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U.S. expands attacks on Islamic State as Iraqi forces move to reclaim villages near Haditha

The United States on Sunday expanded its air war against Islamic extremists in Iraq, sending fighter jets to attack targets near the Haditha Dam in coordination with ground forces from the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi military and local Sunni Muslim tribes.

The operation was led by Anbar’s governor, Ahmad Khalaf, who received a serious head wound from shrapnel from a mortar round apparently fired by Islamic State fighters. Islamic State fire also killed the mayor of Haditha, Abdul Hakim Mohammad, and one of Khalaf’s bodyguards, the mayor’s media office said.

The fighting began at dawn, and by evening, the combined forces had cleared the village of Barawana, north of the dam, of Islamic State fighters who had occupied it for weeks. But fighting was continuing at a village west of the dam, Khafajia, which remained under Islamic State control, officials said.

The U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, said in a statement that U.S. combat aircraft destroyed four Islamic State Humvees, four armed vehicles, two of which were carrying anti-aircraft artillery, one fighting position, and one command post.

The White House said the operation was intended to protect the Haditha Dam, the second largest hydroelectric contributor to Iraq’s power system. Its destruction “would have catastrophic consequences for Iraqis living in the Euphrates river valley and even flood Baghdad airport, where hundreds of U.S. personnel reside,” the White House said in a statement.

In a statement issued before his death, Haditha mayor Mohammad said the offensive was being undertaken because local officials wanted to break the hold that the Islamic State imposed on villages in the area during the group’s lightning advance across Iraq after the capture in early June of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

“We started this operation because for about two months, we had mortars hitting our town, our houses and buildings,” the statement quoted the mayor as saying. “Maybe today or maybe over the next few days, we will get rid of this evil presence.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Tbilisi, Georgia, that the U.S. intervened at the request of the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.

Many Americans will associate Haditha with the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S. Marines in 2005 after one Marine was killed by a roadside bomb. The failure to punish those responsible angered Haditha residents for many years.

But the arrival of the Islamic State seems to have superseded the bitterness. Only 10 days ago, Khalaf had written about his determination to battle the extremists in an opinion piece in The Washington Post in which he portrayed the fight against the Islamic State as good versus evil.

“This is a war begun on the timing and terms of the forces of darkness, but we are determined to end it in a way and at a time of our choosing — once we have rid the world of this tyranny,” he wrote. “We are fighting this war to defend the right of all humanity, and not only Iraqis, to live in peace, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.”

Khalaf was fighting alongside his troops, bodyguards and the mayor of Haditha in Khafajia when all were struck by shrapnel from the mortar. Khalaf was taken to hospital for an examination and then returned to the fighting with what he thought was a minor head wound. But he soon realized it was a more serious wound and was taken back to hospital for treatment, the mayor’s media office said.

Sunday’s fighting was a combined operation involving fighters from Iraq’s two major Islamic sects, Shiite and Sunni, whose political standoff over the past two years opened the door for Islamic State fighters, also Sunni, to seize vast swaths of Iraqi territory since mid-June.

In Sunday’s offensive, Shiite-led security forces from the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division, together with Baghdad-based forces from Iraq’s so-called SWAT team, fought alongside emergency battalions from Haditha and local police, the mayor’s media office said.

“All these forces had one aim, to get rid of IS from the suburbs of Haditha,” it said in a statement.

It’s not clear whether the collaboration, coordinated by the U.S. military with the Shiite-dominated central government, will set a precedent.

Still, the timing of the operation was fortuitous for President Barack Obama, who’s under growing political pressure to devise an effective strategy for countering the Islamic State both in Iraq and in Syria.

A successful combined Sunni-Shiite mission in Anbar province also would raise the likelihood that Sunnis and Shiites can reach an agreement quickly on a new Iraqi government. Reports indicated Sunday that Haider al Abadi, a Shiite who was named prime minister-designate a month ago, is close to naming his new cabinet. According to close observers of the process, Sunnis will have eight of the 30 ministerial positions, including the head of either the Defense or Interior ministry.

Obama announced Sunday that he would detail how the U.S. intends to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a televised speech Wednesday night.

In an interview recorded Saturday and broadcast Sunday on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” Obama provided few details of his Wednesday speech, except to say once again that the United State would not send combat troops to confront the Islamic State. He said whatever course the U.S. takes will be part of an international coalition and will require months of coordinated action.

“The good news is, I think, for perhaps the first time, you have absolute clarity that the problem for Sunni states in the region, many of whom are our allies, is not simply Iran. It’s not simply a Sunni-Shia issue,” he said.

Obama also made it clear that for now, toppling the government of President Bashar Assad will have a lower priority.

“Our attitude towards Assad continues to be that you know, through his actions, through using chemical weapons on his own people, dropping barrel bombs that killed innocent children, that he has foregone legitimacy. But when it comes to our policy and the coalition that we're putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL. It's narrowly on ISIL,” he said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.

Obama also said the United States would continue to work to develop a moderate Syrian opposition “that can control territory.”

In a related development, Jamal Maarouf, a commander of a U.S.-backed rebel faction in Syria’s Idlib province, pledged to expand his battle against the Islamic State throughout northern and eastern Syria.

In an appearance on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel, Maarouf said he had ordered his fighters into combat against Islamic State positions north of Aleppo. “The moment of truth and accountability has come,” Maarouf said.

Maarouf‘s Syrian Revolutionary Front in January drove the Islamic State from about half of the bases it maintained in northern Syria and is one of about a dozen rebel units receiving assistance from the United States under a program administered by the CIA.

Contributing to this report were McClatchy special correspondents Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad and Mousab Alhamadee in Istanbul, Turkey. White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed from Washington. A special correspondent in Irbil whose name is being withheld for security reasons also contributed.

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