As the U.S. focuses on curbing Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, militants from the extremist group continue to fight in several areas, including close to the western edges of Iraq's capital, Baghdad, sources on the ground tell VOA.
Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters have been battling the IS militants since they began their sweep across northern and western Iraq earlier this year, seizing large swaths of territory and strategic resources.
Taylor Jones, a security adviser to international oil companies who has been in Iraq since 2003, tells VOA the militants' battle for territory goes well beyond the north.
“Some days IS is doing well, and most days they are not doing that well. But today I think there were a couple of big battles around Fallujah and Abu Ghraib area, so they are creeping towards the western part of Baghdad, but they haven't gotten through.”
Abu Ghraib is west of central Baghdad, and edges the militant-controlled area of Anbar province. There was no independent confirmation of those battles, but Islamic State fighters have had a presence in the area for several weeks.
Speaking via Skype from Iraq, Jones says there is the threat that the IS fighters could breach the western portion of Baghdad.
“I think up there most people are just kind of prepared for them to come in, but they don’t think international forces are going to allow it to happen.”
The Islamic State has gained a lot of support from many Iraqi Sunnis who have felt disenfranchised with recent Shi'ite-led governments. Western Iraq is predominantly Shi'ite.
The extremist group has proven itself a highly organized and brutal fighting force, determined to build a "caliphate" across land it now controls, stretching from Syria into Iraq.
U.S. forces have conducted air strikes against the group in the north, as the American military delivered emergency aid to religious and ethnic minorities persecuted by the militants.
But retired Army Col. Derek Harvey, a political analyst with extensive knowledge of Iraq, says the Islamic State force has proven itself extremely effective at military strategy and business, and relies heavily on Iraqis linked with the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein.
"The military element is primarily, at the senior level of strategic planing, intelligence, counter intelligence -- and they are very concerned about insider threats to them from al-Qaida to their senior leaders - they are extremely good and they are almost exclusively former Iraqis from the Mukhabarat [intelligence] and special Republican Guard and others."
On Thursday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, considered by many as having further polarized the sectarian divide in Iraq, stepped aside for Haider al-Abadi. Mr. Abadi is expected to try to create a unity government that would bring more Sunnis into the political process.
Analysts in Washington say the IS group has set its sights well beyond Iraq to the Islamic center of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and beyond.