- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2016

The Islamic State has lost territory in Iraq and Syria at a faster rate over the last six months compared to all of 2015, shrinking the terror group’s total holdings in both countries roughly to the size of West Virginia, according to a new report.

The recently published report by counterterrorism analysts at IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review shows territory held by Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, dropped from just over 48,000 square miles down to 42,000 square miles — a drop of 12 percent since January.

By comparison, ISIS lost ground at a rate of 14 percent in all of 2015, according to the report.

As U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces continue to tighten the noose around the terror group’s dual capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, as well as severing the its major supply lines in Manbij and other locations along the so-called Mara line in northern Syria, analysts suggest that rate will accelerate in the coming months.

“Over the coming year, more towns and cities are likely to become isolated from the core Caliphate, as was the case in Ramadi and Fallujah, enabling the fragmentation and gradual defeat of the Islamic State as a conventional force,” analysts claim.

The recapture of Fallujah earlier this month by Iraqi forces eliminated ISIS’s last major holding in Iraq’s volatile Anbar province. Fallujah represented a high-water mark for the American campaign against Islamic State, with the Pentagon declaring the group had not notched any significant combat victories in over a year.

Looking to capitalize on that momentum, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced another U.S. deployment of 560 troops would be heading into Iraq, as local forces continue to prepare to drive onto Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Mr. Carter announced details of the new deployment, which bumps up the total number of American troops in Iraq up to roughly 6,000, during a recent trip to the region.

“At every step in this campaign, we have generated and seized additional opportunities to hasten ISIL’s lasting defeat. And with these additional U.S. forces we’ll bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight,” Mr. Carter said in a speech in Baghdad on Monday.

Almost all of that new U.S. troop contingent will be based in al Qayyara, roughly 40 miles south of Mosul, in preparation for the upcoming assault on the city.

Iraqi forces captured the military airfield in the western part of al Qayyara over the weekend largely uncontested, according to local reports. The airfield will be used as a “logistical springboard” to launch U.S. airstrikes against ISIS positions and back Iraqi troops and militiamen in and around Mosul once the operation to retake the city gets underway, Mr. Carter said Monday.

Local reports claim ISIS fighters fell back from al Qayyara in the face of the Iraqi offensive and have reconsolidated around Hammam al-Alil, just 20 miles south of Mosul’s southernmost border.

During his visit, Mr. Carter also met with Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obaidi, who both reasserted their intent to retake Mosul by the end of this year.

President Obama’s prediction in April that Iraqi forces, with the support of U.S. air power and heavily artillery, would be able to take Mosul by the end of the year.

However, officials in Washington and Baghdad are concerned the window to wrest Mosul from ISIS control by December may be closing quickly.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen in shaping [operations] for Mosul,” before local forces will be ready to launch its assault on the city, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters earlier this month.

Over 200 U.S. troops backed by additional American air power and a shipment of heavy weapons would be heading to Iraq to support the Mosul offensive. However, that offensive has bogged down over the last several weeks, prompting the White House to send in additional American weapons and support.

When asked if the year-end goal was achievable, Capt. Davis replied: “I don’t know.”

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