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Obama to outline strategy as US expands Iraq strikes

By AFP - Sep 07,2014 - Last updated at Sep 07,2014

BARWANA, Iraq — President Barack Obama has vowed to outline a long-awaited strategy against Islamic State jihadists on Wednesday, after Washington expanded its month-long air campaign to Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland.

The new strikes deepen Washington's involvement in the conflict and were a significant escalation for Obama, who made his political career opposing the war in Iraq and pulled out US troops in 2011.

Iraqi forces sought to capitalise on the strikes, which have largely been limited to the north since they began on August 8, launching an offensive against jihadists in the area and retaking the town of Barwana.

Obama, who has drawn flak for saying he did not have a strategy to combat Islamic State (IS) jihadists, announced that he will make a speech on Wednesday to lay out his "game plan" to deal with the group.

"I'm preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from" IS, Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press".

He said he would not be announcing the return of US ground troops to Iraq and would focus instead on a "counter-terrorism campaign" similar to other efforts over the last few years.

"We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat them," Obama said.

US warplanes bombed fighters from the IS jihadist group around a strategic dam on the Euphrates River in an area that the militants have repeatedly tried to capture from government troops and their Sunni militia allies.

"We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam, which remains under control of Iraqi security forces, with support from Sunni tribes," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

"The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam — and the flooding that might result — would have threatened US personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens," he added.

Iraq moved Sunday to take advantage of the strikes, launching a drive against militants in the Haditha area and regaining ground.

"Joint forces backed by air support and tribesmen launched a wide attack to clear the areas surrounding the Haditha district," security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta told AFP.

The troops and militia retook the town of Barwana, east of Haditha, from the jihadists, who abandoned their weapons and vehicles in their retreat, an AFP correspondent reported.

They lowered the black IS banner from the town's main checkpoint and raised the Iraqi flag.

The victory was marred, however, when a mortar round slammed into the town, wounding Anbar Governor Ahmed Al Dulaimi as well as Abdulhakim Al Jughaifi, the administrative official responsible for Haditha, and seven soldiers.

A suicide bomber then struck the convoy carrying Dulaimi to a nearby hospital, killing a soldier and wounding six.

The only previous US strikes against IS outside of northern Iraq were carried out in support of an operation by the army, Shiite militia and Kurdish fighters to break a months-long siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli, north of Baghdad.

Dams have been a key target for the jihadists, and there has been major fighting around Iraq's largest dam, on the Tigris River north of militant-held second city Mosul, which has been a major focus of the US air campaign.

The Haditha and Mosul dams are important sources of both power and irrigation water for farmers.

Sustained US strikes could provide a major boost to pro-government forces in Anbar, where all of one city and chunks of another have been out of state control for over nine months, along with other areas seized by militants since June.

Kurdish forces in the north have been bolstered by American strikes and recently took control of Mount Zardak, a strategic site east of Mosul that provides a commanding view of the surrounding area, a senior officer said.

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