Iraq urges US for ground troops as Islamic militants poised to assault Baghdad
BAGDHAD: Iraqi officials have reportedly made a
desperate plea to America to bring US ground troops back to the embattled
country, as heavily armed Islamic State militants came within striking distance
Amid reports that ISIL forces have advanced as far as
Abu Ghraib, a town that is effectively a suburb of Baghdad, a senior governor
claimed up to 10,000 fighters from the movement were now poised to assault the
The warning came from Sabah al-Karhout, president of
the provisional council of Anbar, the vast desert province to the west of
Baghdad that has now largely fallen under jihadist control.
The province’s two main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi,
were once known as “the graveyard of the Americans”, and the idea of returning
there will not be welcomed by the Pentagon.
But were the province to be controlled by ISIL, it
would give their forces a springboard from which to mount an all-out assault on
Baghdad, where a team of around 1,500 US troops is already acting as mentors to
the beleaguered Iraqi army.
Iraqi government officials claim that while
international attention has been focused in recent weeks on the Syrian border
town of Kobane - where Kurdish fighters are still battling to keep advancing ISIL
gunmen at bay – Anbar province has been on the verge of collapse.
Government forces in the provincial capital Ramadi were
holding out against the ISIL offensive on Saturday, but US officials have
warned that the city was in a “tenuous” position.
“I think it’s fragile there now,” said one senior US
defence official, speaking to the AFP news agency. “They are being resupplied
and they’re holding their own, but it’s tough and challenging.”
The surge of jihadi activity has also led to
speculation that the group’s operation in Kobane was part of an elaborate decoy
mission orchestrated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIL caliph.
Observers point out that while the capture of Kobane
would not greatly increase ISIL’s military clout, the capture of Ramadi or
other cities in Anbar would be catastrophic both for the Iraqi government and
Western hopes of attempting to contain the group.
Most of the Euphrates valley – which runs south east
from Turkey through Syria, into Iraq and towards the capital – is now under ISIL
control. Were Ramadi to fall, jihadi commanders would control a vital supply
chain running from Baghdad directly back to their Syrian headquarters in Raqqa.
They would also control the Haditha dam, the second largest in Iraq. “It’s not
a good situation,” admitted one US official.
The region of Anbar remains haunted by the ghosts of
America’s 2003 invasion. It was there, a year after the war started, that US
troops fought the infamous Battle of Fallujah, an attempt to root out
extremists which was described as one of the most brutal urban conflicts for
American marines since Vietnam.
Anbar was also the cradle of the so-called “Sunni
Awakening” movement – an attempt by the US to prise Sunni tribal chiefs away
from the influence of Islamist insurgents wreaking havoc on occupation troops.
Many had sided with Sunni jihadists due to fears of
being sidelined under a government of Shia Muslims, but were won over by power
deals or payment.
Their disillusionment over recent years is one of the
reasons why ISIL, a Sunni group, has found such favour across vast swathes of
If Barack Obama were to sanction a return of American
troops to the province, it would mark a seismic shift in strategy. Following
the bloody nine-year campaign initiated by his predecessor, George W Bush, the
US president made it a cornerstone of his administration’s policy to bring
American troops home from the Middle East.
Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has
repeatedly refused to countenance the return of foreign troops, while the White
House itself has so far stuck to a selective campaign of air strikes, which
launched six missiles against ISIL forces on Friday and Saturday.
But rather than silencing calls for a
boots-on-the-ground operation, the campaign has so far served to expose the
limits of air power against a well-drilled army of battle-hardened militants.
Jets belonging to the US-led coalition have so far
launched nearly 2,000 air strikes against ISIL targets, dropping hundreds of
bombs on convoys, encampments and other jihadi positions.
And yet still the group’s gunmen march on – both in
Kobane and throughout Anbar province. It emerged on Saturday that one of the
reasons why they were having only a limited effect was because of the lack
troops on the ground to gather intelligence on targets and then guide the
strikes in using laser technology.