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U.S. Military Counters Criticism That Air Strikes Aren't Stopping Islamic State

The Pentagon took aim June 5 at a growing chorus of critics who say a 10-month campaign of air strikes by the United States and allies has been ineffective at preventing the Islamic State from gaining more territory in Iraq and Syria.

Air Force Lt. Gen. John W. Hesterman III, leader of the air campaign, asserted that coalition pilots are killing more than 1,000 militants a month -- a devastating toll -- all the while avoiding casualties among civilians and Iraqi government forces.

"We kill them wherever we find them," he said, noting the air strikes were successful at destroying most of IS's oil refining capacity and helping to retake some captured territory in northern Iraq and Syria.

Hesterman, who spoke by telephone with reporters in Washington from his headquarters in Qatar, said his pilots take pains to avoid hitting civilians and friendly troops on the ground.

That is not always easy since many of them are dressed just like the militants, who have made a point of blending in with the civilian population to avoid being targeted.

"This enemy wrapped itself around the civilian population before we even started," he said, making the mission particularly difficult.

"It has never been more difficult to identify friend from foe than it is right now in Iraq," he said. "It is nearly impossible to tell them apart when they dress nearly the same and use the same equipment."

The military was not responsible, Hesterman asserted, for dozens of civilians reported killed in a particularly devastating air strike earlier this week in Hawija, an Islamic State stronghold west of Kirkuk.

The air strike against a known car bomb factory in an industrial area used "a fairly small weapon," he said.

"If there were unintended injuries, that responsibility rests squarely on Daesh," he said, noting that the factory contained "a massive amount" of explosives that set off a series of gigantic secondary explosions that could be heard miles away in Kirkuk.

"Let's be clear. What did the damage was the huge amount of high explosives that Daesh intended to turn into murderous weapons to kill Iraqi forces and innocent civilians," Hesterman said.

Some critics are baffled that IS was able to take control of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, despite the coalition's larger number of ground troops and complete superiority in the air.

Hesterman said that the militants during the battle for Ramadi did not appear out in the open where they could have been targeted by air strikes.

"If the enemy [had] massed at Ramadi, they would be dead," he said.

Hesterman's assertion that air strikes are taking more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters off the battlefield each month echoes a claim earlier this week by Tony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, that air strikes have killed 10,000 fighters since last August.

Military officials have refused to say how they calculate that number. Meanwhile, critics such as Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, say that even if it is accurate, it says little about progress toward defeating IS, which has refilled its ranks with new recruits and taken control of vast new areas in Iraq and Syria this year.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP