OCT. 17, 2014
ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate
By KIRK SEMPLE and ERIC SCHMITT
BAGHDAD -- Islamic State militants are still dominating the fight in Iraq's crucial Anbar Province weeks into the American air campaign, as the Iraqi military has struggled to go on the offensive and has been unable to make the most of coalition air support, officials say.
Even as international airstrikes have factored heavily in allowing Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting farther north and in Syria to make gains against the jihadists, the air campaign has been limited in Anbar, in part because Iraqi forces there have mostly stayed at their garrisons. American military advisers are increasing pressure on their Iraqi counterparts to leave their bases and seize the initiative, officials in Washington say.
Exploiting the slow pace, fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have aggressively pressed their campaign in recent weeks, commandeering towns and military garrisons along the Euphrates River Valley in Anbar, a vast desert province that stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
"Anbar Province is in trouble," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said recently. "We know that."
As Iraqi and American officials have tried to rally the Iraqi security forces, efforts in Baghdad to achieve a more unified political front to face the crisis have also gone slowly. Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has been struggling to gain support not only from minority Sunnis and Kurds -- a process President Obama called critical to any military effort -- but even within his own Shiite bloc.  Despite weeks of wrangling, he has yet to fill the two crucial security posts in his cabinet: defense and interior.
The Islamic State's advances in Anbar Province, which is largely Sunni, have been a central concern for the Iraqi authorities since the beginning of the year. The militants first established a major foothold there in January  when they seized the city of Falluja. They have expanded their authority throughout the province, sometimes by force, but also by taking advantage of the profound disenchantment among Sunnis alienated by the government in Baghdad.
The most recent string of Islamic State victories in Anbar Province began with the onslaught last month  of the Saqlawiya military garrison, followed closely by the defeat of a detachment of Iraqi troops  based in the village of Albu Aitha. The Islamic State also gained control of Hit, a town on the main east-west road between the Haditha Dam and the provincial capital of Ramadi, both of which the militants have sought to take.
In those battles, the Iraqi military largely stayed on the defensive against a highly mobile militant force.
Islamic State fighters have recently begun to push into the west side of Ramadi, local officials said. Further down the Euphrates, militants have been mustering  outside the oft-contested town of Amariyat al-Falluja this week, and on Thursday launched an attack that was repelled by Iraqi forces in collaboration with local tribal fighters, officials said. Over the course of the week, hundreds of additional Iraqi forces have been deployed to both Ramadi and Amariyat al-Falluja, local officials reported.
But the fighting in those places this week involved only one airstrike by the American-led coalition: a bombing northwest of Ramadi last Sunday that destroyed a personnel carrier.
Officials say the air campaign in Anbar has been limited in part because the terrain is more difficult for air support, with militants finding cover in the orchards, cities and towns that line the Euphrates.
American officials said they have been especially concerned that civilian casualties in the Sunni-dominated areas where the Islamic State has thrived would damage the Iraqi government's efforts to enlist Sunni support in Iraq and abroad.
In addition, bad weather has scrubbed surveillance flights in recent days, officials said, and the intense focus on Kobani in Syria has diverted planes.
Officials also said that since the start of the coalition air campaign, Islamic State fighters throughout Iraq and Syria have learned to disperse into smaller units and have taken more care to hide weaponry and equipment.
American officials said that in pushing their Iraqi counterparts to become more aggressive, they are not trying to jolt the Iraqi troops in Anbar off their bases before they were suitably trained and armed. Preparedness levels of units, they said, varied greatly, and hundreds of American advisers in Iraq have been integrated into the Iraqi military command to help assess troop strengths and supply needs as well as assist in designing operations.
"The American advisers are doing everything they can to help the Iraqi security forces be more competent and confident in the field," said one senior American military official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss battlefield considerations. "They're trying to get them to be able to dislodge ISIL as best they can."
But the Islamic State's gains in Anbar have raised concerns among Iraqi officials and their American counterparts. Control of the province would give the militants greatly improved mobility throughout a vast swath of the country from the Syrian border in the west to the outskirts of greater Baghdad in the east, and from Babel Province in the south to Mosul in the far north.
Some analysts have argued that further Islamic State gains in Anbar would also put Baghdad International Airport -- the nation's main hub, including for American troops and diplomats -- and the capital itself at greater risk of falling.
Iraqi and American officials, however, insist that Baghdad is not at risk of being overrun. Tens of thousands of Iraqi government forces and the Shiite militia members are stationed in the city, along with a heavy concentration of American weaponry at the airport, including Apache helicopter gunships. And a siege would likely inspire a popular armed resistance by the majority Shiite population.
The closest town to the capital under the control of the Islamic State is Zaidan, a largely Sunni village about a dozen miles west of Baghdad International Airport, Iraqi officials said. The group has not come closer in significant numbers since seizing the town early in the summer, officials said.
Instead, officials say, militants will likely continue to search for weaknesses in the city's outer defenses, and to send suicide bombers into crowded Shiite neighborhoods to foment sectarian animosities and unnerve the city.
In pushing for a more aggressive Iraqi response in Anbar, American officials point to successes elsewhere, including Iraqi offensives in late August to retake Mosul Dam  and to break the siege  of Amerli in Salahuddin Province. Both operations were supported by airstrikes.
Similarly, the pesh merga, the military of the Kurdish region, have successfully led offensives, backed by airstrikes, to retake several towns in the north, including Rabia on the border with Syria.
Last week, Iraqi security forces scored a rare and significant victory  in Anbar when the Iraqi Army drove the Islamic State from three towns in northeastern Anbar, severing a key transit route for the insurgency between the west of the country and the north. The towns had for months been under the control of the jihadist group and had allowed fighters to transport supplies between key strongholds.
On Friday, Iraqi forces began trying to free the Baiji refinery in northern Iraq, which has been encircled by Islamic State fighters for weeks, Iraqi and American officials said.
At a news conference in Washington on Friday, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command, pointed to some of those efforts as evidence of Iraqi progress against the Islamic State.
"They are doing some things now to incrementally recapture ground that's been lost," he said. "We're doing some things to incrementally improve conditions."
He added: "We will begin to train and equip Iraqi security forces to regenerate some much-needed combat power. But it'll take time."
Kirk Semple reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.