OTTAWA - The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant appears to have more fight left in it than the U.S.-led coalition had been expecting.
Extremist forces are on the offensive in northern and eastern Iraq, with a series of attacks in the provinces of Nineveh and Diyala driven back with the help of bombing raids — including ones carried out by Canadian warplanes in recent days.
The heavy fighting, particularly in the area of the strategically important Mosul dam, comes after both U.S. and Canadian commanders had said the Islamic State's offensive had been checked by the air campaign.
Navy Capt. Paul Forget, a spokesman for the Canadian Joint Operations Command, revealed that country's CF-18s recently conducted three airstrikes — on Jan. 10, 11 and 12.
The attacks destroyed a series of enemy fighting positions and a storage facility.
Forget said Canadian jets have stepped up the tempo in supporting ground operations by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and he attributed the mission's earlier optimism to the cut and thrust of war.
"In any type of conflict there will be defensive operations, there will be offensive operations and right now ISIL has felt they're in a better position to conduct some offensive operations," he said.
"They probably felt they were ready to do that and we have been in a position to exacerbate that effort and deny them that ability."
In the early stages of the campaign, Canadian jets were dropping relatively few bombs, the result of extremist forces taking cover and providing few targets. The recent ISIL offensives have altered the dynamic, Forget acknowledged.
"There has been an increase lately in ISIL offensives and as such they are exposing themselves more, which provides a bit more of a target-rich environment," said Forget.
Fighting in Nineveh — an area northwest of Irbil that stretches to the Syrian border — has been intense.
Canada has up to 69 special forces soldiers advising Kurdish peshmerga forces in the region of Irbil, but Forget wasn't able to say whether the offensive in the region posed a direct threat to those troops.
"I don't have any information to that effect. Their mission continues to be in an advise and assist capacity," he said.
The province is also home to the country's second-largest city, Mosul, which coalition commanders have promised would be liberated by Iraqi forces, U.S. said recently more time and training are needed to retake the stronghold.
Military experts in the U.S. have said the attacks in Diyala, east of Baghdad along the Iranian border, have been designed to maintain pressure on the capital.
As a result, the Iraqi government has asked the coalition to step up the rate of bombing.
The urgency has been highlighted by persistent warnings of a humanitarian disaster in the making now that Islamic State fighters are using water as a weapon of war.
They've used a dam to divert the Al-Roz River, which supplies drinking water and irrigation to the Bildoz district of 150,000 people.
The U.S. used airstrikes last month to try and force the extremists to stop, but the attacks were ineffective, according to local residents.
ISIL has been conducting guerilla-style attacks in Baghdad itself.
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