Islamic State came closer to gaining full control of Iraq’s Anbar province after it seized a military base to the west of Baghdad that had been one of the government’s few remaining outposts there.
Militants seized the base, located near the town of Hit and a major highway from Baghdad to the Syrian border, after heavy fighting with soldiers, according to Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a Sunni tribal leader. Its capture increases the threat to Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, and to Iraq’s second-largest dam at Haditha.
The insurgent group has declared a caliphate that stretches across much of northern Syria and Iraq, prompting the U.S. to launch a bombing campaign backed by European and Arab allies to halt the advance. The group’s recent gains to the west of Baghdad have sparked concern it’s preparing to attack the capital.
Islamic State captured the Anbar towns of Hit and Kubaisa last week, and its fighters are battling Iraqi forces in Abu Ghraib, 18 miles (29 kilometers) from Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and government offices.
The town of Haditha is “completely besieged” by Islamic State militants and will fall within days without U.S. action to prevent it, Faleh al-Issawi, the deputy head of Anbar provincial council, said by phone late yesterday. He said the jihadists control 80 percent of Anbar province.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey said in an ABC interview broadcast on Oct. 12 that Islamic State is moving into areas populated by Sunnis near the capital. “I have no doubt there will be days when they use indirect fire into Baghdad,” Dempsey said. Indirect fire can refer to use of mortars or artillery.
Dempsey also said that the U.S. recently had to call in Apache attack helicopters to secure the Baghdad airport and prevent Iraqi forces from being overrun, without specifying when it happened. While an outright assault on the capital is unlikely, strikes from a distance could heighten the sense of insecurity there, he said.
Baghdad is already the target of regular attacks, some of them claimed by Islamic State. The group said it was behind Oct. 11 suicide bombings that killed more than 43 people in the Shiite Shula and Kadhimiya districts of Baghdad, as well as similar attacks the following day in Diyala north of the capital.
Baghdad will be better defended than Iraqi cities such as Mosul, seized by Islamic State after it routed the Iraqi army during a lightning advance across the north in June, according to Peter Harling, senior Middle East and North Africa adviser at the International Crisis Group.
“There is simply no way, for instance, Daesh could storm the large, combative Shiite militias that are awaiting in the Iraqi capital, and which enjoy unconditional state backing, from both the local government and Iran,” he said in an e-mailed reply to questions.