ISIS erases coalition gains in Iraq's Anbar province, threatens Baghdad

When a group of Sunni religious leaders in the city of Ramadi publicly rejected al-Qaeda in Iraq in the fall of 2006, it represented a turning point in the Iraq War. The local population soon shifted their allegiance from the anti-coalition insurgents and toward Iraqi Security Forces and the government in Baghdad. What came to be called the “Anbar Awakening” created a space which allowed coalition forces pacify that formerly restive province.

Flash-forward several years and, following the complete withdrawal of coalition force from Iraq and years of divisive pro-Shia governance from Baghdad, and Iraq’s Anbar Province is again exploding. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has provided Anbar’s tribes with a source of opposition toward Baghdad with which they have eagerly allied. Several key towns and cities in Iraq’s westernmost province have fallen to ISIS and the fundamentalist militants are now taking control of areas on the border of Ramadi, the province’s capital.

On Friday, The Washington Post revealed the extent of ISIS’s gains in that key Sunni region of Iraq.

“A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons,” The Post reported. “It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.”

The Islamic State secured a major foothold in Anbar province in January when it seized the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It pushed farther into the province in June, but Iraq’s government was able to maintain small pockets of authority in the majority-Sunni region.

Iraqi forces have suffered numerous reverses¬ in the latest jihadist offensive, including the loss of two army bases. U.S. warplanes and attack helicopters have hit Islamic State targets and provided support to Iraqi troops fighting in Anbar. The U.S. airstrikes helped fend off an assault last month on the Haditha Dam, part of the militants’ drive to control Iraq’s water supplies. But overall, the strikes have failed to curb the militants’ momentum.

“If the Islamic State controls Anbar, they would be able to threaten serious targets in Baghdad,” said an Iraqi security expert, Saeed al-Jayashi. “The government would lose the Haditha Dam, and the security forces would have to retreat,” he said. “There would be a blood bath.”

While few believe that the Islamic State possesses the military capability today to mount a successful assault on the massive Iraqi capital, many are bracing for the likelihood that advancing ISIS militants will soon be able to direct mortar attacks on Baghdad’s international airport and even the Green Zone.

What’s more, as CBS News reported, MANPAD-armed ISIS fighters who are now just eight miles from Baghdad may be able to down incoming and outgoing aircraft.

“Inside Baghdad itself, there are ISIS sleeper cells that carry out almost daily bombings and assassinations,” CBS reported. “An Iraqi officer told CBS News that the airstrikes are helping to clear an ISIS-free buffer zone around the city, where there are Iraqi boots on the ground. In fact, there are 60,000 men assigned to defend the capital, but it’s not clear they are disciplined enough to put up a sufficient fight if ISIS launches a major offensive.”

Obama administration officials are fond of saying that there is no military solution to the problem posed by the rise of ISIS, but there is also no immediately available diplomatic solution either. Without those networks built up over the course of the Iraq War by coalition and Iraqi partners, there will be no second Anbar Awakening on the horizon.

The Washington Post noted that the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq have received less attention than the organization’s assault on the Syrian border city of Kobane in recent days, a place which the Pentagon warned is likely to fall to ISIS fighters and where United Nations fears a massacre of Kurds is imminent.

The attention that the siege of Kobane is receiving is due, but many more should be focused on Baghdad where thousands of American soldiers and diplomatic staff are stationed. If the battle of Baghdad commences in the coming weeks, it seems unlikely that Americans can avoid be imperiled.