BAGHDAD • The United States has halted the course of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, US President Barack Obama said in remarks broadcast yesterday, calling for a stepped-up drive to "completely decapitate" the militants' operations.
The ABC News interview was recorded on Thursday at the White House, hours after the start of a major operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces, backed by US-led strikes, to drive ISIS out of the northern town of Sinjar.
Iraqi Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani announced yesterday that Sinjar had been seized by Kurdish forces.
"I don't think they're (ISIS) gaining strength," said Mr Obama. "From the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq."
"And in Syria - they'll come in, they'll leave. But you don't see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain," he said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.
"What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command and control structures. We've made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters," he said. "Part of our goal has to be to recruit more effective Sunni partners in Iraq to really go on offence, rather than simply engage in defence."
Mr Obama warned that regional strife will persist "until we get the Syria political situation resolved".
"Until (Syrian President) Assad is no longer a lightning rod for Sunnis in Syria and that entire region is no longer a proxy war for Shia-Sunni conflict, we're going to continue to have problems," he said. "I would distinguish between making sure that the place is perfect - that's not going to happen any time soon - with making sure that ISIL continues to shrink in its scope of operations until it no longer poses the kind of threat that it does."
Kurdish forces, backed by US air strikes and volunteers from Iraq's Yazidi minority, which has suffered atrocities at the hands of ISIS, encountered little resistance from the extremist militants as they entered Sinjar.
"The liberation of Sinjar will have a big impact on liberating Mosul," Mr Barzani told a news conference near the northern town. Sinjar is both a symbolic and a strategic prize as it sits astride the main highway linking the cities of Mosul and Raqqa - ISIS' bastions in Iraq and Syria respectively. The offensive could provide critical momentum in efforts to recapture Mosul.
Many of the militants apparently fled the town before the troops' advance, a source said, adding that sporadic clashes could be heard from a few pockets in the southern part of the town.
Kurdish commanders expressed concerns that some were in hiding and would blow themselves up as the peshmerga advanced.
The Kurdish forces raised the Kurdish flag on the main buildings of the town, while explosive experts started to defuse dozens of roadside bombs, car bombs and booby-trapped buildings that were rigged by ISIS militants before their departure, the source added.
Kurdish forces said they had secured strategic facilities in the northern Iraqi town as part of the offensive. "ISIL defeated and on the run," the Kurdistan regional security council said in a tweet. It said the peshmerga had secured Sinjar's wheat silo, cement factory, hospital and several other public buildings.
Meanwhile, Iraq's military said yesterday its forces had advanced on three fronts to begin clearing ISIS militants from the western city of Ramadi, which security forces have been encircling for months.
The Iraqi forces began "their advance to liberate Ramadi... from three directions: the west, the north and the south-west, supported by (the air force) who are currently striking selected targets", said a statement from joint operations command that was broadcast on state television.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA