BAGHDAD — Islamic State fighters on Monday seized control of an army base in western Iraq, the third to fall in three weeks, as Iraqi forces in the region appeared close to collapse despite U.S.-led airstrikes.
Iraqi officials described the pullback from near Hit — a town in Anbar province about 115 miles west of Baghdad — as a “tactical retreat” and said the army hauled away equipment and burned food supplies to deny the Islamic State provisions and firepower. The withdrawal came just hours after the U.S. Central Command said coalition forces had conducted airstrikes in the area.
The loss of the base deals another psychological blow to beleaguered Iraqi forces that have been battling Islamic State militants in Anbar for 10 months. Regional politicians have pleaded for increased U.S. support — with some even requesting a return of American ground troops — as fears grow that the province could fall completely.
The instability in Anbar has stoked fears that Islamic State fighters could use their gains to push into areas closer to the capital, including the volatile Abu Ghraib district, which lies just west of Baghdad’s international airport. So far Baghdad has largely avoiding being within the Islamic State’s firing range, though the group has carried out sporadic mortar attacks and regular suicide bombings in the capital. On Monday, bombings in mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad killed at least 30 people, the Associated Press reported.
The situation in Anbar stands in contrast to events in northern Iraq, where U.S. airstrikes, backed by Kurdish ground forces, have reversed some of the Islamic State’s gains.
President Obama has stressed that although the United States can provide air support, the war is for Iraq to fight. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond reiterated that position during a visit to Baghdad on Monday.
“The coalition can only deliver effective support to the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces,” Hammond said at a news conference. “The Iraqi people, the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government will have to take the lead on the ground.”
But turning the Iraqi security apparatus into a fighting force capable of doing that remains a major challenge. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is attempting to reach out to Sunni tribal leaders to engage them in the fight — but he faces an underlying mistrust of the Shiite-led government.
The army, meanwhile, is plagued by desertions, corruption and a collapse in morale.
“We don’t have any leadership,” complained one officer who fled the base near Hit on Monday and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being reprimanded. “We could have kept our base with some simple reinforcements and ammunition.”
The U.S. Central Command said coalition strikes Sunday destroyed an Islamic State vehicle and an armored personnel carrier in the vicinity of Hit, but Iraqi soldiers said that did not prevent the militants from launching an assault on the army base. By 3 a.m., the 400 or so Iraqi troops in the facility received orders to retreat.
The Islamic State used mosque loudspeakers to trumpet its takeover of the Iraqi 7th Division base. The group had seized Hit, which lies along the Euphrates River, on Oct. 2.
Suleman al-Qubaisi, a spokesman for Anbar’s provincial council, said officials in the region have urgently requested Abadi to dispatch 4,000 additional soldiers to the region.
In Syria, meanwhile, at least seven U.S. airstrikes have been carried out since Sunday in attempts to drive back Islamic State fighters around the border town of Kobane, the Central Command said.
The battle for Kobane has sharpened the tenor of talks between the United States and NATO ally Turkey over ways to expand the multinational campaign against the Islamic State. Turkey has refused to contribute military assistance to the coalition while it presses its demands, including the imposition of a no-fly zone in northern Syria and the creation of a buffer zone along the frontier.
On Monday, Turkey denied it had reached any “new agreement” with the United States to allow the use of Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for strikes against the Islamic State, despite suggestions by the Obama administration that a deal had been reached.
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad, Liz Sly in Sanliurfa, Turkey, and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.