Four towns in western Iraq, including one on the border with Syria, fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Saturday, continuing the advance of Sunni militants despite mobilization of government forces by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
According to CNN, ISIS militants have seized Qaim, Rawa, Ana, and Huseiba, tightening their grip on the Anbar province in western Iraq. The development could make a march to Baghdad far easier given their location along a strategic highway running from the Syrian border to the capital city. The closest, Huseiba, lies 62 miles west of Baghdad.
The seizure of Qaim is particularly key for the militants, since its border crossing provides a way to move materiel more easily. The group already has a strong presence across the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Associated Press reported that Qaim’s fall left 30 Iraqi troops dead in fighting Friday.
The AP also reported that “thousands of Shiite militiamen” paraded through the streets of several cities, “eager to take on the Sunni insurgents.” According to Fox News, that included around 20,000 in the Sadr City district of Baghdad as well as Amarah and Basra, both cities in southern Iraq.
One of those groups is the Mahdi Army, which once fought American troops a decade ago and is led by cleric Moktada al-Sadr. The New York Times quoted one of its members as downplaying the threat posed by ISIS, claiming that if al-Sadr “gives us the order, we will finish ISIS in two days.”
But, as The Times also reports, there is some concern that the Shiite response could inflame tensions in the country despite the mobilization being portrayed as intended to unify and not divide. The influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for support of the government against ISIS.
Meanwhile, as the militants seize more territory in western Iraq and the border crossing at Qaim, there have also been reports that a sizable number of Iraqis currently in Syria fighting against ISIS in support of President Bashar Assad are now returning home. The AP reports that this is “putting a strain on the overstretched Syrian military as it struggles to retain territory,” a development that could further embolden ISIS.
Following President Barack Obama’s announcement this week that hundreds of U.S. military advisers would head to Iraq in support of the government, a cleric aligned with al-Sadr threatened against American involvement in Iraq.
“We will be ready for you if you are back,” Nassir al-Saedi said, according to Sky News.
The American advisers include mostly special forces and could be intended to boost intelligence-gathering ahead of air strikes. But that is not imminent and with the capture of the border town of Qaim and ISIS solidifying its control of western Iraq, time may be working against Maliki’s government.