The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is threatening to take control of Balad Airbase, Iraq’s largest airfield and one of America’s most important military outposts during its occupation of the country.
Today, Balad still has plenty of vehicles and aircraft on the base that any terrorist group would covet, including Russian-made transport helicopters, surveillance planes, and a fleet of pickup trucks fitted with heavy machine guns.
Now, that airbase is coming under fire—and is in danger of falling into the hands of ISIS, according to U.S. intelligence officers, internal reports from Balad, and outside analysts. Reuters reported Wednesday that the base was now surrounded on three sides by insurgents and taking heavy mortar fire.
“We assess the group continues to threaten the air base and Iraqi Security Force control of the air base as it moves south towards Baghdad,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Tuesday.
Of course, even if ISIS were to gain control of Balad, there is no guarantee its fighters would know how to operate or maintain the aircraft that are stored there. But an ISIS takeover of Balad would be significant nonetheless. As NBC News reported Tuesday, Iraqi officers say without air support they are on an equal footing with ISIS fighters.
Jessica Lewis—the research director for the Institute for the Study of War and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq—told The Daily Beast, “It would mean that ISIS can beat the best that the Iraqi Army can muster, not just the northern units that have been ignored. It would mean strategic defeat for the Iraqi Army.”
Lewis estimates that Balad and neighboring Taji base are likely some of the next targets of the ISIS campaign. “Both of these bases are critical military sites for the Iraqi Army. Neutralizing one or both would demonstrate that ISIS can beat the Iraqi Army strategically.”
This is in part because a defeat for Iraq’s army at Balad would also deprive Iraq’s military of the air assets it already has—and is set to acquire. In December, Russia began to deliver Mi-35 attack and transport helicopters. The first of 36 American F-16 fighters were scheduled to be delivered to Balad in September 2014.
Some attacks on Balad already began this month. The last American contractors at Balad—many of whom were working to modernize the base to be ready for the F-16s—were flown by the Iraqi Air Force to Baghdad on June 13 in a dramatic airlift operation reminiscent of the fall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
A June 11 situation report produced by one of the military contractors at Balad said some ISIS fighters were warning local Iraqis in a nearby district to remain indoors and that the fighters had intended to attack Balad. The report said the fighters were possibly an advance force and warned that intermittent probing attacks—small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades—“should be considered imminent on the base.” One military contractor working at Balad who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity confirmed that there were some probing attacks on the base before the airlift on June 13.
If ISIS were to gain access to Balad, they would be able to acquire a significant arsenal to add to their already impressive stock of vehicles, weapons and equipment. James Codling, who served as a contractor and senior engineer on the base between 2008 and 2012, told The Daily Beast that when the U.S. forces left in 2011, they left at least 1,000 trucks and vehicles, some of them armored, along with 500 to 600 portable power generators. He also said the base housed Russian-made Mi-8 transport helicopters, small surveillance planes, military tactical vehicles, Humvees and a fleet of pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the truck beds.
“When the United States left Balad, they essentially left everything in place. What I observed, I was pretty upset about this,” he said. Codling did acknowledge that the most sensitive pieces of U.S. equipment, such as surveillance and attack drones, were flown out of Balad before the last U.S. troops left the country.
For ISIS, however, the lower-tech equipment will likely prove most useful—in part, because they are easier to operate and maintain. The group posted photos on its social media accounts this week showing a parade of its fighters in Mosul driving Iraqi Humvees and even a vehicle towing mobile artillery. The senior U.S. intelligence official who briefed reporters Tuesday said the military capabilities for ISIS have “dramatically improved” because of the weapons and equipment it has obtained from the Iraqi and Syrian bases the group has overrun.
Administration officials held a classified briefing for all senators on Iraq late Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol. Briefers included Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin, and Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director for Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Several senators emerged from the briefing still unclear on what the administration plans to do to address what was described to them as a dire situation inside Iraq that was getting worse.
“The situation in Iraq is a growing counterterrorism emergency. This is not about saving the government of Iraq… this is an urgent counterterrorism situation that our country faces,” said Sen. Marco Rubio. “It grows more dire by the moment. Our options become more limited by the moment. And I hope if receives the attention it deserves over the next few hours… This is a rapidly deteriorating situation.”
Rubio said there was a risk of the violence spreading into Jordan and other neighboring countries. He is arguing the U.S. needs to target ISIS supply lines in Iraq and ISIS command and control facilities inside Syria.
The president has all the authority he needs to strike, Rubio said. He did not indicate whether administration officials said if any decision on strikes had been made.
“Right now we don’t know what the president’s intentions are,” said Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican James Inhofe. As for whether Obama should come to Congress for authorization before striking Iraq, Inhofe said: “Whether or not he has to, he ought to.”
Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast said if the administration wanted to strike, there are clearly identifiable ISIS targets that could be hit with maximum effectiveness and minimum risk to civilians.
“We know where these columns are, particularly in the desert, where you wouldn’t have to attack them in the cities,” said McCain.
But McCain doubts that President Obama will ultimately decide to use American military force inside Iraq. “I’m absolutely convinced they don’t want to do it.”
Meanwhile, Iran is already working to shore up its Shi'ite allies in Baghdad. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Iran is even flying surveillance drones over Iraq from another air base in Iraq.