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story.lead_photo.caption In this Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 image from video provided by Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, civilians flee fighting near Baghouz, Syria. Fierce fighting was underway Monday between U.S.-backed Syrian forces and the Islamic State group around the extremists' last foothold in eastern Syria. The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a four-year global war to end IS' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014. (ANHA via AP)

BEIRUT -- Islamic State militants cornered in their last foothold in eastern Syria fought back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps Monday, slowing Kurdish fighters advancing under the cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish news agencies and a Syrian war monitor said.

An Italian photographer was wounded in the clashes between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.

No one knows exactly how many Islamic State fighters are still holding out in the sliver of territory under attack, but they are estimated to be in the hundreds, with most of them being foreign fighters. It is also unclear whether civilians are still in the area, caught under heavy bombardment.

The Syrian Democratic Forces on Saturday launched its final push to clear the area of Islamic State fighters after months of fighting. About 20,000 civilians have fled just in the past few weeks. The numbers have overwhelmed Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meager resources.

The capture of the Islamic State-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a four-year war to end the Islamic State extremists' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014. The end of the war, in turn, would open the way for President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria as he has promised to do once the Islamic State has been defeated.

"The U.S. will soon control 100% of ISIS territory in Syria," Trump tweeted Sunday. He has said repeatedly that he doesn't want the U.S. to be the world's policeman and that he intends to bring home the 2,000 troops in Syria.

U.S. officials and Trump's own military advisers, however, have warned that losing its territorial hold does not mean the Islamic State is defeated. They've warned that the group could stage a comeback in Syria within six months to a year if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 Islamic State fighters in the small area they still control, but he said others have "dispersed" and "gone to ground."

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have said the Islamic State has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to less than 2 square miles, where most of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents say the group still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.

Assad Bechara, a Lebanese political analyst, said the Islamic State is an ideology, not just a military structure, and that it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory from the group.

"This [American] pullout will leave a huge vacuum despite the allegations of defeating the last pockets of ISIS. This vacuum will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria," he said, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return.

It is not clear how long the final push to free Baghouz from Islamic State control will take. Trump said last week that he had been told that the full territorial defeat of the Islamic State could be completed as early as this week.

But progress appears to be slower than what the Syrian Democratic Forces officials had initially estimated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian Democratic Forces was moving very slowly because of land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists' use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. The Islamic State also is using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.

On Monday, the Observatory said 13 Islamic State militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed, as well as six Syrian Democratic Forces fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.

The Islamic State said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of "martyrdom-seekers" attacked Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.

Syrian state media claimed a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children.

The Italian news agency ANSA said Milan-born Gabriele Micalizzi, 34, was injured in the face by splinters of a rocket-propelled grenade, adding that his life was not in danger. It said he was being airlifted by the coalition to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

SECURITY IN IDLIB

Elsewhere, Russia and Turkey said "decisive measures are needed to ensure security" in Syria's Idlib province, where militants linked to al-Qaida have seized control.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar agreed during talks in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday to continue coordination by their militaries and intelligence services "to establish peace and maintain stability" in the city and province of Idlib. They also discussed the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria that U.S. forces plan to leave, according to a Russian Defense Ministry statement.

The meeting took place as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to host talks on Syria with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Thursday. Russia and Turkey struck an agreement to avert a Syrian government offensive against Idlib in September, but that's in tatters after the militants last month took control of the area from Turkish-backed rebels.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has signaled that Ankara might agree to a limited Russian-backed Syrian offensive to retake Idlib. That would be a setback for Turkey as it would strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad, who's seeking to exploit the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops to take back oil-rich northeastern provinces held by the Kurds.

Ankara considers the Kurdish fighters to be terrorists and has been pushing to establish a buffer zone on the Syria-Turkey border, a plan the U.S. supports but that would likely also require Russian support to enforce.

Information for this article was contributed by Bassem Mroue, Zeina Karam and Bassam Hatoum of The Associated Press and by Stepan Kravchenko of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: ISIS' holdouts in Syria slow Kurds' advance

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