By Alastair Beach
Iraqi officials have issued a desperate plea for America to bring US ground troops back to the embattled country, as heavily armed Islamic State militants came within striking distance of Baghdad.
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 capital.
The warning came from Sabah al-Karhout, president of the provisional council of Anbar Province, 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 Iraq.
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.
Speaking to the Daily Beast website, US pilots warned that air strikes were being compromised as a result.
“The problem,” noted one pilot, “is that once you get American boots on the ground… one of those guys gets captured and beheaded on national TV.”
This week US Apache helicopters were forced to launch airstrikes against militants west of Baghdad, while yesterday a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt in a northern Baghdad market, killing 11 people.
Some Iraqi officials believe an Isil assault to take Baghdad is still unlikely, given that around 60,000 government security personnel, including soldiers, police officers, and militiamen, are currently in position outside the city. But other satellite towns have already fallen, giving Isil launching points for suicide attacks and other assaults designed to spread panic among the capital’s residents.
“It’s not plausible at this point to envision Isil taking control of Baghdad, but they can make Baghdad so miserable that it would threaten the legitimacy of the central government,” said Richard Brennan, a former US department of defence policymaker.