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Islamic State ranks shrink amid ‘retreat on all fronts’: Pentagon

A top U.S. military commander said that the militant group that calls itself Islamic State is on the retreat "on all fronts" as the number of its combatants at its disposal declines.

Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the outgoing commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, told a Pentagon press briefing on Wednesday that the number of IS fighters had fallen as a result of international military efforts against the group, also known as "Daesh."

"We estimate that over the past 11 months we've killed about 25,000 enemy fighters. When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed prior to our arrival, that's 45,000 enemy taken off the battlefield," MacFarland said, adding that Islamic State's territorial power in Syria and Iraq was starting to decline.

"I only tell you this number to provide a sense to the scale of our support and perhaps explain why enemy resistance is beginning to crumble," he added.

MacFarland was giving his last briefing as he prepares to leave the commanding post of the coalition, known in full as the "Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve"- a joint task force set up by the U.S.-led coalition to fight Islamic State.

He was reluctant to give a figure of the estimated number of ISIS fighters remaining, however. Estimates put the number of current ISIS forces around 20,000, however.

"I do believe is that the number of fighters on the front line has diminished. They've diminished not only in quantity, but also in quality. We don't see them operating nearly as effectively as they have in the past," MacFarland said.

'Retreat on all fronts'

ISIS took control of swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, taking advantage of sectarian divides and popular dissatisfaction with the ruling regimes in both countries.

But MacFarland said the coalition had made advances on the field over the past year, regaining control over ISIS strongholds like Ramadi and making advances elsewhere.

"Whatever the true number of enemy casualties may be, there's no question that our strikes have enabled the liberation of more than 25,000 total square kilometers from Daesh. That's nearly half of what the enemy once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they once controlled in Syria," he said.

Looking back to when he took up the role as commander last September, MacFarland said that "eleven months ago, there were questions about our strategy, the capacity and the will of our partners" but that since then, "all these questions have been answered, not by words, but by deeds."

"Our approach is paying off. The enemy is in retreat on all fronts," he told the briefing.

"You don't hear the word 'stalemate' anymore. That's because over the past year with our partners, we were able to seize the initiative. We now talk about maintaining the momentum of the campaign in both Iraq and Syria. In other words, we spend more time thinking about what we will do to the enemy than we spend thinking about what the enemy might do to us," he said.

Beginning of the end?

ISIS' roots can be traced back earlier, however, with the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s prompting the rise of the Islamist, anti-Western terrorist group now known as Islamic State.

The long-drawn-out conflicts – and tangle web of political, social and sectarian consequences – experienced by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago have acted as a cautionary tale for the current international coalition against ISIS, making it far more wary of appearing to be a foreign, occupying power in charge of combatting the group. As such, it has focused far more on training and assisting Iraq's Security Forces (ISF) in combatting the group.

MacFarland said on Wednesday that the coalition had trained more than 13,500 members of the Iraqi security forces including over 4,000 Iraqi Army soldiers, 1,500 counter terrorism service solders, 6,000 Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq), almost 1,000 Federal police and 300 border guards in how to combat the insurgency effectively.

He said the ISF had "proved they can conduct complex and decisive operations" and that a turning point in the fight against Islamic State had come with the liberation of Ramadi. This had, in turn, cut off another of the group's strongholds, Fallujah, which was recaptured from ISIS by Iraqi forces, assisted by the coalition, in June.

Now, the coalition has its eyes set on Mosul, one of the last bastions of Islamic State-rule in Iraq and has to turn its attentions to Syria where ISIS still holds Raqqa.

"To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the liberation of Ramadi was the end of the beginning of the campaign against Daesh," MacFarland said. "The beginning of the end will be the liberation of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Once it is recaptured, the enemy in Iraq will be reduced to scattered pockets of resistance and that is now our focus," he said.

MacFarland said the U.S. had also supported forces across the border in Syria where the U.S.-backed fight against ISIS is complicated by a complex civil war and power play between rebel groups, ISIS and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Still, MacFarland said he was "100 percent certain that Daesh will be eliminated as a governing entity in Iraq and Syria. As far as how far away it is, I'm reluctant to make estimates of how long it can take."