SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) The chief of police of a critical Iraqi province besieged by Islamic State militants was killed in a bombing early Sunday, local officials said, heightening concerns that the strategically important region is in imminent danger of being captured by the insurgent group.
Islamic State fighters have mounted a fresh offensive in Anbar province in recent weeks that has given them control over towns and major roadways that directly link Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders, exposing the Iraqi capital, its trade routes and critical infrastructure to insurgent attacks.
While the militant group is yet to take the provincial capital of Ramadi, officials in Anbar warn that they are losing their grip on the city to a highly organized and disciplined insurgency that has surrounded military bases and put a choke hold on trade from Jordan, effectively controlling movements of goods and people in the region.
While Islamic State didn’t claim immediate responsibility for the attack that killed Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al-Dulaimi, the top police official in Anbar, the incident has contributed to a growing sense that Iraqi security forces are losing their tenuous hold on Iraq’s largest region.
Anbar is home to Iraq’s second-largest dam, several military bases and camps and is seen as an important buffer between Islamic State’s declared capital in Syria to the west and Baghdad to the east. Losing the province could give the militant group a base to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital in what would be a massive escalation of its five-month offensive.
Analysts and Anbar officials said the insurgent group’s hold on the region’s roads—both major and small—has given it the upper hand in the fight and a steady source of revenue, along with the unabated capability to replenish its ranks with fighters and equipment from its bases in Syria and other parts of Iraq.
Brig. Gen. Dulaimi had been among a group of security and local government officials that had sounded an alarm last week that Anbar was on the brink of collapse.
On Saturday, the provincial council took the extraordinary step of formally asking Iraq’s central government to allow U.S. ground troops to enter Anbar—a move Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President Barack Obama said wasn’t an option since the U.S. launched airstrikes in August in support of the Iraqi military.
Mr. Abadi’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The provincial council’s request, largely seen as a political maneuver to embarrass Iraqi’s Shiite-dominated central government by the council in the Sunni majority province, came as Islamic State militants surrounded an army camp in the city of Hit, trapping soldiers inside, officials said on Sunday.
Faleh Al Essawi, the deputy head of the Anbar council, estimated on Sunday that the militant Sunni insurgency controls 20 of the province’s 22 towns and cities, and said it has launched a fresh attack on the large al-Asad air base located 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Hit.
“There is no other option in Anbar other than U.S. forces on ground to save the province. This is the only solution,” Mr. Essawi said.
The call for American ground troops, however improbable, caused fresh rifts in Anbar, which threatened to weaken the already shaky coalition of government forces working with tribal fighters to fend off Islamic State’s assault. A senior leader of the tribal forces, Wissam al Hardan, said on Sunday the council’s call amounted to “treason.”
Mr. Essawi dismissed the criticism as being removed from the “critical reality” in Anbar.
Military analysts say U.S. airstrikes in Anbar have done little to “blunt” Islamic State’s advances in Anbar, which the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War described as a “sophisticated campaign” that has spanned a month.
While airstrikes successfully fended off an assault on the center of Ramadi and the crucial Haditha Dam in recent weeks, local officials and analysts say Islamic State has a firm grip on the vast desert expanses of the province, stretching from the Syrian and Jordanian borders to Abu Ghraib, a city only 25 miles west of Baghdad.
Mr. Essawi and security officials said such domination has been maintained through the control of the network of highways that connects Baghdad to Syria and Jordan.
Along a nearly 280-mile major highway that stretches from Ramadi to the border with Jordan to the west, Islamic State fighters firmly control all but the roughly 100 miles closest to the provincial capital, officials said, along with its ancillary roadways.
Gen. Abdul Wahab Mohamad, the senior police official in Anbar’s joint police and military operational command, sought to play down the importance of the roadways but conceded government forces have little control beyond a region known as Kilometer 160, named after its distance from Ramadi toward the Jordanian border.
Mr. Essawi said the absence of government security presence west of the 160-kilometer point underscores the “total failure” of Iraq’s security forces in Anbar and has given Islamic State militants a lifeline to reinforce their numbers, weaponry and supplies from their strongholds in Syria to the west and from Mosul, a major Iraqi city they control, to the north. In addition, they have used the roads to run a disciplined extortion operation on the hundreds of truckers who use the highways for commerce.
The Institute for the Study of War, which has closely monitored Islamic State’s offensive in Anbar, said the control of the roads by the militants has given them “freedom of movement in both” Syria and Iraq, giving them the ability to “further isolate” Iraqi forces in the region.
Truck drivers that rely on the major highway linking Jordan and Baghdad said Islamic State militants maintain about six orderly checkpoints from the border to Kilometer 160, charging a $300 fee for trucks moving basic goods such as rice and oil. For larger hauls such as vehicles, spare vehicle parts and appliances, the well-armed men will demand upward of $10,000 but more often simply confiscate the goods.
Abu Ahmed, a 47-year-old trucker who didn’t want his full name printed for fear of retribution, said the men manning the checkpoints give drivers receipts stamped with Islamic State’s seal to show at other checkpoints, proving they had paid the fees. He said they often produce the receipt at their destinations in Ramadi or Baghdad in the hopes of being reimbursed by their employers.
“All truck drivers coming from Jordan have to go through this way whether you like it or not,” he said.
Drivers said the gunmen are generally cordial and organized but have little patience with those who resist their demands. While none of the drivers interviewed said they witnessed a driver being killed, all said they had heard of truckers being executed for refusing to pay.
The World Bank said the trade route between Jordan and Iraq accounts for about 20% of Jordan’s total exports. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Jordan had also used Iraqi roadways to deliver goods to Turkey. Some 75% of Iraq’s imports are transported by road, according to the World Bank.
Baghdad-based taxi companies that take people to Jordan in large sports-utility vehicles said militants have also used the route to gain intelligence and capture police officers and soldiers.
Abu Osama, a 43-year-old driver who also didn’t want his full name used, said the fighters have quizzed him and passengers about security presence from Baghdad and check for police and military personnel among the six passengers he generally transports.
“When you first see it, it is terrifying. Their weapons and vehicles are new and you don’t know what they will do,” he said. “But they deal with us respectfully. I’ve gotten used to it.”