U.S. forces have begun a series of “precision airstrikes” against the Islamic State’s main branch in Libya, U.S. and Libyan officials said Monday, signaling an expansion of Washington’s military action against the terrorist group whose footprint has spread into North Africa over the past year.
The air campaign is just the latest sign that President Obama, who swept into office eight years ago on a promise to reduce America’s military engagements around the world, will spend the final months of his second term overseeing an escalating deployment of U.S. forces in hot spots from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and beyond.
Military officials said the Libyan strikes, which have been anticipated for weeks, were being conducted only after a formal request from the shaky U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and were aimed at bolstering the ground campaign by Libyan militia groups against an Islamic State stronghold centered on the coastal city of Sirte, the hometown of onetime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
A range of forces aligned with the Libyan Government of National Accord have been struggling for more than a month to retake territory from the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — in Sirte, a major oil-exporting post.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Monday that the “GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL thus far around Sirte, and additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance.”
While no details were provided on the types of aircraft or missiles used, Mr. Cook said, “the U.S. stands with the international community in supporting the GNA as it strives to restore stability and security to Libya.”
In a televised statement, Fayez Serraj, the head of the GNA presidency council, said that while American warplanes hit Sirte, no U.S. ground forces will be deployed and the campaign will be limited for now to the area around the occupied city.
“The presidency council, as the general army commander, has made a request for direct U.S. support to carry out specific airstrikes,” Mr. Serraj said. “The first strikes started today in positions in Sirte, causing major casualties.”
The Islamic State, which has its base in Syria and Iraq, claims to have established “provinces” in as many as 10 nations, with radicalized followers carrying out a growing number of suicide bombings and other attacks around the world from Paris and Brussels to San Bernardino, California, Jakarta, Beirut, Cairo and Istanbul.
But U.S. intelligence officials say the group’s “Libya province” has emerged as the biggest and most powerful of the affiliates over the past year, although Mr. Cook said the Pentagon believes the number of hardened Islamic State fighters in Libya has shrunk in recent months.
While some previous estimates put the figure at as many as 6,000 fighters, “our assessment is that it’s been reduced and the number may be closer to about 1,000 now,” the Pentagon press secretary said.
Mr. Cook said Mr. Obama authorized the strikes on a recommendation from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Libya descended into chaos after the U.S.-backed ouster of Gadhafi in 2011. Rival governments, and the militias that support them, have vied ever since for control of the government and the country’s vast oil reserves, which are estimated at 48 billion barrels — the largest in Africa.
But a U.N.-brokered push to bring the rival factions behind a unity government in Tripoli has unexpectedly gathered momentum in recent months. Mr. Serraj made headlines in June by asserting that Libya’s own fractured military forces would lead the campaign to oust the Islamic State from the country. The top commander overseeing various militias from Libya’s western city of Misrata then said his forces were pushing into Islamic State-held territory in and around Sirte.
At the time, Col. Mohammed al-Ghasri reportedly said the advance was being made under the cover of heavy airstrikes. But it was not clear who was carrying out the airstrikes, and Pentagon officials denied any U.S. warplanes were involved.
Officials have told The Washington Times that U.S. special operations forces were on the ground near the Libyan cities of Misrata and Benghazi, but that the forces were gathering intelligence on local militias and not involved in coordinating air support for Libyan fighters.
The issue of U.S. air support for foreign ground militias is sensitive. U.S. forces have conducted a limited number of drone strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya during recent months, but prior to Monday, the Obama administration had not explicitly announced a sustained air campaign in Sirte.
The airstrikes come roughly three weeks after the Obama administration announced that some 560 more U.S. military personnel were being deployed to Iraq to transform an air base into a staging hub for the long-awaited battle to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State.
The announcement brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to roughly 4,600, some five years after Mr. Obama hailed the full withdrawal of U.S. combat troops who had been in the country since the 2003 invasion.
Early last month, Mr. Obama scrapped a plan to cut remaining American forces in Afghanistan by half before leaving office, despite his longtime hopes to have fully extricated U.S. troops from the war-torn nation after 15 years of fighting.
Heeding the recommendation of his top military advisers, Mr. Obama said he intends to leave 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan to address the country’s “precarious” security situation and the challenge of the Taliban. Mr. Obama, who had hoped to cut the U.S. force to below 6,000, said his goal was to ensure the next president has the foundation and flexibility to fight terrorism there “as it evolves.”
One Democratic lawmaker took issue Monday with the latest escalation.
Rep. Barbara Lee of California released a statement expressing concern that the U.S. military is becoming more engaged in the Middle East without a clear and updated congressional authorization for the use of military force.
“I have called for and will continue to use every available legislative lever to force a full congressional debate and vote on any military action, as required by the Constitution,” Ms. Lee said. “We must stop relying on an outdated and overly broad authorization that was passed nearly 15 years ago.”
But U.S. military officials say the campaign against the Islamic State’s Libya stronghold has gone surprisingly well, especially considering the fragile nature of the political authority in the country.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the Islamic State in Libya is weaker than it was some months ago,” Gen. Dunford told reporters last month. “They’ve suffered significant casualties in and around the Benghazi area.”
In February, American F-15E fighter bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border, killing more than 40. In November, a U.S. airstrike killed a top Islamic State leader in Libya.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.