IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi rebels seized four critical towns in the restive western province of al Anbar overnight Saturday and Sunday, taking control of the last major border bordering crossing connecting to Syria still in government hands, and opening up a path for the rebels through the strategic Euphrates River Valley down to the provincial capital of Ramadi.
As four key towns in western Iraq fell in close succession, opening the Syrian border and areas in Syria controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to areas in western Iraq also held by the group, most of Iraq suffered from an Internet blackout for at least six hours that left Baghdad without internet service even as the communication ministry denied that an outage took place.
After a lightening offensive that began in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, that saw most of central and northern Iraq’s Sunni Muslim populated areas fall in 10 days to the radical ISIS and its ad hoc coalition of Sunni tribal fighters and former Baathist military officers left over from deposed regime of Saddam Hussein, the militants refocused their efforts on western Iraq.
On Saturday evening, a large force of ISIS fighters using their pick-up truck driven mobility came out of the Syrian desert to attack the last major border crossing in Iraq government hands at the town of al Qaim, taking control of it late Saturday night in what local residents described as a vicious battle that destroyed the government forces in the area.
Speaking to independent Iraqi televisions networks by phone, tribal sheikhs still at least superficially loyal to the central government, said that the assault wiped out the Iraqi government garrison in al Qaim and that heavy firepower and artillery controlled by ISIS had prevented the tribes from reinforcing the area before it fell into the militant’s hands.
Iraqi media reported that an ambush on the highway linking the provincial capital of Ramadi to the areas under attack killed about 70 militia fighters loyal to the government as they attempted to join the fight, but details could not be confirmed.
Within hours of the fall of Qaim, smaller towns further south into the Euphrates River valley began to fall to the ISIS offensive, which was pushing down towards the town of Haditha, which controls the approaches to Ramadi, as militants tried to link their power base in eastern Syria to the strong presence the group and its allies have in Anbar.
And the local media also reported that a much smaller crossing connecting Iraq and Syria had fallen to the rebels at al Walid Sunday evening although the extent of the battle could not be determined.
Iraqi officials portrayed a very different view to journalists in a daily briefing in Baghdad, claiming that the units around Qaim and the villages of Anah, and Rawah, had been withdrawn to help on a pro government offensive.
Gen. Qassim Atta, the main army spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who seems to have bypassed the Defense Ministry and taken personal control of the military, claimed the situation was well under control.
“As a tactical procedure to reopen the military forces in al Jazeera and al Badiyah security operation field, the security forces in Rawah, Anah and Qaim withdraw from these areas to reinforce other troops in other areas,” he said in a transcript provided to reporters by the ministry.
He then said that 50 tanks and 2,000 men had been dispatched to Haditha to reinforce the garrison there and would begin an operation to retake Qaim and the other villages shortly. Haditha appears to the last major town in government hands north of Ramadi, where ISIS has a strong presence and has been laying siege to government buildings in the center of the city for over six months.
The loss of Haditha would be disastrous for the floundering Iraqi government as it includes Iraq’s largest dam, controlling water flow to virtually all of the fertile Euphrates River Valley, the vast bulk of arable land in Iraq. It would also open the approaches to Ramadi and Fallujah, where the government’s positions represent its last control of any significant population center in the increasingly pro-ISIS Anbar Province, which controls the approaches to the capital from Jordan and Syria.
The Iraqi government has been less than forthcoming on the situation throughout the country and continues to insist that the ISIS fighters and their Sunni allies are being beaten back throughout the country, even going so far as to announce the beginning of an ‘anti-terror’ operation to ‘clean out’ Mosul of criminals, despite a widespread belief the city is completely under rebel control and there being little sign of any significant government presence in northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry released footage of what appeared to be a handful of small air strikes on what they claimed were ISIS positions in Mosul.