Islamist insurgents on Monday seized control of a key military garrison and town in western Iraq, allowing them to surround the provincial capital.
Witnesses and officials reported that Iraqi forces abandoned the military base in Hit, a rural enclave of about 100,000 people on the Euphrates River in Anbar province, to the surging forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, after days of fierce clashes and US and Iraqi air strikes that sent residents fleeing for safety.
“The clashes started in early October, and now the armed groups have taken full control of the town,” said a university professor who fled Hit for a nearby town with his wife and three children three days ago. Speaking by phone, he asked that his name not be published. “The problem was the air strikes; they were shelling houses and residential areas, which led to about 50 per cent of the population fleeing.”
The news of Hit’s fall came as Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, arrived in Baghdad for meetings with politicians and security officials. The UK has joined the US in conducting aerial combat and intelligence missions against Isis, as well as training Iraqi troops.
“The action the UK has taken to date, including air strikes and surveillance flights, shows the UK will play its part in standing with the Iraqi people in their fight against Isil,” he said, according to an announcement.
Despite the US-led air strikes, Iraq has been struggling to fend off Isis advances in Iraq’s Anbar province. The group and its allies have been battling Iraqi forces for control of the sparsely populated province for months, and already control the city of Fallujah, 50km east of Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, and 55km west of Baghdad.
A security source in Iraq described the loss of Hit as a “tactical withdrawal” by the Iraqi army unit that controlled the base and protected the town. It is the latest military base to fall in Anbar.
Jassim Assal, the deputy governor of the province, insisted in comments made to Baghdad TV that the police and army retain “almost compete control” over the provincial capital of Ramadi, despite the withdrawal and the assassination on Sunday of the province’s police chief.
Hit lies well away from the strategic international highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border. But Isis’s control of the town would put it in a position to attack Ramadi from two sides.
US forces have in recent days struck numerous targets in and around Hit. The Iraqi defence ministry issued a statement saying the Baghdad government had launched 500 air strikes against Isis’s “dens” in four provinces, including Anbar, in the past week.
But Iraq’s ground forces have proved largely incapable of capitalising on the air strikes to hold territory or take new ground and have watched their control over the province erode week after week since Isis’s June sweep through much of northern and western Iraq.
In recent days, Anbar’s members of parliament have described dire conditions in Hit and warned of an impending massacre similar to when Isis captured and executed dozens of soldiers in Saqlawiyah, or Tikrit.
Iraqi officials say Isis now controls 80 per cent of Anbar province, which is mostly uninhabitable desert. Some Iraqi officials have warned that Ramadi could fall within two weeks to Isis, giving it near full control of the province, which is adjacent to the capital.
Additional reporting by Lobna Monieb