Editor’s Note: ISIS is gradually taking control of Iraq. Baghdad is not looking like a safe place to be right now.
A strategic border crossing and three other towns in western Iraq fell Saturday to the control of ISIS militants, a senior Iraqi security official said.
In addition to their offensives in northern Iraq, the militants have strengthened their hand in the western province of Anbar, the country’s largest geographically, and were controlling Qaim, Rawa, Ana and Husaybah, said the senior official, who’s based in Anbar.
In all, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or ISIS, controlled more than 70% of Anbar province, two security officials in the province told CNN.
Most importantly, ISIS controlled the strategic town of Qaim on the border with Syria, where the enemy fighters enjoy a stronghold, Iraqi security officials said Saturday.
Together, the four towns are situated along a highway from Syria to Baghdad, heightening possibilities that the militants could now march from the west to lay siege to the Iraqi capital. One of the four towns, Husaybah, is just 100 kilometers (60 miles) outside Baghdad.
CNN’s Nic Robertson says fighters from Syria are capable of reaching the outskirts of Baghdad in less than four hours.
Local tribes who had sided with ISIS told soldiers in Anbar to put down their weapons, change into civilian clothes and go home.
Iraq’s military withdrew overnight from Haditha, which is the site of the largest hydroelectric plant in Anbar. The plant is vital to the province’s water supply.
Local tribal leaders considered friendly to the Iraqi army took over security for the town, but officials believe it will fall to ISIS, said the officials, who are not authorized to speak to the media.
Iraq’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, told reporters there was a “strategic withdrawal” in some areas in Iraq, but didn’t say whether these locations were in Anbar province.
He said the withdrawals were part of a campaign to “open all these fronts so we can strengthen our positions.”
Since clashes erupted Friday in Qaim, at least 11 Iraqi soldiers have been killed and 21 more have been wounded. Also, at least 20 militants were killed after Iraqi forces shelled areas from which the extremists launched attacks, two security officials in Ramadi told CNN.
Qaim sits across from Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, where ISIS controls at least three towns, including areas near the military airport of Deir Ezzor, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group in London that monitors the Syrian conflict.
Why Qaim is important
“This advancement (in Syria) is considered a very important and strategic step because ISIS has tried to take a complete control over areas in the east of Deir Ezzor in order to reach to the Syrian-Iraqi borders, and then to connect its held areas in both Syria and Iraq with each other,” the opposition group said.
Across the border from Qaim is the Syrian town of Al-Bukamal, which is under the control of other Islamist brigades such as the al-Nusra Front, said Rami Abdulrahman of SOHR. ISIS doesn’t control that town, he added Saturday.
Iraqi forces were fighting the suspected ISIS militants on at least two fronts.
They discovered dozens of militants on the Syrian side of the border, security officials said.
Support by some Sunni tribesmen for ISIS is proving pivotal in the militants’ success, a senior security official in Ramadi told CNN. If the Sunni tribes do not decide to help and support Iraqi security forces, it will be very difficult for Iraqi forces to regain full control of Qaim, the senior official said.
In the meantime, Iraqi forces were waiting for more troops to arrive in Qaim, located about 500 kilometers (300 miles) west of Baghdad.