Four western Iraqi towns fall to advancing ISIS militants

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — 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.

Shiite show of force

Iraq has a long history of brutality between Sunni and Shiite sects, and on Saturday, a warning of renewed conflict between Shiites and the Sunnis supporting ISIS emerged on the streets of Baghdad, where thousands of Shiite militiamen marched in a rally.

The show of force, called a parade, was organized by prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who urged unity in Iraq in its fight against ISIS.

The thousands of Shiites wore various security forces’ uniforms in the march in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite area in the eastern part of the Iraqi capital.

They carried rifles, rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades.

On the street, they also did a demonstration on planting roadside bombs, with the armor-piercing bombs hoisted on their shoulders. Those bombs — Iranian-designed, electronically formed projectiles — were the scourge of the U.S. war in Iraq during the 2000s.

Even women joined the march, dressed in black and holding handguns.

Only a few years ago, the Shiite militiamen were fighting U.S. forces on the same Baghdad streets.

On Saturday, they demonstrated their readiness for the ISIS fighters.

“ISIS is a terrorist organization created by the United States. They are the enemy of humanity,” said one participant who identified himself as a former army colonel. “We are here to free the land for all Sunni and Shiite and everyone.”

Another militiaman said he didn’t welcome U.S. military advisers, who are expected to arrrive soon to help the government.

“We don’t need airstrikes or any external force helping us here,” the volunteer said. “We don’t want these American military advisers.”

A Shiite cleric blamed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for Iraq’s latest instability, even though his government favors Shiites.

“The main cause of the security deterioration is the bad management of the Prime Minister,” the cleric said. “Al-Maliki must leave and resign.”

Falluja fighting, Baghdad bombings

Elsewhere in Iraq’s western Anbar province, Iraqi security forces killed 15 “terrorists” and destroyed four vehicles on Saturday afternoon in Falluja, said Iraqiya State TV, citing security officials.

Falluja has been under control of ISIS militants and Sunni tribesmen since January. It’s about 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, and Iraqi forces have so far blocked the militants from marching on the nation’s capital.

The militants in Falluja have been trying to take over Sunni areas close to Baghdad, such as Abu Ghraib and small villages close by, Ramadi security officials told CNN.

Abu Ghraib is a largely Sunni area in the western outskirts of the capital.

Despite the government effort to protect Baghdad, several bomb attacks occurred across the capital city, killing at least seven people and wounding 32 more, officials said Saturday.

U.S. advisers due to arrive in Iraq soon

The Iraqi government was waiting for the initial group of U.S. military advisers to arrive in Iraq soon, a senior defense official said, as crowds paraded nationwide in a show of unity for the government.

This first detail is expected to be very small, the official said. The total number of U.S. military advisers who will eventually deploy will be about 300.

In addition, some U.S. military personnel already at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will be reassigned and become advisers, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The first group of advisers will conduct an initial assessment of Iraqi troop capabilities and of what may be needed for a larger group of U.S. advisers, including additional security measures where they may be deployed, a senior defense official said Friday.

Although Iraq’s government was eager for the U.S. help, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Sunday that he “strongly opposes” U.S. military intervention, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

Refugee crisis

More than 1 million Iraqis have fled their homes this year because of conflict, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday. The number is likely to rise as Islamist militants and Iraqi security forces battle for control.

An estimated 800,000 people left Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul after it fell to fighters from ISIS, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. The city has a population of 1.6 million.

ISIS, born from an al Qaeda splinter group and supported by Sunni factions, continues its fierce advance in Iraq.

Al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government is accused of fostering sectarian tensions by marginalizing Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurd minorities.

U.S. President Barack Obama told CNN on Friday that U.S. military efforts are pointless without a change in government.

“If we don’t see Sunni, Shia and Kurd representation in the military command structure, if we don’t see Sunni, Shia and Kurd political support for what we’re doing, we won’t do it,” he said.

The complete interview will be aired Monday on CNN’s “New Day.”

The United States withdrew its final troops from Iraq in 2011, nearly nine years after leading the invasion that ousted longtime leader Saddam Hussein.

CNN’s Nic Robertson and Nima Elbagir contributed from Baghdad, and Arwa Damon from Irbil, Iraq. Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed from Atlanta. Michael Martinez wrote from Los Angeles.

™ & © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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