Aided by U.S. airstrikes, the Kurdish militia defending the besieged Syrian town of Kobani recaptured more territory Friday in what has turned into the single biggest battle between the U.S.-led coalition and the extremist Islamic State since the U.S. began bombing in Iraq in early August.
It is still “highly possible” that the town, most of whose population has fled to nearby Turkey, could fall, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Washington. But “some very determined” local fighters had done “yeoman’s work in terms of standing their ground,” and their progress in recapturing lost ground was encouraging, he said.
Austin said the Islamic State apparently had decided several days ago to make Kobani “his main effort” and has continued to pour “legions of forces” into the effort. “If he continues to present us with major targets as he has done in the Kobani area, then clearly, we’ll service those targets, and we’ve done so very, very effectively here of late.”
The U.S. Central Command announced six more airstrikes around Kobani Thursday and Friday, striking three buildings, destroying two fighting positions and destroying two vehicles.
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Fighters of the People’s Protection Force, or YPG, the Kurdish militia fighting in Kobani, regained territory in the western countryside and now control the ground as far as six miles to the west of the Syrian town, said Idriss Nassan, the spokesman for the Kobani administration. This would represent a gain of two miles in one day.
He said YPG forces, which are lightly armed and minimally equipped in comparison with the Islamic State, had also recaptured a village to the south of Kobani. As the YPG moved forward, the Islamic State had fired three rockets close to the border with Turkey, Nassan said. “This is the final push” by the Islamic State, he said.
With the U.S. help from the air, “the end of the Islamic State offensive” is coming very soon, he said.
Nassan said the defenders are in urgent need of more arms and ammunition but are pinning their hopes on the successful conclusion of talks between the leader of the Syria-based Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PYD, and the Iraq-based Kurdistan Regional Government, whose peshmerga militia has been receiving military supplies from a variety of European nations.
U.S. officials have been closely involved in those talks, and Nassan said PYD leader Salih Muslim met Friday with an American diplomat from the U.S. consulate in Irbil, Iraq, the second recent meeting between a U.S. official and a representative of the PYD.
Until the battle of Kobani, which began about a month ago, U.S. officials had refused to talk with PYD leaders because the group is affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK. The PKK has been at war with Turkey for three decades and is listed by the U.S. and Turkey as a terrorist group.
Partly because the town lies right across the border from Turkey and the world’s television cameras have focused on it daily, Kobani emerged from being one of the most obscure theaters of the Syrian war into the world spotlight.
Ten days ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who ruled out direct Turkish military help for Kobani, said the town could fall soon. His remarks set off another outflow of civilians – there are now some 200,000 Kobani residents in Turkey – and came as Islamic State forces had moved to the edge of the town and had captured some districts, then mounted a massive reinforcement and resupply effort.
It was at that point that the U.S. airstrikes began, intensifying to the point that in one 72-hour period earlier this week the U.S. mounted more than 50 bombing runs on Islamic State positions in and around the city.
Altogether, coalition aircraft have conducted 122 airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Kobani – a fifth of all airstrikes against the Islamic State since the U.S. began bombing targets in Iraq in early August, according to a compilation Friday by the Wall Street Journal. That’s more than the number of airstrikes launched at Mosul Dam in Iraq, the previous largest air battle of the campaign.
Austin defended the U.S. decision to devote so many resources at Kobani, whose strategic value was questioned by U.S. officials only a week ago.
“I do not think it’s a diversion,” Austin said. “I can take advantage of the opportunity that he (the Islamic State) has presented me . . . by continuing to funnel forces into Kobani. And again, the more I attrit him there, the less I have to fight him on some other part of the battlefield.”
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a series of car bombs targeting pedestrians on busy streets killed at least 23 and wounded at least 50 Friday night, according to Iraqi officials. The blasts hit shops, cafes and a theater in mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhoods.
The latest in a steady campaign of bombings, the attacks come as Iraq’s Parliament delayed again voting on the appointments of people to lead the ministries of defense and interior. The vacancies in those ministries have added to the country’s political instability in the midst of the campaign against the Islamic State.
Security officials say all the bombs appeared to have been concealed in parked cars rather than carried out as suicide attacks.
One blast, at just after 10 p.m. local time, appeared to target theater goers in a parking lot outside Baghdad’s national theater in the city’s Karada neighborhood.
McClatchy special correspondent Susannah George contributed from Baghdad.