanders routinely change their methods of communication to avoid detection. Fighters used a sandstorm, which made it more difficult for the Iraqis to identify targets, to seize an advantage in the recent Ramadi attack.
The air campaign has averaged a combined total of about 15 strikes a day in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, the NATO air war against Libya in 2011 carried out about 50 strikes a day in its first two months. The campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 averaged 85 daily airstrikes, and the Iraq war in 2003 about 800 a day. U.S. officials say targeting is more precise than in the past, so fewer flights are needed.
A major constraint on the air campaign’s effectiveness, critics say, has been the White House’s refusal to authorize U.S. troops to act as spotters on the battlefield, designating targets for allied bombing attacks.
Some members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have advocated this idea.
The administration is considering training a cadre of Iraqi troops to designate airstrike targets from allied fighter jets.
Canadian special forces advising Iraqi troops are designating targets “on a case-by-case basis,” said Ashley Lemire, a spokeswoman for the Canadian defense ministry.
Administration officials stand by their overriding objective to prevent civilian casualties. Civilian deaths from airstrikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sometimes unacknowledged or understated by the military and caused a lot of ill will, which is one reason for the United States’ caution now.
Underscoring that goal, the military’s Central Command on Thursday announced the results of an inquiry into the deaths of two children in Syria in November, saying they were most likely killed by a U.S. airstrike. It was the first time the Pentagon had acknowledged civilian casualties since it began the air campaign. A handful of other attacks are under investigation.
The U.S.-led coalition has imposed other conditions on its use of airstrikes. During the operation in March and April to liberate Tikrit, the United States initially refrained from bombing runs because of the involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the fighting who were not under Iraqi government control. Once those militias failed to retake the city, they pulled back, and the Americans began bombing before Iraqi security forces and the militias advanced.
Iraqi officials have praised those airstrikes as an important component in the liberation of Tikrit. But many of the Iraqis involved in that operation complain that the Americans refused to strike targets that they had provided.
These same Iraqi commanders drew criticism Sunday from Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Iraq’s troops had shown no will to fight in Ramadi and had abandoned the city.
On Tuesday, Iraqi state TV announced a major operation to retake Anbar, parts of which have been held by the Islamic State group since early 2014. A spokesman for Iraq’s Shiite militias said it launched an operation to retake the western Anbar province from the Islamic State group and that Iraqi forces have surrounded Ramadi from three sides. A sandstorm swept through parts of Ramadi on Tuesday afternoon, slowing fighting.