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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — An Islamic preacher’s speech in which he threatened the West also provoked a large show of military force Friday, as Russia and Iran mobilized troops and military hardware on Syria’s northern border in a bid to prevent a major U.S. air strike.
Islamic State militants are believed to be preparing for potential new attacks on the group’s Syria stronghold of Raqqa, its last major stronghold in the country. In the past year, they have taken control of large chunks of eastern Syria and western parts of the Iraqi desert and moved deep into Turkey, which is part of the U.S.-backed coalition helping to fight militants.
Assad’s government has deployed troops and allied militia to shore up its foothold near the U.S.-trained rebels’ base of al-Tanf near the border. Earlier Friday, Syria’s military also sent reinforcements, and pro-Assad fighters were reported to have taken control of an army base.
A group of soldiers and militiamen loyal to Assad marched under cover of heavy artillery to take control of Qaboun, a town southeast of Syria’s border with Iraq. The commander at the base told The Associated Press that the military was preparing to move to retake al-Tanf.
Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander for the coalition against Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, said the U.S. was preparing a range of options for its strike on Raqqa, saying he hadn’t even discussed with his Russian counterpart yet the U.S. plan.
“There’s a lot we do not want to discuss in the next couple of days with Russia,” Austin told reporters Friday from Qatar. “We need to build a robust coalition.”
Austin previously called for the U.S.-led coalition’s use of its air power to defeat Islamic State militants, but said there was no sign of that now.
After a meeting of the U.S.-led coalition’s military leadership, Abbott told reporters that the group was in the early stages of deciding what action to take against the Islamic State group.
Abbott said that U.S.-led forces have been conducting airstrikes against what ISIS calls a “caliphate” in Syria in a bid to free Mosul, the group’s Syrian stronghold.
“The goal is obviously for Mosul to be liberated, and we’ve been doing these sort of airstrikes in Syria to liberate that
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