The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) thrust east from a newly-captured Iraqi-Syrian border post on Sunday, taking two more towns in the western Anbar province in a push to evict Iraqi security forces from Sunni Muslim areas, witnesses and security sources said.
Sunni militants spearheaded by ISIL have pushed the army from cities and towns across Iraq’s north and west over the past two weeks, shocking the Shia-led government.
On Saturday, fighters had seized the border post near the town of Qaim, helping ISIL secure supply lines to Syria, where it has exploited the chaos of the three-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad to establish a major presence.
ISIL’s stated aim is to create an Islamic Caliphate which ignores boundaries set by colonial powers a century ago. Sunni tribes in the mostly desert border regions span both sides of the frontier.
The fall of Qaim represented another step towards the realization of ISIL’s military goals, as a twentieth centry border appeared to crumble in a day.
They had also taken over the town of Rawah along the Euphrates River.
On Sunday, the militants expanded their grip to the town of Ana, also along the Euphrates River east of Qaim, as well as the town of Rutba further to the south on a road leading from Jordan to Baghdad.
A military intelligence official said troops had withdrawn from Rawah and Ana after ISIL militants attacked the settlements late on Saturday night.
“Army troops withdrew from Rawah, Ana and Rutba this morning and ISIL moved quickly to completely control these towns,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They took Ana and Rawa this morning without fighting.”
The office for the prime minister’s military command said it had no immediate comment and would be giving an update on events in a press conference later on Sunday.
The Euphrates towns are on a strategic supply route between ISIL’s positions in Iraq and in eastern Syria, where the al Qaeda spinoff has taken a string of towns and strategic positions from rival Sunni rebels over the past few days.
ISIL, which began as Al Qaeda in Iraq but was disowned by the central organisation in February, has captured the north’s biggest city, Mosul, and pushed down the Tigris River valley, seizing towns and taking large amounts of weaponry from the fleeing Iraqi army.
Overnight, ISIL fighters attacked the town of al-Alam, north of Tikrit, according to witnesses and police in the town. The attackers were repelled by security forces and tribal fighters, they said, adding that two ISIL fighters had been killed and two others arrested.
State television reported that “anti-terrorism forces” in coordination with the air force had killed 40 ISIL members and destroyed five vehicles in fighting in Tikrit.
There was a lull in fighting at Iraq’s largest refinery, Baiji, 200 km north of the capital near Tikrit, Sunday morning. The site had been transformed into a battlefield since Wednesday as Sunni fighters launched an assault on the plant.