Pentagon Unclear on Islamic State Control of Iraqi Town
U.S. defense officials are sending conflicting messages about the western Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi as Islamic State rebels and Iraqi security forces battle for control.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Islamic State jihadis captured the western Iraqi town of Al-Baghdadi, just 13 kilometers from the al-Asad base where U.S. troops are training Iraqi forces.
“At this time we still assess ISIL [Islamic State] to be in control of al-Baghdadi,” said Kirby.
But an official with the Combined Joint Task Force, which oversees the fight against the Islamic State, said al-Baghdadi is not under the militants' control. The official, who asked VOA not to release his name, said “any report otherwise is wrong”, and the Pentagon was “not updated.”
The official says Islamic State militants took control of the town’s police station on Thursday, but Iraqi forces recaptured it the same day. Since then, he says, there has been no new fighting in the town.
When asked about the discrepancy, Col. Steve Warren, another Pentagon official, said Friday the situation is too fluid to know for sure whether Islamic State militants are in charge of the town.
"If you report them in control you'll be right. If you report them not in control you'll be right because it's contested," said Warren.
Kirby asked reporters to keep the situation in perspective because al-Baghdadi is just one town. But control of the town would give Islamic State militants a close hub to potentially launch more attacks against the base.
The massive al-Asad air base came under attack Friday by the militants, but Iraqi soldiers repelled the assault. The Pentagon says about 20 to 25 Islamic State fighters wearing Iraqi military uniforms carried out the attack. Some of the militants detonated suicide vests during the assault.
Kirby said Iraqi security forces killed the attackers without any fatalities. He said no U.S. military personnel were near the fighting.
Islamic State militants and other extremist groups are increasingly using multiple suicide attacks to breach base defenses in both Iraq and Syria. IS previously attempted to blow through the outer walls of a Syrian government airbase in Deir ez Zor, but without success.
Ra'ed Amash of the Anbar Provincial Council said a bloody battle was being fought in the nearby town of al Baghdadi, 15 kilomters north of the military airbase.
He said the militants tried to infiltrate the town via the river, taking advantage of cloud cover and bad weather. While they captured a number of buildings in the town, he said they met fierce resistance from local residents and were eventually pushed back.
Some Arab and Iraqi media reported that “dozens of Islamic State militants were killed in the attack” and that “bodies of militants were lying in the streets” of the town. VOA could not independently confirm the report.
The head of the Anbar Council, Sabah al Karhout, warned that hundreds of refugees from outlying regions now live in al Baghdadi in grim conditions. He said the militants' siege is preventing food and fuel from reaching the town. He complained of similar conditions in Haditha, near Iraq's second largest dam.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris said he thinks former officers from ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's military forces were playing a major role in the battle in the area near the Ain al Assad airbase.
He told VOA that former Iraqi officers are leading Islamic State fighting in parts of Anbar Province. Despite recent attacks in places like Tikrit and Beiji, he conjectured that their real goal may be to surround and capture U.S. forces at the Ain al Assad base.
Abou Diab pointed out that Iraqi Shi'ite lawmakers are continuing to block a bill in parliament to set up a national guard in Anbar Province and elsewhere. He insisted that intransigence from hardline Shi'ite political leaders is hindering U.S. efforts to combat Islamic State in Anbar.