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WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has begun its first airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria late Monday, as the war ordered by President Obama against the militant organization took on an urgent new phase.

The Pentagon acknowledged responsibility for the attack in a brief statement.

“I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. “Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time.”

The attack, carried out by warplanes dropping bombs and ships firing cruise missiles, hit about 20 IS targets, including headquarters buildings for the militants who have based their movement in Syria, according to a senior Defense Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack.

Aircraft from allied Arab nations participated in the strikes, the official said.Several Arab nations are involved in the ongoing U.S.-led operation, a defense official said. ABC News reported that the nations were Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The strikes in Syria were not invited by the government of Bashar Assad who is waging a brutal civil war against opponents of his regime, including IS militants. It’s unclear how Assad will react to the U.S-led attacks. His military possesses sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, although most of them are near the capital of Damascus and near the border with Israel.

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About two thirds of the estimated 30,000 IS fighters are based in Syria. The remainder have captured large parts of northern Iraq, although their momentum has been blunted there by U.S. fighter, bomber and drone aircraft. Last week, French warplanes launched attacks on IS targets in Iraq for the first time.

For the last several weeks, U.S. spy planes have been flying over Syria collecting intelligence on potential IS targets.

There have been 190 U.S. airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq since bombing there started in August, according to statistics from U.S. Central Command, which coordinates military activity in the region.

The goal of IS fighters is to dominate a vast stretch of territory from Iraq to the Mediterranean. Last month, they swept through northern Iraq, capturing Mosul, the country’s second-largest city after Baghdad, and threatening the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Kurdish forces and Iraqi commandos, backed by U.S. airpower, halted the advance of IS fighters and ejected them from control of two key dams near Mosul and Haditha. They also helped prevent the slaughter of religious refugees who

Rolling back IS gains and ultimately destroying the organization, Pentagon and White House officials say, will require competent, local military forces fighting on behalf of representative governments. The formation of a new government in Iraq, rejecting the sectarian rule of Nouri al Maliki, has been hailed by the administration as a step in that direction. U.S. airpower alone cannot eliminate the threat from IS fighters, officials say.

Also last week, Congress and the president agreed to fund a $ 500 million program designed to recruit, train and equip a force of moderate Syrians. They will be trained in Saudi Arabia to defend their communities against IS fighters and the Syrian regime.

The jihadist group you’ve been hearing so much about has many names, but one explicit goal. (News, USA TODAY)

Follow @tvandenbrook on Twitter.

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