BAGHDAD — ISIS fighters stand on the verge of victory on two fronts, and poorly equipped local forces do their best to resist.
The Islamist extremists appear set to take a key Syrian town along the Turkish border and an entire province on Baghdad’s doorstep.
Leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province pleaded for U.S. ground troops to halt the group’s rapid, relentless assault. Officials in Baghdad and Washington have not given recognition to their appeal.
In a major setback, Gen. Ahmed Saddak, the police chief of Anbar province, was killed Saturday night in a roadside bomb that targeted his convoy, officials said.
ISIS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” which also is referred to as ISIL, controls about 80% of the province, said Anbar Provincial Council president Sabah Al-Karhout.
Reports Saturday suggest the militants have encircled Haditha, the last large town in Anbar province not yet in ISIS’ hands.
Should all of Anbar fall, the Sunni extremists would rule from the perimeter of Iraq’s capital to Raqqa in Syria, at least, according to the provincial council’s deputy head, Falleh al-Issawi.
They would control a swath 350 miles (563 kilometers) long.
‘U.S. will not deploy’
Iraqi army forces and Anbar tribesmen fighting alongside them have threatened to abandon their weapons if the U.S. military does not intervene, al-Issawi said.
The army soldiers lack training and equipment, he said. Already, some 1,800 tribesmen in the province have been killed or injured in the struggle.
But the Iraqi government has been adamant that it does not want U.S. forces on the ground, and U.S. President Barack Obama has not shown any intent to deploy any.
The Iraqi government said it has not received any official request from Anbar province for U.S. ground forces to help in the fight, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s media office said.
A U.S. defense official said Saturday that Iraq’s government hasn’t asked for any more American troops beyond those already in Iraq.
And if they did, the official added, “The U.S. will not deploy combat ground forces to Iraq. And we remain focused on enabling the (Iraqi military) in the fight against ISIL through our advise/assist efforts and the air campaign.”
‘Full control’ of Baghdad
A coalition airstrike Saturday killed more than 30 suspected ISIS militants in Iraq who were in an armed convoy west of Ramadi, city police Capt. Bahjat al-Hamdani said.
The U.S. and its allies conducted at least nine airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria on Saturday and early Sunday, according to the U.S. military.
Despite the air campaign, ISIS has expanded its reach.
In Iraq, ISIS has dispatched as many as 10,000 fighters to Anbar province from Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq, an Anbar official said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has acknowledged the dire situation, telling reporters that “Anbar province is in trouble. We know that.”
But officials said Baghdad is not likely to be the next domino to fall. “Iraqi security forces are in full control of Baghdad,” Hagel said.
Still, the equation could change if ISIS threatens Baghdad airport, from which U.S. Apache helicopters operate.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a CNN military analyst, said: “I think at some point, there’s going to be the need for an additional ground force in western Iraq.”
Other coalition nations could provide those troops, he believes, or they could be American.
Warning of a massacre in Kobani
ISIS is still advancing in Syria, where it emerged during the years-long civil war. Its current focus there is Kobani, a Kurdish enclave a stone’s throw from Turkey.
And the militants are gradually taking control of a large chunk of Kobani. On Saturday, ISIS fighters clashed with local troops over the official border crossing into Turkey at Mursitpinar.
At least 36 ISIS militants died Saturday in various battles in Kobani against Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement Sunday. Eight Kurdish fighters were killed.
Should they take it, the militants would control three official border crossings between Turkey and Syria and a stretch of the border about 60 miles (97 kilometers) long.
Kurdish fighters are repelling some attacks, and on Saturday, U.S. and allied warplanes hit key ISIS targets nearby, according to U.S. Central Command.
But YPG and Free Syrian Army troops are vastly outnumbered and lack firepower.
Inside Kobani, a civilian said things are worse than ever; the people are forced to endure mortar fire and fear being beheaded should ISIS take over.
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said such brutality may become a reality.
“The 12,000 civilians … will be most likely massacred,” he said.