Islamic State jihadists have captured the western Iraqi town of Al-Baghdadi, putting them within striking distance of an air base where American troops are training Iraqi forces, the U.S. military said Friday.
The fall of the town, which the Pentagon played down as a minor setback, came as I.S. extremists launched an unsuccessful assault involving suicide bombers on the nearby Al-Asad air base. “We do assess that right now they have control of Al-Baghdadi,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news conference, adding I.S. took hold of the town “in the past several days.”
The town is located in Anbar province, about eight kilometers from the Asad air base, where about 300 U.S. Marines are stationed to assist Iraqi government troops. Iraqi soldiers repelled the I.S. group’s assault on the base on Friday, which involved several suicide bombers, officials said.
A group of 20-25 I.S. fighters, most of them wearing Iraqi army uniforms, carried out the failed attack, which appeared designed to have been an initial wave of suicide bombings followed by gunmen storming in, Kirby said. All of the militants were killed or died when detonating suicide bombs.
Kirby said that “at no time were U.S. troops anywhere near the fighting,” which was about two miles away from where the Americans were working at the sprawling complex.
American surveillance aircraft tracking the I.S. extremists assisted the Iraqi army forces and Apache attack helicopters were sent in but did open fire, officials said. U.S.-led coalition aircraft carried out five airstrikes in the area over the past 24 hours, roughly 15 kilometers from the Asad base, but those were not related to the brief firefight with the I.S. militants at Asad, officials said. “There were no aircraft involved in beating back this,” Kirby said. “The Iraqi security forces did this on their own.”
An Iraqi army colonel and a defense ministry official said the botched attack involved at least seven would-be suicide bombers using a military vehicle.
Al-Baghdadi had been under growing pressure for months and was one of the few towns that had remained under the Iraqi government’s control in the predominantly Sunni province. But the Pentagon said the capture of the town did not represent a major setback in the war effort against the Islamists who have overrun large areas of Iraq and Syria.
“This is arguably the first in at least a couple of months, if not more, where they [I.S.] have had any success at all at taking any new ground,” Kirby said. “So this is an enemy that we still assess to be in a defensive posture.” He added: “It’s one town. It’s not all of Anbar. It’s not all of Iraq. We need to keep it in perspective.”
U.S. officials have said it will take some time before Iraqi troops are trained and ready to stage a major counter-offensive in Anbar province, where much of the Sunni population has become alienated from the Shia-led leadership in Baghdad. Washington is pinning its hopes on Iraqi government plans to build up a militia among the Sunni tribes in the area against the I.S. jihadists.