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AFP

US set to aid Syria rebels
as jihadists advance

BAGHDAD - Washington was set Thursday to approve plans to train and arm Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State group, as jihadist fighters gained ground in the north of the country.

 

Fears grew over the wide reach of IS, which has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria, after Australia said it foiled a plot by group members to kidnap and behead random members of the public.

 

The US Senate was expected to back a plan, approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria, a key part of the anti-IS strategy.

 

Who exactly will benefit from the program is unclear, as the rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad lack a clear command structure and range from secular nationalists to Al-Qaeda-backed extremists.

 

But President Barack Obama hailed the House approval as "an important step forward", and Senate leaders are confident it will pass Thursday for his signature.

 

Obama met military commanders on Wednesday and, in a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, insisted the jihadists will be defeated.

 

"Our reach is long. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. We will find you eventually," Obama said, also standing firm on his pledge that a US ground combat mission is not on the cards.

 

IS holds significant territory in Syria and seized large areas of Iraq in a lightning offensive in June, declaring a cross-border "caliphate" and imposing its brutal interpretation of Islamic law.

 

It has carried out widespread atrocities including crucifixions and reportedly selling women into slavery, and in recent weeks beheaded two US reporters and a British aid worker in chilling online videos.

 

On Thursday a monitoring group said IS fighters had seized a string of villages as they closed in on Syria's third-largest Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab.

 

"In the past 24 hours, IS fighters have launched a huge offensive and seized at least 16 villages to the east and west of Kobane," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman, using the Kurdish name for Ain al-Arab.

 

"The IS is using heavy weaponry, its artillery and tanks," he said, adding that thousands of Kurdish fighters defending the town on the Turkish border were being encircled.

 

The US estimates that IS has 20,000 to 31,000 fighters, including many foreigners, and there are concerns that returning jihadists could carry out attacks in Western countries.

 

Australia on Thursday detained 15 people in connection with the plot to behead a random person, in the country's largest ever counter-terrorism raids.

 

Prosecutors said the plan, coordinated with a senior IS militant with Australian citizenship, would have seen random people abducted to "gruesomely execute" them on camera.

 

Australia has committed to deploying 600 troops to the United Arab Emirates as part of a coalition of 40 countries supporting the US-led campaign against IS.

 

Kuwait, which has joined 10 other Arab states in the coalition, was reported Thursday to have arrested at least five suspected members of IS and to be monitoring dozens more.

 

Gulf monarchies have been accused of backing Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, but have lined up behind the US-led coalition after IS grew in strength and declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader of all Muslims.

 

Iran, a key Assad backer and powerful player in Iraq's internal politics, has criticized its exclusion from international talks on combatting IS.

 

In an interview with NBC television before heading to the United Nations for next week's General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday slammed Washington for refusing to send troops.

 

"Are Americans afraid of giving casualties on the ground in Iraq? Are they afraid of their soldiers being killed in the fight they claim is against terrorism?" Rouhani told NBC, according to excerpts of the interview.

 

"Is it really possible to fight terrorism without any hardship, without any sacrifice?"

 

Obama last week ordered expanded air strikes against IS in Iraq and said the US was prepared to launch air raids on the militants in neighboring Syria.

 

The US has carried out 174 air strikes in Iraq since early August, but the mission has since expanded to areas near Baghdad for the first time.

 

Pro-government forces have been engaged in fierce fighting around Baghdad, with special forces widely recognized as the best in the country tackling IS militants near the capital.

 

The combination of local forces and US air power seems to be having some success, apparently forcing top IS leaders to cross the border back into Syria, the organization’s main base.

 

Activists told AFP on Wednesday that IS fighters in Syria's Deir Ezzor province near Iraq had abandoned some bases and redeployed their forces in anticipation of the expanded US strikes.

But many Republicans feel Obama's plan does not do nearly enough to meet the goal of destroying IS, which has overrun large areas of Iraq and Syria.

  • weew

    EU and rest of free world must get SANKCIONS agaists USA for supporting terrorists and threat Syrian suverenity. This is open agresia..Where is HRW???

    September 18, 2014