BAGHDAD: A powerful jihadist group inspired by Al Qaeda has opened a new battlefront with Iraqi security forces that could see it try to push into Baghdad, officials warn.
The latest clashes, just weeks before parliamentary elections, raise key questions over the capacity of the army and police to repel militant attacks. Anti-government fighters currently hold all of Fallujah, a town that is just a short drive from Baghdad, and other pockets of territory.
The push by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) into the Abu Ghraib area, sparking clashes in nearby Zoba and Zaidan, as well as a failed assault on a military camp in Yusifiyah, illustrate the group’s ambition, even with Fallujah under military siege.
In perhaps the most worrying sign of ISIL’s capabilities, anti-government fighters paraded with dozens of vehicles last week in broad daylight in Abu Ghraib, just 20km from the capital, according to witnesses and videos posted to YouTube.
“ISIL fighters are trying to ease the pressure imposed on them in Fallujah,” said an army lieutenant colonel. “They have begun moving against weak villages between Baghdad and Fallujah, and to attack army units.” A police colonel added: “Members of ISIL have begun launching attacks on the army deployed in Abu Ghraib, and are threatening Baghdad.”
In early January, militants overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, two towns in the western desert province of Anbar which shares a long border with Syria.
Government security forces have wrested back control of much of Ramadi. But a stalemate has persisted in Fallujah, with periodic clashes on the city’s outskirts and regular shelling of what the army says are militant strongholds. But for around a week, soldiers have fought fierce battles in Zoba and Zaidan, which lie between the capital and Fallujah.
At least three people have been killed and more than 50 others wounded in the clashes and army shelling, according to medical sources. “The objective appears to be to use this Anbar base as a launching pad for expansive operations towards the federal government in Baghdad,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.