BAGHDAD (CNN) — Leaders in Iraq’s western Anbar province appealed Saturday for help from U.S. forces on the ground to halt the relentless advance of ISIS fighters.
The situation in the province, just to the west of Baghdad, is “very bad,” the president of Anbar Provincial Council told CNN by phone on Saturday.
Sabah Al-Karhout said the council has intelligence that ISIS has dispatched as many as 10,000 fighters to Anbar from Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq.
The council’s deputy head, Falleh al-Issawi, told CNN that it had asked the central government to intervene immediately to save the province from imminent collapse — and to request the deployment of U.S. ground forces there.
That would be a significant shift, since the Iraqi government has until now been adamant that it does not want U.S. forces on the ground.
Meanwhile, ISIS militants are also tightening their grip on the holdout Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, hundreds of kilometers to the north — despite dozens of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
Airstrikes also have not prevented ISIS making gains in Anbar province for the past several weeks. ISIS apparently is targeting a string of cities along the Euphrates River where most of the population is concentrated.
Iraqi officials say the situation is now becoming increasingly urgent.
ISIS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” which also is referred to as ISIL, is now in control of 80% of Anbar province. If the Sunni extremists seize the rest of the province, their territory will extend from Raqqa in Syria to the perimeters of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, al-Issawi said.
Iraqi army forces and Anbar tribesmen fighting alongside them against ISIS have threatened to abandon their weapons if the U.S. military does not intervene to help them, he said, because they are starting to give way before the ISIS onslaught.
The army soldiers are not capable of defending themselves against the ISIS militants because of a lack of training and equipment, he said. Already, some 1,800 tribesmen in the province have been killed or injured in the struggle.
Schools have closed, keeping more than 300,000 students from class and fueling concerns that they may instead be recruited by ISIS, al-Issawi said.
Threat to Baghdad?
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Friday that Anbar province was in trouble.
A senior U.S. defense official also told CNN that Iraqi forces are “up against the wall” in Anbar. Some units are in danger of being cut off by the advancing militants, who say they are members of ISIS.
The Iraqis’ ultimate goal is to take back some of the vast areas, in both Iraq and Syria, that ISIS controls.
But right now, Iraqi forces appear to be mostly trying to survive — taking defensive positions and using Apache helicopters again, even after two were shot down in the area this week, according to the U.S. official.
A CNN team on the defensive perimeter of Baghdad in recent days saw that the Iraqi army has very significant defenses there.
ISIS appears to be conducting “hit-and-run” attacks rather than making any kind of frontal assault on the Iraqi capital. But gains by ISIS in an area near Baghdad airport, from which U.S. Apache helicopters operate, may cause concern.
Separately, at least four people were killed and 15 injured when a suicide bomber attacked a popular market in the north Baghdad neighborhood of al-Mashahda on Saturday, Baghdad police told CNN.
Fighter: ‘We cannot stop the ISIS advance’
A fighter in Kobani who spoke to CNN by phone Saturday said those defending the besieged city, also known as Ayn al-Arab, are in a grave situation.
Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops are greatly outnumbered by ISIS militants and firepower, he said.
“We cannot stop the ISIS advance from the east because they have artillery, many fighters and a good supply of ammunition,” he said, adding that YPG and FSA fighters are worried because they are close to being completely encircled by ISIS forces.
The fighter saw an estimated 10 dead YPG fighters in the streets Saturday morning, and many more injured who cannot be taken to the Turkish border because ISIS militants have advanced toward the crossing, making access very difficult.
He put the location of the ISIS forces at between 700 meters and one kilometer from the official border crossing at Mursitpinar.
He reported hearing at least four airstrikes in the area overnight. He said he continues to hear jets in the skies over Kobani as the day progresses.
A civilian who has been in Kobani since fighting began told CNN by phone Saturday that the situation is worse than ever.
He said he didn’t know how many civilians remain in the city but he has seen elderly people, children and women who fear for their lives.
He quoted some civilians as saying, “We are afraid of being beheaded.” He added that ISIS continues to lob mortars “everywhere in the city.”
‘Massacre’ threat to Kobani civilians
The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned at a Geneva news conference Friday that if Kobani falls, the civilians trapped inside “will most likely be massacred” by ISIS.
De Mistura said that Kobani used to have a population of 400,000. The latest figures indicate that 10,000 to 13,000 are in the border area between Syria and Turkey that lies just outside the city and 500 to 700, mostly elderly people and civilians, are still inside the city center.
Despite the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to deter ISIS from advancing and Turkish authorities meeting “with generosity and efficiency” the more than 200,000 refugees pouring into their country, “all this may not be enough in order to avert a clear humanitarian tragedy or catastrophe,” he said.
“You remember Srebrenica? We do,” de Mistura said, referring to the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian war after Dutch U.N. peacekeepers failed to protect them. “We never forgot. And probably we never forgave ourselves for that.”
Turkey has been under increasing internal and international pressure to launch a ground operation in support of the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani, only a stone’s throw from its border.
Emotional and sometimes violent protests have broken out in Turkey among people calling for ground forces to intervene — something Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday won’t happen so long as Turkey has to go it alone.
Turkey’s Parliament has authorized military action against ISIS, but the country’s long-running conflict with Kurdish separatists, viewed as terrorists, makes supporting the Kurdish fighters militarily an unpalatable option.
U.N. envoy: Let Kurdish defenders enter city
De Mistura appealed to Turkish authorities at least to allow Kurdish volunteer fighters to cross the border from Turkey into the city with “sufficient equipment” to contribute to a self-defense operation against ISIS.
“I understand they have important preconditions which need to be analyzed … but this may require time and Kobani, in our own opinion, does not have enough time,” he said.
While the U.S.-led coalition has been hitting ISIS positions from the air in 20 or more locations, de Mistura said, “they themselves recently have admitted that this may not be enough to save the city.”
ISIS fighters controlled about half of the Syrian city on Friday, significantly more than even a day earlier, after taking over Kurdish administration buildings in what had been a security zone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports.
The monitoring group said Saturday that 21 ISIS militants were killed in fighting in Kobani the previous day, while two others died after carrying out car-bomb suicide attacks against Kurdish fighters. At least eight Kurdish fighters also were killed in the clashes with ISIS attackers, it said.