The al Qaeda offshoot terrorizing Iraq is in the process of consolidating territorial gains and increasing the target list in Baghdad, a U.S. official and defense analysts say.
But at this point, the Islamic State army of Sunni extremists does not have the capacity to take Baghdad, where a huge Shiite population and stiffer Iraqi forces defend the capital.
“[The Islamic State] is solidifying its control in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “They attack or entrench themselves in towns and military bases near key facilitation routes that connect population hubs they now control such as Raqqa [Syria], Fallujah, and Mosul.”
On Sunday, Islamic State militants in northern Iraq drove out Kurdish troops and seized control of the two small towns of Zumar and Sinjar, officials and residents said.
The Islamic State, then known as al Qaeda in Iraq, began a violent campaign of car bombings in and around Baghdad once U.S. troops left in December 2011. Some vehicles have carried suicide bombers; others have been detonated remotely. Combined, they have killed hundreds of Iraqis.
All signs point to another vehicle bomb offensive. The Pentagon estimates as many as 50 foreign suicide bombers are flowing into Iraq each month.
“[The Islamic State] probably will continue to conduct many similar attacks in the capital in the coming months,” the intelligence official said.
The militants’ ongoing attacks on the town of Tarmiyah near the capital “indicates that [the Islamic State] still maintains the capability to attack in proximity to Baghdad,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its latest Iraq briefing.
The Islamic State is finding its foreign killers largely via social media, a recruiting tool never used by al Qaeda, the Pentagon believes.
“ISIL is no longer simply a terrorist organization. It is now a full-blown army,” Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, told senators July 24.
Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqis have fled areas seized by the Islamic State over the past few months, including the towns of Zumar and Sinjar, the United Nations said Sunday. Many have escaped to semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in northern Iraq.
Retired Army Gen. John Keane, an architect of the 2007 U.S. troops surge that sent al Qaeda in Iraq into retreat, said it is clear that the Islamic State is preparing to ramp up attacks on Baghdad.
“Baghdad attacks are likely to be mortars, possibly some rockets along with terrorist attacks using suicide bombers and ground assaults on police stations, Army checkpoints, etc.,” Gen. Keane said. “These attacks are designed to intimidate and create fear and uncertainty. Many Shiite wealthy families have left their homes to custodians and have gone elsewhere.”
He added: “ISIL desires to control Baghdad. Hard for anyone to say it’s not possible but it is highly unlikely. Even if the government fled out of fear, they could never control the city. They simply do not have sufficient combat power to dominate all the Shia neighborhoods.”
If there any bright spots for Iraq, officials say, they are:
• Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has fired nonperforming commanders.
• More than 600 U.S. military personnel are in Iraq, some at two joint command centers advising Iraqis on how to reconstitute a force of 200,000, of which about 30,000 deserted, and dispensing a flow of intelligence on ISIL.
• Iraqi special operations forces have shown a willingness to fight.
Iraq has limited air combat power. Iraqi aviation is flying old Russian fighter jets from Iran. The Institute for the Study of War update indicated that Iraqis are flying more missions and hitting targets.
Most of Iraq’s air-to-ground capability is more primitive, coming from reconfigured Cessna aircraft firing U.S. Hellfire missiles, the kind the Predator drone fires to kill terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries.
The missiles were instrumental in Iraqi commandos’ ability to take control at times of the Baiji oil refinery, a site the Islamic State badly wants to capture for cash on the black market.
Gen. Keane said the Obama administration needs to step in militarily now instead of waiting for Iraq’s new parliament to pick a prime minister and try to form a coalition government.
“I believe the focus should be on [the Islamic State],” he said. “We need to get after this organization now before it grows and becomes much more difficult to deal with. Political reconciliation in Iraq, while critical, will take some time, and every day we wait is another day that ISIS is growing.”
He wants the Pentagon to start bombing Islamic State sanctuaries, staging areas and convoys in Iraq and Syria, from where the June offensive was launched.
The Obama administration has all but ruled out an air war in Iraq, but is studying other ways to help the Iraqi Security Forces based on a classified assessment delivered last month from U.S. Central Command.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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