The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has lost only a tiny fraction of captured territory in Iraq after five months of US-led airstrikes, the Pentagon said on Friday.
Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi government troops have retaken 700 square kilometers of ground mostly in northern Iraq, but ISIS still holds 55,000 square kilometers, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.
That amounts to roughly one percent of ISIS-held territory changing hands since the US launched air raids in Iraq on August 8.
Kirby acknowledged that not much ground had been gained back so far, but said that the airstrikes had halted the momentum of the jihadists and bought time for the training of Baghdad government forces.
“I think we all recognize that it’s a small percentage of the total right now. But we’re only six, seven months into this thing, too,” he said.
The Pentagon provided the figures after announcing recently that Iraqi and Kurdish troops had regained 700 square kilometers, without explaining what percentage that represented of all territory held by ISIS.
By comparison, the Iraqi government held about 77,000 square kilometers and the Kurdish forces controlled roughly 56,000 square kilometers, he said.
Those numbers did not represent the entire territory of Iraq, but only populated, “relevant” areas, according to Kirby.
US commanders have said that the Iraqi army needed to be reorganized and armed before staging a major counter-offensive to roll back ISIS from large swathes of territory it seized last year.
The officer overseeing the US-led campaign against ISIS, General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Iraqi forces would be ready to launch a counter-offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul by the summer.
“If we did things alone or with some of the other allies on the ground, it could move faster,” he told the newspaper. “But the Iraqis have to do this themselves.”
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stressed it would take at least two years to push ISIS back out of Iraq.
The US-led air campaign, which Washington claims aims to degrade ISIS’ military capability, remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Friday the West had increased support to his country to help it fight ISIS, and Iran was also providing crucial backing.
Washington and Tehran are at odds on most issues, from Iran’s disputed nuclear program to the conflict in Syria, but in Iraq they share a common interest in helping Abadi defeat ISIS.
Abadi said that, while the West was sometimes slow to deliver help, Iran was filling the gap.
“They have been prompt in sending us arms and ammunition without even asking for immediate payments,” he said in comments likely to be noted in Washington, which worries about the extent of Iranian influence over its neighbor.
Abadi made a special mention of Qassem Soleimani — the head of Iran’s elite military Quds Force, one of Iran’s most powerful people — as an ally against ISIS.
Soleimani, chief of the force which is an overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has been subject to an international travel ban and asset freeze by the UN Security Council since 2007.
ISIS assault on journalists
Amid the political scuffle on military aid to Iraqi forces, ISIS killed seven people on Friday, including two journalists, in the Muqdadiyah area north of Baghdad, their employers and officials said.
Ali al-Ansari and another unnamed journalist from Al-Ghadeer satellite television were among the dead, according to local manager Karim Fadhel.
Mustafa Hamid and Qusay Sahib from Iraqiya state television were wounded, said the head of its Diyala provincial office, Uday Abdelkarim.
Accounts differed on the incident, with some sources saying shellfire hit Muqdadiyah itself, while others reported a bombing and clashes north of the town.
Five militants were also killed, and more than two dozen people wounded, security and medical officials said.
Iraq , long one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, became more so after ISIS launched a sweeping offensive that overran large parts of the country last summer.
The jihadist group beheaded journalists on tape and also issued threats against those reporting in areas it controls.
According to media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, four journalists were killed in Iraq last year.