French fighter jets carried out their first airstrikes in Iraq early Friday, joining the U.S. air campaign against the extremist group Islamic State.
Less than 24 hours after President Francois Hollande announced that he had approved a request from the government in Baghdad for air support, at least two French Rafale planes attacked the insurgents’ positions, according to a statement from his office.
“This morning at 9:40 a.m. [Paris time] our Rafale aircraft carried out a first attack against a logistics center of the terrorist organization Daesh in the northeast of Iraq,” the statement said, using an Arabic colloquialism for the Islamic State. “The target was hit and entirely destroyed. Other operations will be carried out in the days to come.”
The target was in the Zumar area in northern Iraq. The French Defense Ministry said the destroyed building, containing vehicles, weapons and fuel, had been hit four times.
“We were able to do this thanks to the reconnaissance missions we have been carrying out since Monday. The mission was carried out in direct coordination with the Iraqi authorities and our allies in the region,” the ministry said.
“France is acting in Iraq for the good of collective security and its own security,” it continued. “The threat from this jihadist group is unusual because of its size, its weaponry, its determination and its actions. Our goal is to contribute to peace and security in Iraq and to weaken the terrorists.”
A senior French official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity to discuss internal decisions, said French special forces are on the ground in the Kurdish region to assist in relaying target information for the jets and to help equip and train ethnic Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Hollande has ruled out sending French ground troops to Iraq or taking action in neighboring Syria. The official in Washington said that France does not believe it has the legal authority to strike Islamic State positions in Syria.
Speaking to journalists on Friday, Hollande praised the “pilots who made this mission a success.”
“There are always risks when one takes responsibilities, but I have reduced the risks to the minimum,” Hollande said.
The Elysee Palace said the French parliament would be officially informed of the details of the French action in Iraq next week. A debate on the operation is scheduled to take place in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on Wednesday, but there will be no vote.
The French air support is being provided by the country’s military base at Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates. The training camp has six Rafale warplanes, several transport and refueling aircraft and 750 military personnel.
The bombing raids on Friday were conducted under French command in coordination with Iraqi authorities and “France’s allies in the region” -- namely the United States -- the French Defense Ministry said.
The U.S. Central Command said Thursday that the United States has carried out 176 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 8. On Wednesday, it hit a militant training camp southeast of the city of Mosul and an ammunition stockpile southeast of Baghdad.
The French airstrikes took place while U.S. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in France for meetings with his counterpart, Gen. Pierre de Villiers.
Dempsey, who was told of the attack by De Villiers during a visit to an American military cemetery in Normandy, praised the French action, the Associated Press reported.
“The French were our very first ally and they are there again for us,” Dempsey told reporters. “It just reminds me why these relationships really matter.”
Willsher is a special correspondent. Staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.