KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Deadly bombings in Baghdad may signal a shift in tactics by the Islamic State, determined to rebound from a series of battlefield losses and the group's hope that attacks in the capital will distract already divided Iraqi leaders, a top U.S. general said Wednesday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said, however, this does not mean IS has given up its ambition to create a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
"They are looking for ways to start to regain their momentum or regain the initiative," he told reporters flying with him to Kuwait, the first stop on a Middle East tour. Votel said the suicide bombings and other attacks in and around Baghdad over the past week, killing more than 200 civilians, show how rapidly momentum and tactics can change. The latest, on Tuesday, struck outdoor markets and a restaurant in Baghdad, killing at least 69 people.
"While we abhor the things that the Islamic State does, I think we have to respect our enemies and respect their ability to adapt and adjust on the battlefield," he said.
U.S. officials say they have squeezed the Islamic State on multiple fronts, damaging their ability to raise revenue from oil, destroying substantial cash stockpiles, eliminating more than 120 of their key leaders since the start of 2015 and reducing the amount of territory they control by 45 percent in Iraq and by 20 percent in Syria. Even so, the militants have proven resilient and adaptive.
"We are seeing them (Islamic State) see opportunities and take advantage of those opportunities," Votel said. "I think they believe it will cause the Iraqi government to divert forces, divert effort, divert intellectual horsepower to solving those problems" as opposed to priorities like recapturing the IS stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq and further stabilizing Anbar province.
Retaking Mosul is an important goal because it is the Islamic State's main stronghold in Iraq, but prospects for launching an Iraqi offensive there have been in doubt for more than a year, in part due to political divisions in Baghdad.
Anthony Cordesman, a longtime observer of Middle East conflicts, believes the recent deadly attacks in and around Baghdad are indeed a response to the militants' battlefield and financial setbacks. But he also says it shows the militants sense vulnerabilities in Baghdad, including sectarian divisions, corruption and weaknesses throughout the security forces.
Asked whether he was worried that political unrest in Baghdad, which has left the Iraqi parliament in limbo for weeks, might be a hindrance to further Iraqi military progress, Votel said, "There is a little concern" that it could divert Iraq's focus from objectives like retaking Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
He said he was confident that the U.S.-led coalition has "an excellent dialogue ongoing with the Iraqi government and I think they understand" the need to stay focused on military objectives, "and I'm not suggesting that they have taken their eye off of that."
Votel, who took over at Central Command seven weeks ago after commanding U.S. Special Operations Command, offered a balanced view of the outlook for further Iraqi military gains. He said they have made important advances in recent months but have much more to accomplish. Without discussing specifics about U.S. troop involvement, he said the American public should know that "it is going to be a long and difficult fight."
There are now about 5,500 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. The Obama administration recently announced that it would send another 217 troops to Iraq to expand the advising mission, and that it would make Apache attack helicopters available to support Iraq's moves toward Mosul. Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, said Wednesday that the additional U.S. troops have not yet arrived.
In the interview, Votel made no predictions about the demise of the Islamic State. Asked whether nearly two years of U.S. and coalition aerial bombing and recent gains on the ground in both Iraq and Syria have pushed IS to the breaking point, Votel said, "We might see some signs" of that if they lose Mosul and Raqqa, their self-declared capital in Syria.
Now that IS has lost substantial pieces of territory it once controlled in Iraq, "they may be reverting in some regards back to their terrorist roots," Votel said.
Votel later acknowledged that his assessment that IS is returning to its roots "might be a little bit of a supposition on my part." The group began as an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq led by the Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, until he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006. Remnants regrouped in Syria before sweeping into western and northern Iraq in the first half of 2014, prompting President Barack Obama to send U.S. troops back to Iraq as advisers and trainers.
"I don't want to give the impression that I think they have given up on the notion of a caliphate or on an Islamic state," he said. "We still see them attempting to govern, to subjugate populations."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this from Washington.