ISIS advance in Iraq threatens Anbar province
American military sources told CNN that Anbar province is in danger of falling to ISIS forces who are also threatening Baghdad.
Despite dozens of air strikes, the Iraq army in the area is in danger of being cut off and the Pentagon is growing anxious about the situation.
A key province near Iraq's capital is in trouble amid an onslaught from ISIS forces, the U.S. defense secretary said Friday, signaling the Islamist extremist group is continuing to flex its muscles and expand its territory -- on several fronts -- despite international airstrikes.
Speaking to reporters during his travels in South America, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said there's a lot of uncertainty about what will happen with Anbar province, which is just west of Baghdad.
These comments are in alignment with those of a senior U.S. defense official who told CNN that Iraqi forces are "up against the wall" in Anbar. Some units are in danger of being cut off by the advancing militants, who call themselves members of the Islamic State.
The Iraqis' ultimate goal is to take back some of the vast areas, in both Iraq and Syria, that ISIS controls. But right now, Iraqi forces appear to be mostly trying to survive -- taking defensive positions and using Apache helicopters again, even after two were shot down in the area this week, according to the U.S. official.
"We do see ISIL continue to make gains in Anbar province and (are) mindful of how Anbar relates to the security of Baghdad," said another senior U.S. defense official.
The first official said the U.S. military is more confident right now about the Iraqi military's ability to protect Baghdad. The Iraqi brigades defending the capital are more capable and include U.S. military advisers, so at least Washington should have a better sense there if there's any imminent danger.
Abu Ahmed, a 42-year-old colonel who belongs to a group allied with the Iraqi government, said that "a large number of ISIS militants" attacked al-Garma, in Anbar province, around 3 a.m. Friday.
What began with the detonation of seven vehicles by a bridge ended about five hours later. In between, Ahmed said there was "a fierce battle" with ISIS militants on one side and Iraqi and local allied forces on the other.
"During the fight, ISIS militants set some oil containers and tires on fire to block the view from the Iraqi air support that was called in," Ahmed said. "... The Iraqi army and Awakening Council fighters did not advance to the positions where ISIS militants were fighting, fearing booby traps and planted (improvised explosive devices)."
As we've seen in the past, ISIS forces apparently have excellent leadership. Whoever is planning these operations knows a thing or two about combat. And while fanaticism might make up for defects in their officer corps, there is no substitute for intelligent direction on the battlefield.
The ISIS forces have a huge psychological advantage thanks to their bloodthirsty ways, while the Iraqis appear to still be struggling with small unit leadership. If the guy next to you doesn't have your back, you're much more likely to run away. American officers may be a steadying presence for some Iraqi units, but in the coming battle for Baghdad, will it be enough to prevent a collapse like we saw in Mosul?
It doesn't sound like American military observers have much confidence in the Iraqi's army ability to resist. But there are half a million Iraqi troops in Baghdad so perhaps sheer numbers will save them in the end.