While pressing its offensive in Anbar, the Islamic State group demonstrated its ability to target Americans in a suicide car bombing near the U.S. Consulate in Irbil.
BAGHDAD — In an intensifying humanitarian crisis in Iraq’s Anbar province, thousands of residents are fleeing the battle between Islamic State group militants and pro-government forces around the provincial capital, Ramadi.
Checkpoints on the main approach to Baghdad from western Anbar province are choked with cars, as the Iraqi authorities refuse entry to people who do not have a resident of Baghdad to vouch for them and provide them shelter. In normal times, a drive between Ramadi and Baghdad takes little more than an hour. Those lucky enough to reach Baghdad on Friday said they had been traveling for two days.
On the edge of Baghdad on Friday, just past a government checkpoint, Saad al-Thiabi, a police officer in Ramadi who has been battling the Islamic State troops there for more than a year, was dropping off his family. He said he would return to the fight after catching a night’s sleep and doubted he would see his family again.
“The main reason I’m taking them here is because I don’t want to be beheaded in front of my family members,” he said, his young son standing by his side. “I want to be killed away from them.”
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The crisis in Anbar, coming just after the government promised a new military campaign to retake the province from the militant Sunni Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, suggests the battle could be a monthslong, grinding affair.
While pressing its offensive in Anbar, the Islamic State group demonstrated its ability to target Americans on Friday in a suicide car bombing near the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
The attack was deadly to civilians near the consulate but ultimately unsuccessful in its aim. Deeming the vehicle suspicious, security forces opened fire on it, and it exploded before it could reach the consulate, officials said. Still, the attempted attack was likely to raise fears about the vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq.
Officials in Irbil said three civilians had been killed and five wounded in the attack, which struck in the largely Christian neighborhood of Ankawa, which is popular with Westerners and has been considered safe. Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported that a U.S. citizen was among the wounded, but that could not be verified. U.S. officials said no consulate personnel were hurt.
Later, on a Twitter post distributed by the SITE Intelligence Group, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.
In Baghdad, a series of bombings that targeted mainly public places killed at least 40 people, officials said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks but violence has escalated in the wake of Islamic State group’s capture of large swaths of territory in the country’s west and north.
In Anbar, the Iraqi government’s struggles raise anew the question that has become a difficult one for U.S. military planners advising the Iraqi government and coordinating an intensified campaign of coalition airstrikes: What role, if any, should Shiite militias, backed by Iran, play in the fight for the Sunni heartland of Anbar?
The Shiite militias, which played an important role in the recent victory in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, have been absent, for the most part, from the fighting in Anbar. This is partly because of demands by U.S. officials, who worry the presence of militias, despite their fighting prowess, could raise sectarian tensions in Sunni-dominated Anbar.
As the situation has deteriorated, some Anbar officials and tribal sheikhs have called on the government to send in militia units, which are grouped under an organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The governor of Anbar, Suhaib al-Rawi, called on the Shiite religious authorities to support the people of Anbar and help “to stop the vicious offensive by ISIS.” This was interpreted as a plea for help from the Shiite militias.
At Friday Prayer in Karbala, in southern Iraq, a representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most important Shiite cleric, called on people in areas under Islamic State group control to liberate their own territories. But he also endorsed a role for the militias, saying: “It is all right for other Iraqis to participate with them to liberate their areas, despite their different affiliations or names, because at the end they are all sons of Iraq.”
Mueen al-Kadhumi, a senior commander in the Badr Organization, a prominent Shiite militia, said some of the same officials now asking for help had recently criticized the role of militias in the wake of the victory in Tikrit, where some units were accused of looting, burning homes and extrajudicial killings. “They were disparaging the popular mobilization and now they want it,” al-Kadhumi said.
Sabah Karhut, chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, has not called for the militias to be sent to Ramadi but said: “Ramadi today is surrounded on all sides by ISIS. We are in a critical situation.”
Parts of Ramadi, but not the city center, have either been controlled or challenged by the Islamic State for nearly 16 months, well before the insurgents stormed into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June.
While fighting surrounded the city over that time, there were pockets within where life went on almost as normal, residents said. “Two days ago, it completely changed,” said Adil Raheem, who reached Baghdad on Friday. “We had to leave, otherwise we would die.”
A man next to him called the soldiers and police defending Ramadi “cowards” and suggested the city was at imminent risk of falling to the insurgents.
Al-Thiabi, the police officer from Ramadi in Baghdad on Friday, said he had not been paid in two months but that he would go back anyway, even though he expected to die. “I want to defend my house, my city, my province,” he said. “These are not Muslims, they are criminals. This is not Islam.”