ERBIL, Iraq — Iraqi security officials are shooting down claims from America’s top military officer that ISIS nearly seized Baghdad’s airport, saying the strategically crucial location is “under control.”
Speaking on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that American Apache attack helicopters were all that stood between the militant group and Baghdad International Airport.
“Had they overrun the Iraqi unit,” Dempsey said, “it was a straight shot to the airport.”
Sitting on the western edge of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad International Airport is a key lifeline for U.S. troops, American embassy staff—and, of course, the Iraqi economy. Since the 2003 invasion, it’s housed U.S. military assets and transported supplies in and out of Iraq. The headquarters of the U.S. occupation were situated at the airport. And for years, the route between it and Baghdad proper were among the most hotly contested in all of Iraq.
For weeks, there have been reports of a buildup of ISIS forces in the suburb of Abu Ghraib, the outskirts of which lies just eight miles from the airport’s edge.
“This is a case when you’re not going to wait until they’re climbing over the wall.” Dempsey said of the security situation surrounding Baghdad airport, “[ISIS] were within, you know, 20 or 25 kilometers [of the airport].”
But Iraqi security and military officials claim reports of insecurity in Abu Ghraib and around Baghdad airport are overblown and incendiary.
“The airport is immune from all sides,” explained Sabah al-Nouman, the spokesman for Iraq’s security forces, “there is no Daash presence even within 50 kilometers,” he said using a common Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Everything is under our control,” echoed Saad Maan, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, referring to the area surrounding the airport, “the information is wrong, just rumors to make our soldiers scared.”
But while officials in Baghdad are projecting calm, just to the west of the capital, Anbar’s leadership is sounding the alarm.
“The militants, they now control 80% of Anbar province,” said Faleh al-Issawi, a local politician from Anbar, detailing weeks of miserable performance on behalf of the Iraqi military. Government forces, he says, are constantly on the back foot, rarely launching offensives to regain territory.
Outgunned and beleaguered, he says, Iraqi army units in Anbar are beginning to collapse.
“We are renewing our call for American or International troops to come to Anbar province and begin ground operations,” he said, expressing a policy desire completely at odds with that of the central government.
When the Apache helicopters were deployed to Iraq in July, Pentagon officials said the aircraft would be used to provide extra security for U.S. facilities, people and property.
Use of the helicopters earlier this month to protect Baghdad’s airport suggests the U.S. is increasingly concerned by the security situation in the area. The lower and slower flying craft face a greater chance of being shot down by surface to air missiles ISIS fighters are known to possess. Using the choppers, in other words, comes with great risk.
“It was clearly enough of a concern that they decided to use this asset and accept whatever risks were involved,” said Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Following the dramatic sweep across northern Iraq by ISIS forces, the group has steadily been making progress in Iraq’s western Anbar province, most recently closing in on the capital Ramadi, a city the group has controlled parts of on and off for months now.
“From a strategy perspective, ISIS sees Ramadi as a gateway to pose a further threat to Baghdad,” explains Ahmed Ali, who tracks ISIS’s military campaign as a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Ali says capturing Ramadi will put an entire highway under ISIS control, allowing the group to ferry supplies eastward for an eventual push on Baghdad.
As for ISIS presence in Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad airport, Ali says it’s partial and nothing new; the neighborhood has historically been a staging ground for the group’s attacks.
“The threat is if ISIS is able to develop freedom of movement in Abu Ghraib, they can easily move that to Baghdad.” That’s something that ISIS has been unable to achieve—so far.
But, Ali warns all that can change quickly if Anbar continues to crumble, “right now, we are looking into the Abyss.”