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Key provincial capital in Iraq may be about to fall to Islamic State

An Islamic State group fighter loads a mortar shell during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 22, 2014.
An Islamic State group fighter loads a mortar shell during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 22, 2014. AP

Islamic State fighters on Tuesday penetrated to the core of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s largest province, prompting local security officials to warn that the city was on the verge of falling to the extremists. Such a gain would be the Islamic State’s most significant victory in months.

Officials said that extremist fighters were only tens of yards away from entering the main government compound.

“The governorate building has been nearly cut off,” said a Baghdad security official in direct contact with the operations command for Anbar, the province where Ramadi lies. The official said that Islamic State forces had cut roads to the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division base to the west and the road to Habaniyya airbase to the east. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Islamic State fighters launched their push to capture the long-contested town on Friday and have been battling government-aligned troops for control since. Ramadi is one of the last pockets of government control in Anbar, the province that abuts Baghdad on the west and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles waged by American troops during the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011. 

Consolidated control of Anbar would open up Islamic State supply routes to Syria and would position the group for an advance on the Iraqi capital. 

Local security forces and tribesmen initially succeeded in resisting the Islamic State’s newest advance, but commanders on the ground say a lack of continuous air support and reinforcements has made it impossible to hold that territory. 

Ahmed Mishan al Dulaimi, a Ramadi police lieutenant, said that coalition airstrikes had been critical to stopping the Islamic State’s initial assault but that the strikes had stopped. “We were told (the aircraft) were occupied” with other fronts.

“If the coalition doesn’t continue targeting the nests of Daash, everything that we’re doing now will just be in vain,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. 

U.S. Central Command said Monday that coalition aircraft conducted 15 strikes in Iraq between Friday and Monday, two of which targeted Islamic State vehicles in the Ramadi area. Separately, Central Command reported an additional strike was carried out near Ramadi on Tuesday, destroying an Islamic State checkpoint. 

Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said even with an Islamic State victory in Ramadi, the fight for control of Anbar will be “a grind” for the group. He said the Islamic State now is rushing to consolidate its control in Anbar after having lost the key town of Baiji on the Baghdad-to-Mosul highway in Salahuddin province.

“The momentum is against ISIS now,” he said, referring to the Islamic State by a common acronym. He noted that the Islamic State has been trying to capture Ramadi since January, when it first took another important Anbar city, Fallujah. Ali said resistance by the Albu Fahd, a tribe with close ties to Iraq’s central government, had kept Ramadi mostly under government control. 

That was not the view from inside Ramadi, however.

“Daash has a lot of support from the rest of the areas it controls,” said Dulaimi, the Ramadi police lieutenant. “Military reinforcements are long overdue.”

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