Iraqi government forces are in a “tenuous” position in the west of the country but are holding out for the moment against Islamic State jihadists, US defense officials said Friday.
Iraq’s army is under mounting pressure in Anbar province, even as the world’s attention has been fixed on the northern Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish defenders are battling an IS offensive, officials said.
“It’s tenuous there. They are being resupplied and they’re holding their own, but it’s tough and challenging,” said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I think it’s fragile there now,” the official told AFP.
Dozens of US-led air strikes in recent weeks in western Iraq, including near the city of Ramadi, have helped counter the IS fighters and the capital Baghdad remained secure, the official said.
The Islamic State group has so far failed to take the strategic Haditha dam, with coalition bombing raids helping the Iraqi government fend off jihadist assaults.
But the situation has illustrated how the Iraqi troops are far from an effective force and in urgent need of training, officials said.
The difficult circumstances in Anbar offered a stark contrast with battlefield reports from the country’s north, where more capable Kurdish soldiers have made some headway.
“There’s no comparison” between the ability of the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi government army, the official said.
“The Kurds are moving, they’re taking back towns and territory,” and were able to coordinate with coalition forces, the official said.
A second defense official said conditions in western Iraq were cause for concern: “It’s not a good situation.”
The Iraqi army has launched a number of offensives that have fizzled, he said.
“They start an operation and it stops after a kilometer,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The IS group seized the city of Fallujah in Anbar province in January, and have repeatedly attempted to take Ramadi and the Haditha dam.
Anbar province was the main battleground for the Sunni insurgency against US troops that erupted after the US invasion in 2003.
Sunni tribes later opted to side with the Baghdad government and American forces against Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, which US officers dubbed the “Anbar awakening.”
But the Shiite-led government of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki eventually angered and alienated the Sunni community in Anbar, and the IS group has sought to exploit the deep resentment felt by Sunnis in the west.