Al Qaeda Iraq (IS) and its Sunni tribal allies are advancing on the al-Muthanna military air base at Baghdad international airport, according to the latest intelligence dated Friday, July 4. Three columns, of 1,000-1,500 fighters each, are descending on their target from the north and the west in US-made armored Humvees and APCs taken booty from the Iraqi army.
The air field is situated 16 km west of central Baghdad. The Islamist State’s military planners, many of whom were officers in Saddam Hussein’s army – the president ousted in 2003 by the US invasion of Iraq – have calculated that there was no need at this stage to conquer the Iraqi capital.
Seizing the military air field will afford them control of Baghdad air space and provide a forward base for bombing forays in different quarters of the city. The Islamists count on support in the Sunni suburbs of West Baghad.
debkafile’s sources also reveal that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the fatal mistake of withdrawing his army’s 4th Division from the southern Shiite town of Karbala and deploying it in defense of Samarra 125 km north of Baghdad. By this maneuver, he cleared the way for the IS columns to press forward toward the al-Muthanna air base with no obstacles in their path.
This alarming development may well force President Barack Obama to hurry up and issue the order for air or missile operations to stop al Qaeda’s forces in their tracks. Most of this week, intense discussions were taking place in the White House and Pentagon. It appeared that a final decision was impending.
Thursday, July 3, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, left open the possibility of an expanded role for US military advisers in Iraq. Air strikes are one of the options, he said.
More than ever before, speed is of the essence.
IS’s commanders have their eye on the assault planes stored at the Baghdad air base which Iran and Russia delivered in the last 10 days to help Maliki fight the Sunni Islamists. They are all designed for striking ground targets. Iran sent eight fighters – four Su-25UBKMs and four Su-25Kms with crews, and the Russians six Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoots, along with air and ground maintenance crews.
Since al-Muthanna is guarded by Iraqi special forces, IS reckons that the takeover of the base and its valuable prize of warplanes before they become operational will be a walkover, especially after they proved their mettle by commandeering a mountain of advanced US weaponry.
The Obama administration therefore needs to decide in the coming hours on a US air strike that will head off the Iraqi Islamists before they grab the strategic air base and acquire their first fleet of warplanes.
It is just as important for Washington to embark on this action before America is beaten to the draw by Tehran or Moscow.