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Iraqis desperate for air cover as U.S. moves warplanes to Kobani

With the U.S. seemingly focused on helping Kurdish militias fight off an Islamic State advance at Kobani on the Turkey-Syria border, Islamist militants this week have seized one key military base in Iraq’s Anbar province and have laid siege to another, with no major increase in U.S. air support for the beleaguered Iraqi security forces.

Reports from Kobani indicate that intense U.S. airstrikes there have driven back Islamic State fighters, while in Anbar the militants’ advance has been unrelenting. On Tuesday, the Islamic State captured heavy artillery and an unknown number of weapons including machine guns and ammunition when it overran an Iraqi base outside the city of Hit. Now the group has surrounded the Ain Asad air base, northwest of Hit, the country’s third largest military facility.

Yet the number of U.S. strikes in Anbar over the past week has plummeted compared with the previous week and have been far fewer than those launched near Kobani, a Kurdish city whose strategic importance is in dispute but where the fighting can be viewed easily from hillsides inside Turkey.

The U.S. Central Command has announced just five airstrikes in Anbar in the past week, compared with 16 last week, while the number of air assaults near Kobani in the same period totals 70 – 39 of them in the last two days.

Iraqi troops at the Ain Asad base in Anbar say they are desperate for U.S. air support.

“It’s not possible to get in any supplies by land,” explained a member of Iraq’s security forces inside the base reached by phone. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter, he said the base is surrounded, and while the Iraqi military has delivered some supplies by air, the forces holed up there are not hopeful.

“Forces in the base are almost collapsed psychologically and scared,” he said. “I cannot say for how long we can hold the base.”

What his men need now, he said, is air cover.

“If air cover is provided,” he said, “we will attack the militants in the nearby villages and stop their advance.”

Analysts suggest the uneven use of U.S.-led air power over the past week is due in part to limited capacity and in part to a failure in the overall strategy in the fight against Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL and ISIS.

“U.S. assets are partially overstretched,” said Christopher Harmer, a retired U.S. naval aviator and currently a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research center. “The core problem is that the U.S. does not have the strategic initiative. We are reacting to where ISIS is advancing, rather than proactively implementing a strategy to defeat them.”

Had the U.S. been implementing a proactive strategy, Harmer said, the U.S. would have attacked the Islamic State when the group first advanced on Kobani.

“We didn’t, so now we have to allocate a disproportionately large number of strikes against (the Islamic State) in Kobani,” he said.

During that same period, Anbar has witnessed a swift deterioration in security. On Sunday, the province’s chief of police was assassinated when a roadside bomb targeted his convoy outside the provincial capital, Ramadi. The United Nations has reported that more than 180,000 Iraqis have fled their homes in Anbar in the past week, the largest single displacement of civilians in the province this year.

For now, most of Ramadi remains in government control, but residents report the Islamic State appears to be massing troops on the city’s northern and eastern edges.

“The city of Ramadi is in its last breath if there is no quick military action to stop the militants,” one resident, Majeed al Marawi, said in a telephone interview.

Officials in Anbar agreed, demanding the central government in Baghdad send in reinforcements or officially request U.S. ground troops.

“The terrorist forces will fully dominate just because the government has done nothing to fight the insurgents,” said Faleh al Issawi, a local Anbar council member. He said the military and security forces in Anbar are outgunned and undersupported.

Reached by phone, he called the situation “very dangerous.”

“I previously warned and I warn now that Anbar will follow Mosul,” he said, referring to the northern Iraqi city whose captured by Islamic State militants June 10 signaled the insurgents’ rapid advance across northern and central Iraq.

While the Islamic State has maintained a presence on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital for months, using the pockets of territory to launch isolated attacks inside Baghdad like Tuesday’s car bombing that killed Shiite militia commander and parliamentarian Ahmed al Khafaji, the fall of Anbar province out of government hands would allow the group to pose a direct, sustained threat to Baghdad.

U.S. officials already have expressed concern regarding the group’s presence in western Baghdad, just outside the city’s strategically important international airport.

During an interview Sunday on the ABC News program “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted the group had come within “striking distance” of the airport, prompting the U.S. last week to send Apache helicopters into the fight, a risky move given that the low altitudes the crafts fly at leave them vulnerable to ground fire.

Dempsey said Islamic State forces had moved within 12 miles of the airport when the Apaches were sent to engage them as they battled Iraqi ground forces. “This is a case where you’re not going to wait until they’re climbing over the wall,” Dempsey said of the battle. “Had they overrun the Iraqi unit it was a straight shot to the airport. So, we’re not going to allow that to happen. We need that airport.”

“Bottom line,” said Harmer, the formal naval aviator, “ISIS has the strategic initiative. The U.S. is simply reacting to wherever ISIS is threatening the most.”