ISIS militants are still dominating the fight in Iraq’s crucial Anbar province weeks into the American air campaign, as the Iraqi military has struggled to go on the offensive and has been unable to make the most of coalition air support, officials say.
However, their advance on the Syrian city of Kobani has stalled as the militants have been forced to retreat on several fronts, shifting the monthlong battle increasingly in favour of the Kurdish fighters defending the city, according to commanders and Kurdish and American officials.
The air campaign has been limited in Anbar, in part because Iraqi forces there have mostly stayed at their garrisons. American military advisers are increasing pressure on their Iraqi counterparts to leave their bases and seize the initiative, officials in Washington say.
Exploiting the slow pace, fighters for ISIS have aggressively pressed their campaign in recent weeks, commandeering towns and military garrisons along the Euphrates River Valley in Anbar, a vast desert province that stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“Anbar province is in trouble,” Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said recently. “We know that.”
As Iraqi and American officials have tried to rally the Iraqi security forces, efforts in Baghdad to achieve a more unified political front to face the crisis have also gone slowly. Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has been struggling to gain support not only from minority Sunnis and Kurds – a process President Obama called critical to any military effort – but even within his own Shia bloc. Despite weeks of wrangling, he has yet to fill the two crucial security posts in his cabinet: defense and interior.
ISIS advances in Anbar province, which is largely Sunni, have been a central concern for the Iraqi authorities since the beginning of the year. The militants first established a major foothold there in January when they seized the city of Falluja. They have expanded their authority throughout the province, sometimes by force, but also by taking advantage of the profound disenchantment among Sunnis alienated by the government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile over the last two days, the rapidly changing fortunes of the Kurdish fighters have produced a sense of palpable relief in Kobani, as well as in the refugee camps in neighbouring Turkey that are filled with the city’s residents. The fierce clashes of previous weeks have given way to a tentative calm, broken on Friday only by the occasional crash of mortar rounds and some scattered sniper fire.
“I hear there is movement,” said Idris Bakr, a 26-year-old refugee who has been living, along with 35 members of his family, in a garage in the Turkish border town of Suruc for about a month. “God willing, it will be OK,” he said. “Days, we hope.”
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