The Cable

Another ISIS Leader Down as U.S. Accelerates War

Marines in Iraq in combat as Special Ops and warplanes hunt ISIS leaders

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers take part in a training exercise led by the Spanish Army and under the guidance of the US military in the Basmaya camp in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on May 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI        (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers take part in a training exercise led by the Spanish Army and under the guidance of the US military in the Basmaya camp in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on May 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. war in Iraq and Syria has claimed another Islamic State leader. On Friday, Pentagon officials said a recent U.S. attack killed the Islamic State’s No. 2 leader, Haji Imam, a militant who has been involved in jihadi activity for over a decade in Iraq and Syria.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Imam — whose real name is Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli — had been “serving as a finance minister and was also responsible for external affairs” for the group. He stopped short, however, of saying whether Imam was linked to the cell that carried out the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

“We are systematically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet,” Carter said at a Pentagon news conference, using an acronym for the group. While he couldn’t confirm that Imam was involved in planning for strikes in Europe, Carter said hitting the Islamic State’s leadership in Iraq and Syria makes a difference for Western security.

“Even if it’s just inspiration, it still takes you back to Iraq and Syria, and the need to eliminate the sources for that inspiration,” Carter said.

This month, the Pentagon announced it had killed Omar al-Shishani, described as the Islamic State’s “minister of war,” in an airstrike in Syria. Imam was a long-time operative who joined al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, eventually serving as the group’s leader in Mosul. The group at the time was run by Abu Musab alZarqawi, who was killed by U.S. special operations forces in 2006.

In recent days, the U.S. military also killed another senior Islamic State leader known as Abu Sarah, Carter said, who was in charge of paying the group’s fighters in northern Iraq. Imam was killed in an attack earlier this week, but Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford refused to say how or where.

The assaults against the group’s leadership in Iraq and Syria represent a new phase in the war against the Islamic State, which until recently had largely consisted of airstrikes on buildings and groups of amassed fighters. Late last year, a group of 200 American commandos were dispatched to northern Iraq to start conducting kill-or-capture operations on senior leaders. This year, U.S. Army Delta Force soldiers captured Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, a chemical weapons expert who once worked in the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Imam was a longtime member of al Qaeda in Iraq and was released from an Iraqi prison in 2012. He later gravitated to the group’s new incarnation as the Islamic State. The U.S. Treasury Department had placed a $7 million bounty on his head.

“The removal of this ISIL leader will hamper the organization’s ability to conduct operations both inside and outside of Iraq and Syria,” Carter said.

American ground forces are taking a larger role in the fighting in Iraq. This month, a company of U.S. Marines was secretly moved to a new firebase in northern Iraq close to the front lines with the Islamic State. They have since been engaging Islamic State troops in both artillery strikes and ground combat. Armed with four 155mm cannons, the troops have been supporting Iraqi ground forces operating near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul in recent days, firing artillery and illumination rounds at Islamic State positions.

The Marines have also come under multiple attacks: One was killed by an Islamic State rocket strike, and other troops fought off a Monday ground assault.

Their deployment wasn’t announced until after the Marine was killed last weekend; even so, the Pentagon is pushing for more troops to deploy to Iraq. Dunford said Friday that there will likely be an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq “in the coming weeks” if the military’s requests to the White House are accepted.

Photo credit: ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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