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TERROR WARS
IS now controls less than seven percent of Iraq, military says
By Jean-Marc Mojon
Baghdad (AFP) April 11, 2017


'No doubt' Syria responsible for deadly chemical attack: Mattis
Washington (AFP) April 11, 2017 - The United States has "no doubt" the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for last week's chemical attack on a rebel-held town that left dozens dead, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Tuesday.

Mattis told reporters that Washington's military strategy in Syria had not changed even after its retaliatory missile strikes on a Syrian air base, noting "our priority remains the defeat" of the Islamic State group.

"There is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself," Mattis said.

"In response to the attack," US national security officials came up with "diplomatic and military options" presented to President Donald Trump, said Mattis, who added that he also spoke with Washington's allies.

In his first press conference since becoming defense secretary, Mattis reiterated warnings that further use of chemical weapons will be met with additional US action.

"If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price," Mattis said.

An important question remains whether the United States would take further military action if Assad were to again use barrel bombs filled with chlorine -- a brutal weapon the regime has deployed multiple times.

The White House on Monday appeared to suggest the use of chlorine barrel bombs would constitute a threshold for US action, though officials later backtracked.

Chlorine is itself not a banned substance and has broad industrial uses, though its use as a weapon is outlawed under international treaties.

"Chemical weapons are chemical weapons," Mattis said, declining to elaborate on US policy concerning chlorine.

"It's not about whether it's delivered with an artillery shell or it's delivered by a helicopter with a barrel bomb or a fighter aircraft with a bomb. It's about chemical weapons, and we've made clear where we stand on that."

The new defense chief, a retired Marine general, said Trump had determined that a military response was the best way to deter the Assad regime from conducting further chemical strikes.

"The National Security Council considered the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime's repeated violations of that international law and the inexplicably ruthless murders the regime had committed," he said.

The Pentagon chief also emphasized Washington's focus on defeating IS extremists.

"ISIS represents a clear and present danger and immediate threat to Europe and ultimately a threat to the United States homeland," he said.

Mattis' comments came just after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Russia on Tuesday to confront the Kremlin over its support for Assad.

A US official speaking on condition of anonymity said Washington was investigating whether Russia was complicit in the alleged chemical weapons attack.

The Islamic State group now controls less than seven percent of Iraq, down from the 40 percent it held nearly three years ago, a military spokesman said Tuesday.

Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes and other support are now battling IS inside second city Mosul, after retaking much of the other territory the jihadists had seized.

"Daesh controlled 40 percent of Iraqi land" in 2014, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"As of March 31 (this year), they only held 6.8 percent of Iraqi territory," said Rasool, the spokesman of the Joint Operations Command coordinating the anti-jihadist effort.

Various members of the forces, Iraqi and foreign, battling the jihadists have disagreed in the past on figures about control of territory, but IS has been losing ground steadily for close to two years.

The most brutal organisation in modern jihad shocked the world when it took over Mosul in June 2014 and then swept across much of the country's Sunni Arab heartland.

Its reach in Iraq peaked in August the same year when a second offensive saw it take over areas of northern Iraq that were home to various minorities and had been under the control of forces from the country's autonomous Kurdish region's forces.

Iraqi forces with the backing of the US-led coalition -- which has thousands of military personnel deployed in Iraq and carries out daily air strikes -- began a major offensive to retake Mosul in October 2016.

- Coalition to stay -

They retook control of the eastern side of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River, in January and have since mid-February been battling diehard jihadists holed up in their last west Mosul redoubts.

The full recapture of Mosul, the de facto capital of the "caliphate" that IS proclaimed nearly three years ago, would end the jihadists' dreams of a cross-border state.

Speaking at the same press conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, the spokesman for the US-led coalition vowed that Iraq would not be abandoned after the recapture of Mosul.

"Once that task is accomplished, the coalition will be here to support our Iraqi partners as they eliminate IS from every corner of Iraq," Colonel John Dorrian said.

"Though the fighting is going to be very hard... this enemy is completely surrounded. They aren't going anywhere -- they will be defeated and the people of Mosul will be free," he said.

The coalition has come under criticism following an air strike in west Mosul last month that took a heavy toll on civilians, a strike it admitted may have been its own.

"Every strike that we conduct, we conduct using precision-guided munitions. Every strike that we conduct is coordinated directly with the Iraqi security forces," Dorrian said.

"We are very careful. We never, ever target civilians. Never. We reject anyone who says that we do, that is not happening, we only target Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

But even if IS members are targeted, the fact that they are operating in areas still home to large numbers of residents means that civilians can easily still end up the victims.

IS still controls the large towns of Hawijah and Tal Afar, as well as remote areas along the border with Syria in western Iraq.

In Syria itself, it also holds the city of Raqa and other areas.

TERROR WARS
Southern EU leaders say US strike on Syria 'understandable'
Madrid (AFP) April 10, 2017
The leaders of southern EU nations said Monday that a US missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack was "understandable," as diplomatic tensions mount over the incident. Gathered at a summit in Madrid on the EU as Britain prepares to leave the bloc, the leaders - including Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and France's Francois Hollande - also cal ... read more

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