Mass confusion in Anbar province as tribal leader says Iraqi army 'hours from collapse'

Confusing reports coming from Anbar province where Islamic State fighters have now apparently gained control of the town of al-Bagdahdi when Iraqi forces, who had beaten back an attack on the nearby Ayn al-Asad base where 300 American Marines are stationed, training Iraqi troops, suddenly and inexplicably withdrew, leaving the town to the mercy of the terrorists.

The Pentagon is saying that the Iraqis still control parts of the town. But a local tribal leader says the Iraqi troops have retreated and that the army may "collapse" in a matter of hours.


An Iraqi tribal leader said Saturday that ISIS militants are gaining ground in Anbar province, predicting a "collapse within hours" of Iraqi army forces there if tribal forces withdraw.

Sheikh Naim al-Gaoud, a Sunni Muslim leader of the Albu Nimr tribe, called for more U.S. intervention -- including ground troops, arming tribes directly or at least pressuring the Iraqi government to give the tribes more firepower.

While U.S. officials have said that ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, is on the defensive in Iraq and Syria, al-Gaoud says that's definitely not the case where he is.

"In Anbar, we are losing ground, not gaining," he said.

Thousands of families had been under siege in the town of Jubbat al-Shamiya until getting help Friday from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and Iraqi forces, according to al-Gaoud.

But he said Iraqi troops had pulled out of Jubbat al-Shamiya on Saturday, at which time ISIS was shelling the town.

If the Islamist extremist group's fighters go in, al-Gaoud predicted a massacre.

Anbar province is just west of Baghdad, meaning a decisive ISIS victory would put militants on the footsteps of the Iraqi capital. It's home to the strategic Ayn al-Assad Air Base, which came under attack Friday.

Talking about that battle, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said 20 to 25 people -- most, if not all, of whom were wearing Iraqi military uniforms and were led by suicide bombers -- attacked the nearly 25-square-mile base.

"It looks like (ISIS militants) at least got to the outer base limits," Kirby said.

At least 13 Iraqi soldiers died in the assault, said al-Gaoud, which ended with Iraqi ground forces killing all the attackers.

The New York Times raises questions as to whether the Iraqi army is on the verge once again of melting away.

Hundreds of Islamic State fighters captured most of the town, Baghdadi, on Thursday, but by Friday evening Iraqi soldiers had retaken several government buildings.

Then early Saturday, in what has become a familiar routine, the soldiers suddenly withdrew, all but handing the town back to the militants, according to local security officials.

“I have no explanation,” Col. Shaaban al-Obeidi, a commander in a police combat unit in Baghdadi, said on Saturday afternoon, adding that the militants were surrounding a residential complex where hundreds of civilians were staying. “They have put all those families in danger,” Colonel Obeidi said.

Eight months after Islamic State militants stormed areas of northern and western Iraq, lapses by the army have left the militants in control of important towns, despite airstrikes by the United States and other forms of military support for the Iraqi troops.

Concerns about the army’s performance have also threatened to delay a long-awaited offensive on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The militants have been especially resilient in the western province of Anbar, including around the Ayn al-Asad base, near Baghdadi, where about 300 American troops are training Iraqi soldiers.

On Friday morning, eight militants tried to infiltrate the base, raising concerns that the American soldiers could be drawn into ground combat.

The American troops were “several kilometers” away, the United States military said in a statement, and Iraqi soldiers killed the militants before they could attack.

The sudden withdrawal of Iraqi forces on Saturday highlighted the challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as it tries to unify and professionalize the forces fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

In a terrifying display of cruelty and barbarity, Islamic State paraded 17 Kurdish fighters through the streets of Kirkuk, posting on social media that the captives were to be burned alive. No doubt this news is weighing heavily on Iraqi troops in Anbar.

It isn't helping the government that their Shia militias are routinely massacring Sunni tribesman as often as they fight Islamic State. The government cannot afford to reignite sectarian war at a time when the fate of their country hangs by a thread.

The Shia politicians who are running Iraq appear to be just as bull headed, just as sectarian as the government of Nouri al-Maliki. It is simply not possible for Iraq to defeat Islamic State without unifying the effort. Unfortunately, the government seems more concerned about oppressing and killing the Sunnis than using them to defend the country.


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