U.S. general says Iraq retaking some ground from Islamic State

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of U.S. troops in the Middle East said on Friday Iraqi forces are "incrementally" recapturing ground from Islamic State militants who seized much of the country's northwest this year, but he added that major Iraq advances will take time. "They are doing some things now to incrementally recapture ground that's been lost," General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, said in his first news conference about the conflict. He cited the Kurdish operation around Mosul Dam and their recapture of the border post of Rabia. Austin said U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria were having an impact on the group, hampering their ability to travel in large convoys and gather en masse to carry out attacks. The Army general said the main U.S. focus was to "defeat and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State militant group by providing support to the Iraqi government and military. He said the United States had intensified air strikes around the Syrian town of Kobani because an Islamic State offensive there had provided more targets to attack. "In my assessment, the enemy has made a decision to make Kobani his main effort," Austin said, noting that it had continued to pour fighters into the town in recent days. "If he continues to present us with major targets, as he has done in the Kobani area, then clearly we'll service those targets." He said it was "highly possible" Kobani could still fall into the hands of Islamic State militants, but Kurdish fighters had done "yeoman's work" and were fighting to regain territory. Austin said he thought a U.S. plan to train some 5,000 members of the moderate Syrian opposition to create a force to fight Islamic State militants was realistic. He said the key was what Islamic State would look like in eight months to a year. "My personal opinion is that they'll be much degraded from what they are now and so I think a well-trained force that's well-equipped and well-led will have a real good chance of being successful," he said. (Reporting by David Alexander; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Doina Chiacu)