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U.S. to Iraq: Fight ISIS on front lines despite Baghdad attacks

U.S. commanders in Iraq are urging the Iraqis to keep up the fight against the Islamic State group rather than consolidate their military forces in Baghdad to protect against an uptick in terrorist attacks.

The debate comes as the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has shifted tactics and begun launching more terrorist attacks against civilian targets.

Top U.S. military officials worry that the attacks targeting civilians are an effort by the Islamic State group to draw Iraqi forces away from the front lines of ISIS-held territory to the north and west.

"Our advice to the Iraqi government is to keep the pressure up. The way to win is to expel ISIL completely from Iraq, to wipe them out," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department.

So far, the Iraqis have not pulled any troops away from the two main fronts for operations against ISIS in the north near Mosul and Anbar province in the west, Warren said.

"The Iraqis wanted to reposition some forces" back to Baghdad, Warren said. "We said 'Hey, we think you should keep the forces out in the field.' And that's what they ended up doing."

At least 69 Iraqi civilians have died recently amid a spate of ISIS bomb attacks in Shiite neighborhoods, inflaming sectarian tensions in the city of 6 million.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said the Baghdad attacks are a concern.

"If this is not addressed quickly, it could cause [the Iraqi government] to have to take action to divert forces and divert their politics focus on that, as opposed to things like Mosul or finishing up their activities out in Anbar," Votel told a CNN reporter Wednesday.

ISIS has suffered a series of setbacks in Anbar province during the past several months and several ISIS attempts to generate combat power for offensive operations have failed.

"These attacks appear to be a shift in ISIL's tactics. Over the last six months, our enemy has suffered a string of defeats because the ISF is proving increasingly effective. ISIL wants to throw punches that land. To do this, they appear to have chosen to revert to some of their terrorist roots," Warren said.

Warren said the attacks are similar to the attacks American troops faced a decade ago from the extremist group then known as al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI.

"What they've resorted to are these kind of old, you know, mid-2000s terrorist tactics that are really a part of their AQI roots. That's how they got their start is through terror tactics," Warren said.

The Iraqi army has about half of its forces in Baghdad but none of the roughly 31,000 Iraqi troops that have undergone training from American troops are there.

"To my knowledge, none of the forces that we have trained are participating in the defense of Baghdad mission. All the forces that the U.S. and the coalition has trained are deployed and are conducting operations specifically against ISIL in the field," Warren said.

"It's an Iraqi government decision as to when they begin or if they begin to pull forces back. … Our advice to the Iraqi government is to keep the pressure up. … We're going to support them in whatever decision they make, but our advice to them is to keep their foot on the gas, continue," Warren said.

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