19 October 2014

Siege Possible as ISIS Nears Strategic Town in Iraq

OCT. 15, 2014

BAGHDAD — Fighters from the Islamic State were mustering with tanks, armored vehicles and heavy weapons on Wednesday near a strategically located rural town about 25 miles west of Baghdad in the embattled province of Anbar, local officials said.

The militants were approaching the town from three directions — north, west and east — through surrounding farmland, and they appeared to be preparing a siege, the officials said.

“The situation is dangerous here,” said Sheikh Faisal al-Esawi, the director of the town, Amariyat al-Falluja, and a leader of the Albu Esa tribe. By nightfall, no shots had been fired, but the situation remained very tense, officials said.

The Sunni militant group Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, has been on the offensive throughout Anbar Province in recent weeks. It has scored a series of tactical victories and bedeviled the Iraqi security forces and their coalition partners, who have had limited success in reversing the militants’ gains.

Islamic State has tried twice in the past month to lay siege to Amariyat al-Falluja, about 10 miles south of Falluja, but the Iraqi police and military, in collaboration with members of the Albu Esa tribe, blocked their advance.

Conquering Amariyat al-Falluja would not put Islamic State closer to the capital; the group has occupied an area farther to the east, within about 12 miles of Baghdad International Airport, for several months.

But controlling the area would give the fighters a strategic advantage over an important transportation corridor that follows the Euphrates River and connects two Islamic State strongholds: the city of Falluja, which the group has controlled since the beginning of the year, and a region in northern Babil Province, south of the capital, where they have held ground since the summer.

“We are ready to fight them,” Arif al-Janabi, head of Amariyat al-Falluja’s police station, said Wednesday.

The recent string of Islamic State victories in Anbar Province began with the successful onslaught last month of the Saqlawiya military base, followed closely by the defeat of a garrison in the village of Albu Aitha, also known as Albu Etha.

The Islamic State, after several days of fighting, then gained effective control of the town of Hit about two weeks ago. The victory was complete when, last weekend, several hundred Iraqi troops stationed at a training base outside the town were redeployed to Al Asad Air Base, to the northwest of Hit. Iraqi officials called the move “a tactical retreat.”

Iraqi forces have also been locked in near-continual clashes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, since the summer. In recent days, Islamic State fighters have been able to penetrate the city from the west and on Wednesday were pressing in from the north and south, said Taha Abdul Ghani, a member of the provincial council.

The Iraqi military command deployed about 500 soldiers and police officers to Ramadi on Monday to reinforce troops stationed there.

The reinforcements arrived with artillery and an armored unit that included tanks, said Ahmed Hamid, head of the security commission for the Anbar provincial council.

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