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Warren: Islamic State Militants in Iraq 'Got Some Fight Left in Them'

A video screen grab shows Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren briefing the Pentagon Press Corps on Oct. 21, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Michael Feddersen)
A video screen grab shows Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren briefing the Pentagon Press Corps on Oct. 21, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Michael Feddersen)

Two major counterattacks by Islamic State militants in northern and southern Iraq this week showed "they've still got some fight left in them," a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Friday.

In the north, Canadian Special Forces advisers had to respond, firing mortars to help repel a battalion-sized force of about 500 militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, who surged out of the ISIS stronghold in Mosul and initially broke through Kurdish Peshmerga lines, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

U.S. Special Forces advisers with the Kurds were further back and were not involved in beating back the assault, Warren said. The U.S. and five coalition partners dropped about 100 precision bombs to back up the Kurds and killed at least 180 ISIS militants, he said.

To the south in the ISIS-held town of Ramadi, about 150 ISIS fighters attacking from north and west of the city pushed the Iraqi Security Forces off a bridgehead Tuesday before being beaten back, Warren said in video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

The Iraqi Security Forces used AT-4 shoulder-fired rocket launchers supplied by the U.S. to stop ISIS suicide truck bombs, known as Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, in the vicinity of the Palestine bridge into Ramadi, Warren said. U.S. airstrikes also hit numerous ISIS positions and vehicles in and around Ramadi, he said.

Despite recent reports from the White House and the Pentagon on progress against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, "This is still a war. This enemy does have a little fight left in them. We shouldn't be Pollyannaish about that," Warren said.

"However, and much more importantly, in each fight, Iraqi forces were able to rebuff ISIL's efforts" in both the north and the south, he said, using another acronym for ISIS.

In a Senate floor speech Thursday blasting the Obama administration's foreign policy, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, disputed the claims of progress against ISIS.

The organization "has lost some territory on the margin, but has consolidated control of its core territories and expanded its control in Syria," the senator said. "It continues to dominate Sunni Arab areas in both Iraq and Syria. It maintains control of key Iraqi cities like Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, and efforts to retake those territories appear to have stalled entirely."

In northern Iraq, where the terrorist organization sought to reverse Kurdish gains around the town of Sinjar, ISIS fighters broke through the Kurdish forward line of troops in three locations near the towns of Tal Aswad, Bashiqa and Nawaran before being pushed back, Warren said.

The ISIS fighters used excavators and other construction vehicles to breach berms and other defensive positions thrown up by the Kurds, he said, and followed that up with infantry assaults.

In Ottawa, Canadian Maj. Gen. Charles Lamarre said that Canadian special forces "came under effective fire and our guys were close enough and able to respond with fire onto those ISIL positions" with mortars to aid in the counteroffensive by the Kurds, the Canadian Press reported.

Currently, more than 60 Canadian commandos are training and advising the Kurds. Lamarre did not define the engagement in the north as "combat," but said, "Our guys are always prepared because it's a dangerous environment and they need to defend not only themselves but the forces with which they are training and providing assistance."

The day-long assault on the Kurdish lines that began Wednesday afternoon was "the most significant attack that the enemy has been able to mount, really since Ramadi," which was captured by ISIS last May, Warren said. "And if this is all they've got, things are going to begin to get worse and worse for this enemy."

The assaults in the north and the south came as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was on a USO tour in Baghdad that included meetings with Iraqi officials. Carter offered to supply Iraqi forces with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and U.S. advisors on the frontlines to aid in the retaking of Ramadi but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declined the offer.

Ramadi has now been isolated in the effort by Iraqi Security Forces to retake the city, Warren said, but the city has not been completely sealed off. "There are always going to be ratlines, smuggling points" for resupply, he said, "but they can't resupply themselves in any significant numbers."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com

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