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Pentagon: ISIS on the Ropes Despite Clash Between Iraqis, Kurds

This frame grab from video released Oct. 17, 2017, and provided by Hawar News Agency, shows fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces celebrating their victory in Raqqa, Syria. Hawar News Agency via AP
This frame grab from video released Oct. 17, 2017, and provided by Hawar News Agency, shows fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces celebrating their victory in Raqqa, Syria. Hawar News Agency via AP

The Islamic State terrorist group is on the "verge of a devastating defeat" in both Syria and Iraq despite a recent clash between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the disputed city of Kirkuk, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday.

"Overall, ISIS is losing in every way," U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said during a video conference from Baghdad to defense reporters at the Pentagon.

"We have devastated their networks, targeted and eliminated their leaders at all levels. We've degraded their ability to finance their operations -- cutting oil revenues by 90 percent. ... Their story of leading a holy cause has proved to be a cesspool of brutal lies, torture and oppression," he said.

Dillon's comments came as U.S. coalition-backed fighters from the Syrian Democratic Force liberated "more than 90 percent" of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist group's so-called capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

"We are aware of reports that ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa; however, clearance operations have to continue, and we expect our Syrian Democratic Force partners to hit pockets of resistance as the final parts of the city [are] cleared," Dillon said.

In 2014, ISIS held as much as 104,000 square kilometers, including major cities in Iraq and Syria, he said.

The terrorist group "stunned the civilized world by televising torture, mass executions and other unspeakable crimes against humanity" as it became a global threat planning, funding and inspiring terrorist attacks around the world, Dillon said.

Since then, the coalition has removed ISIS from 87 percent of territory it once held, he added.

SDF commanders say the fight in Raqqa is now more about IEDs and explosives than it is against ISIS.

The commander of the Raqqa Internal Security Force "unfortunately and sadly was killed yesterday when he was walking through Raqqa and triggered an IED," Dillon said, adding that entire families have been killed by hidden bombs in the past week.

"That goes to show the work that must go into first off clearing the explosives and booby traps and mines that have been left behind by ISIS," he said.

But the fight against ISIS is not over, Dillon said. The group still has about 6,500 fighters in both Syria and Iraq, he said.

While only about 100 ISIS fighters remain in Raqqa, many are still located in the "middle Euphrates River Valley," he said.

Meanwhile in Iraq, operations against ISIS were disrupted when Iraqi and Kurdish forces clashed in the city of Kirkuk.

Iraqi Security Forces recently moved in to retake the oil-rich north-central city from the Kurds, who have held sway since ISIS swarmed into Iraq in 2014.

Neither side gave a casualty toll for the operation, but an aid group working in Kirkuk said several Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers had been killed in a clash south of the city, Reuters reported.

"Regarding the tensions in Kirkuk -- aside from the incident from the early morning hours on 16 October south of Kirkuk that we assess as a miscommunication between Iraq security forces and a Kurdish checkpoint -- there have been no further reports of armed conflict or attacks between the two groups," Dillon said.

When pressed by reporters, he acknowledged that both Iraqis and Kurds had been killed in the clash.

"That one incident was the only altercation, armed conflict and exchange of fire that we know about," Dillon said. "It was supposed to be a coordinated movement through a checkpoint. This happened at about 3 o'clock in the morning. Tensions were already high, and that is how we assess that particular incident of what happened there, and that is the only incident that we know about."

Coalition officials continue to monitor the situation and are urging both sides to avoid escalation, he said.

"These tensions distract from our unified fight against ISIS, which remains a very real threat in Iraq," Dillon said.

In the past week, coalition forces have conducted 30 airstrikes against ISIS command-and-control facilities, car-bomb factories, weapons caches and a training camp, he said.

In back-clearing operations of the Tal Afar area, Iraqi forces have found and removed large caches of weapons and explosives, including 550 Improved explosive devices, 1,800 mortars, 25 land mines, 101 suicide vests, 16 tunnels and 11 factors for making IEDs, Dillon said.

With coalition support, Iraqi forces are moving into western Anbar Province to clear the remaining ISIS forces from the region, he said.

"As we look forward to even after the military defeat of ISIS ... there is still going to be work to be done," Dillon said. "ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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Matthew Cox Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Syria Iraq Global Hot Spots Headlines

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