Will Baghdad fall to ISIL?

Baghdad has not yet fallen but it might just have its head held low.

Ever so faintly in the distance, you can hear the US-led air strikes taking place against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Anbar province.

I stand at the crossroads of Anbar and Baghdad along the main supply route that is the lifeline for the Iraqi security forces that are fighting.

In many ways, this road and control of it has come to represent the last defence of the capital.

If ISIL took control of this road, then the group’s control of Anbar would be complete.

I am here with the 24th brigade of the Iraqi army, which is in charge of logistics and reinforcements.

The commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Haider Mohammed Hatim, is a confident and experienced man.

Earlier in his tenure, we talked about Iraq’s past and the lessons that could be learned.

Hatim spoke of his experiences fighting beside US troops in Fallujah in 2004 when the US forces mounted two major operations to try and defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“Those operations were spaced apart but altogether it took just under a year and AQI were not as strong as ISIL are now,” he said.

“I think this operation will be ongoing.”

His assessment is at odds with the official government line that the operation will be swift and decisive.

A few moments later, we are in a convoy of humvees and our own vehicles making our way to the defence lines.

Soldiers mill around the various checkpoints holding their assault weapons keeping vigil.

Huge sandbanks ring the perimeter with a gap for the road and the supply lines.

Fears of retreat

Many in Baghdad are nervous that the Iraqi army’s recent poor showing in Anbar might be repeated here.

That they might simply disappear in the presence of an ISIL assault.

It is a charge that the commander dismisses, calling the Iraqi army’s withdrawal a tactical move and noting that now the forces are in Anbar and fighting to win back Ramadi.

A few kilometres west of here is the town of Karma.

It is strategically important as it is equidistant between Fallujah and where I am with the 24th brigade and its military base.

The Iraqi army is fortifying the town and use it a communications and logistics hub. But ISIL is fighting back even here.

On the outskirts of the town on Wednesday, ISIL attacked Iraqi security forces with three car bombs that killed at least 55 soldiers.

ISIL has increasingly resorted to using car bombs and has used them to devasting effect in recent weeks.

In Ramadi it was a series of six car bombs against Iraqi soldiers that allowed the group to eventually take over the city.

Hashem al-Hashemi is a writer on military strategy and is concerned about the Iraqi army’s apparent inability to deal with the weapon known in military jargon as a VBIED, or Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device.

He tells me that “the Iraqis lack the reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering capibilities to stop car bombs in advance”.

“The cars are often heavily armoured, and by the time they are upon the security forces the weapons the army use can sometimes be ineffective,” Hashemi says.

Standing on the edge of Anbar, I see the occasional traffic of Shia militia vehicles move into the province.

Most of the heavy equipment went in last week.

I’m reminded that it is highly unlikely that Baghdad will fall because Iran, which trains and supports the militias, won’t let it.

A comparison can be made with President Bashir al-Assad and the Iranian support of Damascus.

Another key player is the US, which is equally unlikely to let Baghdad fall.

Ultimately in Baghdad, though, the interests of global powers matter little.

ISIL has made a mark on the capital through sporadic but regular car bombings.

Some of those fleeing the fighting in Anbar province live in makeshift camps within the city limits effectively as refugees in their own country.

The checkpoints still hold up traffic. Strangers in neighbourhoods are viewed with suspicion.

Cars parked randomly cause unease.

Baghdad might not yet have fallen but it might just have its head held low.

Source: Al Jazeera