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France launches airstrikes in northern Iraq as U.S. targets south

This image provided Friday, Sept.19, 2014 by the French Army's video and photo department ECPAD shows the destruction of a munitions and fuel depot overrun by the militants in Iraq. Joining U.S. forces acting in Iraqi skies, French fighter jets struck Friday against the militant Islamic State group, destroying a logistics depot, Iraqi and French officials said. (AP Photo/ECPAD)
This image provided Friday, Sept.19, 2014 by the French Army's video and photo department ECPAD shows the destruction of a munitions and fuel depot overrun by the militants in Iraq. Joining U.S. forces acting in Iraqi skies, French fighter jets struck Friday against the militant Islamic State group, destroying a logistics depot, Iraqi and French officials said. (AP Photo/ECPAD) AP

French jets struck an ammunition dump controlled by the Islamic State in northeastern Iraq on Friday, the first airstrike by an American ally since the announcement that a coalition of countries would move to confront the Sunni Muslim militants.

French President Francois Hollande’s office announced the strike, saying that Rafale fighter jets had bombed “logistics depots of the terrorists” and that the move marked only the beginning of French military involvement in helping the United States, the government of Iraq and an assortment of regional allies, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, in beating back the Islamic State.

“Other operations will follow in the coming days,” the statement said, a formulation consistent with Hollande’s pledge earlier in the week that France would work with the Iraqi government but for now would take no action against the Islamic State in Syria, where the Islamists control nearly all of the eastern third of the country.

A Kurdish security official who does not have permission to speak openly with reporters confirmed local news reports that the target of the French jets was an Islamic State-controlled ammunition dump between the Mosul and Zummar, both of which are in Islamic State hands.

The French Defense Ministry said the French strikes were coordinated with “France’s allies in the region,” a certain reference to the United States, whose aircraft have targeted Islamic State positions in the area dozens of time since President Barack Obama authorized military action in Iraq in early August. France did not say where its aircraft were based.

The French attacks came as the U.S. Central Command announced that its aircraft had struck targets south of Baghdad, 300 miles from the French targets, on Thursday and Friday. The U.S. strikes hit a boat on the Euphrates River supplying Islamic State positions, the fourth watercraft the U.S. has bombed this week, and a small Islamic State fighting unit. The statement from Central Command did not specify which attack took place when.

The French strikes represent the first concrete proof that the United States has found another nation willing to take direct action in countering the Islamic State in Iraq. U.S. lawmakers quizzed Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week over which nations had committed to actual flying missions against the Islamic State after U.S. officials said they had won support from a broad coalition of European, Asian and Arab nations to confront the threat.

Previously, the only nation other than the United States known to have involved its forces in direct military actions against the Islamic State has been Iran, whose armed advisers are believed to have accompanied Shiite militias into battle and whose pilots are rumored to have flown Iraqi aircraft on bombing runs.

Iran remains extremely suspicious of the involvement of the United States, as well as the participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition of Iran’s chief regional adversary, Saudi Arabia. But the top Shiite religious authority in Iraq offered some political and religious cover for the decision to work in tandem with the American-led effort during Friday prayers.

The chief representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential religious figure among Iraq’s Shiite population and Shiite-led government, told worshipers in the holy city of Najaf that cooperation with outside powers was necessary to deal with the internationalized threat from the Islamic State, which has executed hundreds of Shiite Muslims, whom it considers heretics.

Although the statement called for strict guidelines to protect Iraq’s sovereignty, the message from Sistani was the most direct yet that the threat warrants cooperation with the American military, which in many cases had fought directly against the very Shiite militias currently keeping the Islamic State out of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

“Even if Iraq is in need of help from its brothers and friends in fighting back terrorism, maintaining the sovereignty and independence of its decisions is of the highest importance,” Sistani’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbala’i, said during the Friday sermon.

Sistani previously had called for the remobilization of Iraq’s Shiite militias to combat the Islamic State after the Iraqi army collapsed and the Islamic State seized much of central and northern Iraq. But even as the militias and thousands of volunteers heeded his call to defend Baghdad, many expressed concern about fighting with American support after a long history of fighting both Sunnis and American troops during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation.

The Iraqi army, the Shiite militias and the autonomous Kurdish security forces, the peshmerga, have been battling the Islamic State on multiple fronts since June, but their campaign began to show success only after the United States began a campaign of limited airstrikes in August.

Baghdad continues to face limited terror attacks, including regular car bombings targeting Shiite neighborhoods and security forces. But Iraqi forces have managed to retake the Mosul Dam, break the siege of the town of Amerli, and recapture a town near Haditha in Anbar province with the help of U.S. bombing. Still, much of the front line in Iraq has remained relatively stable since late June.

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