Islamic State terrorists have strengthened attacks near Al Asad Airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province in recent days, where over 300 U.S. Marines are currently deployed in an assistance and training mission with Iraqi Security Forces.
ISIS captured the nearby town of al-Baghdadi on Thursday. And according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, a number of ISIS fighters, led by suicide bombers in Iraqi army uniforms, attempted to breach the perimeter of the air base early Friday morning local time. The base’s total area is about 25 square miles.
Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Elissa Smith told The Daily Caller News Foundation that “the U.S. forces were several kilometers from the attack this morning and at no stage were they under direct threat from this action.”
The number of ISIS attackers is unclear: While the original release by Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve identified eight fighters who were killed by “Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) supported by Coalition surveillance assets,” on Friday afternoon Kirby said that 20 to 25 attackers were involved.
No Iraqi or coalition troops were harmed in the attack.
When asked about potential contingencies for fighting back or evacuating the base, CJTF-OIR representative Capt. John Moore said, “All service members are equipped with rules of engagement, which vary from place to place, though the right to self-defense is always an option for them.” Citing security concerns, he declined to comment on “the readiness or logistical statuses of our service members” or “the tactics, techniques or procedures that may be employed under the circumstances mentioned.”
But he acknowledged, “There are always a wide range of options that can be employed to ensure the safety and security of U.S. and coalition members.”
The Marines at Al Asad Air Base are training “almost 800” Iraqi forces at Al Asad, according to CJTF-OIR’s public statement.
Al-Baghdadi is a small town, but the Marines at Al Asad are perhaps the most pronounced U.S. military presence in a part of Iraq where ISIS has been gradually gaining ground. Though unlikely, a successful assault on the base would constitute a major strategic advance for the terrorist group in Anbar.
An administration bill currently before Congress prohibits the deployment of ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq, but contains broad provisions for support of Iraqi efforts to combat the terrorist group.
To an earlier query, the Pentagon’s Smith said, “Anbar Province has been under severe threat by ISIL since the beginning of last year and the situation remains contested.”