Reuters International

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force deployed B-52 bombers to Qatar on Saturday to join the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the first time they have been based in the Middle East since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

U.S. Air Forces Central Command said it last flew the long-range bombers operationally in the region in May 2006 as part of the war in Afghanistan, and during a U.S.-led military exercise in Jordan in May 2015.

"The B-52 demonstrates our continued resolve to apply persistent pressure on Daesh and defend the region in any future contingency," said Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Brown, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State militant movement.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Karns, spokesman for the Central Command, said he could not provide the exact number of B-52 bombers to be based at Al Udeid Air Basein Qatar due to "operational security reasons."

Washington's decision to deploy its powerful B-52 bombers to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar came as the U.S. military stepped up the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Brown said the bombers would be able to deliver precision weapons and carry out a range of missions, including strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction, and maritime operations.

Karns said the bombers would enable U.S. forces to drop one or two munitions in an area, rather than use carpet bombing.

"Accuracy is critically important in this war," he said. "Carpet-bombing would not be effective for the operation we're in because Daesh doesn't mass as large groups. Often, they blend into population centres. We always look to minimize civilian casualties."

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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