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US Widens Campaign Against Islamist Militants


A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter uses binoculars to check on Islamic State group's positions on the outskirts of Makhmour, 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 6, 2014.

The U.S. military is widening its campaign against Islamic State militants, launching four airstrikes Sunday on insurgents threatening to take over the Haditha Dam in western Iraq.

U.S. officials said Iraq remains in control of the dam, a major source of water and electrical power. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking in Georgia, said securing the dam was crucial.

"If that dam would fall into ISIL's hand, or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that that would cause would be very significant," said Hagel. "And it would put a significant and big risk into the mix in Iraq."

U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking to build an international coalition to fight the jihadists and says he will meet Tuesday with U.S. congressional leaders to get their views about how best to combat the Islamic State threat.

He plans to speak on the issue Wednesday, a day before the 13th anniversary of the September 11 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people.

In Cairo, Arab League foreign ministers endorsed all international, regional and national efforts to confront the Islamic State and other militant groups.

Ahead of the Arab League meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with the Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi. The State Department says the two discussed the need for the Arab League and its members to take a strong position in the coalition that is developing against the militants.

In addition to its attacks near Haditha, the U.S. said it is continuing airstrikes against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, targeting fighters and military hardware near the town of Irbil.

The U.S. Central Command has described the attacks as "a mix of attack, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft," saying the flights occurred Friday and Saturday.

In nearby Syria, monitors say Syrian government airstrikes targeting the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa killed at least 25 people, including 16 civilians.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the civilians died in the bombing of a bakery operated by the extremist group. Other strikes hit an Islamic State training camp and a government finance building used as an Islamic court.

The northeastern city of Raqqa is the group's main foothold in Syria.

The militants - seeking to establish a cross-border Islamic caliphate - have recently seized large swaths of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria. Their push has triggered a mass exodus of refugees from the region and near-global condemnation for their murderous tactics.

Portions of this story are excerpted from Reuters wire reports.