PARIS (AP) — Joining U.S. forces acting in Iraqi skies, France conducted its first airstrikes Friday against the militant Islamic State group, destroying a logistics depot that it controlled, Iraqi and French officials said.
Rafale fighter jets accompanied by support planes struck the depot in northern Iraq on Friday morning, and it was “entirely destroyed,” President Francois Hollande said. Iraq’s military spokesman said four morning airstrikes killed dozens of fighters.
“Other operations will follow in the coming days with the same goal — to weaken this terrorist organization and come to the aid of the Iraqi authorities,” Hollande said. “There are always risks in taking up a responsibility. I reduced the risks to a minimum.”
Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military, said four French airstrikes hit the town of Zumar, killing dozens of extremist fighters. Zumar and surrounding towns are heavily contested by Islamic State fighters, even though Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have managed to make headway nearby with the support of U.S. airstrikes.
With the strikes, France becomes the first foreign country to publicly add military muscle to United States airstrikes against the group, which has drawn criticism around the world and in a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution for its barbarity. Hollande ruled out French troops on the ground.
The first French airstrikes in Iraq have added significance: France, one of America’s oldest allies, was among the most vocal critics of the decision of U.S. President George W. Bush to conduct military action in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Last year, France was ready to join possible U.S. military action against President Bashar Assad’s force in Syria, before U.S. President Barack Obama stopped short. French authorities in recent weeks have suggested that the inaction there has fostered the development of the militants.
The strikes come at a time when polls show Hollande is the most unpopular French president in decades — mainly for his handling of France’s economic difficulties. But he has drawn higher marks from the French public in the international arena, including by helping drive al-Qaida-linked militants from northern Mali last year and in central African Republic in recent months.
U.S. Central Command said Thursday the U.S. military has conducted 176 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 8. On Wednesday, it hit a militant training camp southeast of Mosul and an ammunition stockpile southeast of Baghdad. It has also conducted a number of strikes this week in Iraq’s Anbar province, near the strategic Haditha Dam.
The French airstrike took place while U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in France for meetings with his counterpart, Gen. Pierre de Villiers. The two men were visiting an American military cemetery in Normandy, on the English Channel, when the French strike took place.
Dempsey, who was told of the attack by de Villiers, praised the French action.
“The French were our very first ally and they are there again for us,” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him in Normandy. “It just reminds me why these relationships really matter.”
At a news conference a day earlier, Hollande said France had agreed to “soon” conduct airstrikes requested by Iraq to bolster its fight against the militants who have captured swaths of the country.
He stressed that France wouldn’t go beyond airstrikes in support of the Iraqi military or Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and wouldn’t attack targets in Syria, where the Islamic State group has also captured territory.
French jets on Monday began flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq involving Rafales and an ATL2 surveillance plane, military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said.
Eds: Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Robert Burns in Caen, France; and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed.