Reuters International

By Phil Stewart and Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Friday it has started training dozens of Syrian opposition fighters to battle the militant group Islamic State as part of a revamped programme that aims to avoid mistakes that doomed its first training effort in Turkey last year.

Training for the first group of recruits includes how to identify targets for U.S.-led coalition airstrikes to allow coalition aircraft to better strike Islamic State from the air.

"That allows us to bring significantly more fires into play in any of these skirmishes, battles, and firefights that are taking place throughout Syria," said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

Warren said no Syrian fighters had yet graduated from the programme.

The Pentagon has declined to say where the training is being conducted, but U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told Reuters it is in Turkey.

The failure of the original programme, which sought to train thousands of fighters, has been a concern for President Barack Obama, whose strategy depends on local partners combating Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

The 2015 programme was problematic from the start, with some of the first class of Syrian fighters being attacked by al Qaeda's Syria wing, Nusra Front, in their battlefield debut. At one point, a group of U.S.-trained rebels handed over ammunition and equipment to Nusra Front.

Instead of trying to pull entire units from the fight for training, as the Pentagon sought to do last year, the new programme will take small groups of fighters from the front-lines for training.

"If it works we'll do more. And if it doesn't, we'll shift again," Warren said.

The U.S. strategy against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where the Sunni militant group has carved out a self-declared caliphate, aims to force the collapse of its two major power centres of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

Although Iraq-led operations to retake Mosul have already begun, U.S. officials have declined to say if they think the city can be recaptured this year.

The timing of any operation to capture Raqqa is less clear.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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