Iraqi Forces Fighting Militants for Town on Syrian Border

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi security forces are waging a fierce battle with militants for control of the strategic border with Syria, where the enemy fighters enjoy a stronghold, Iraqi security officials said Saturday.

Since clashes erupted Friday in the border town of Al-Qaim, at least 11 Iraqi soldiers have been killed and 21 more have been wounded. Also, at least 20 militants were killed after Iraqi forces shelled areas from where the extremists launched attacks, two security officials in Ramadi, Iraq, told CNN.

As of early Saturday, large parts of Al-Qaim had been taken over by the militants, suspected to be part of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or ISIS, the officials said.

Control of the border crossing would be a significant strategic asset for the militants, allowing them to enter Iraq freely from their bases in Syria, which itself is wracked by civil war.

Al-Qaim sits across from Syria's Deir Ezzor province, where ISIS controls at least three towns, including areas near the military airport of Deir Ezzor, which was the headquarters of the military council for rebel battalions, said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group in London that monitors the Syrian conflict.

Why Al-Qaim is important

"This advancement (in Syria) is considered a very important and strategic step because ISIS has tried to take a complete control over areas in the east of Deir Ezzor in order to reach to the Syrian-Iraqi borders, and then to connect its held areas in both Syria and Iraq with each other," the opposition group said.

Opposite of Al-Qaim is the Syrian town of Al-Bukamal, which is under the control of other Islamist brigades such as Nusra Front, said Rami Abdulrahman of SOHR. ISIS doesn't control that town, he added Saturday.

Iraqi forces were fighting the suspected ISIS militants on at least two fronts: They faced dozens of militants on the Syrian side of the border, a territory under complete control by the militants, security officials said.

At the same time, some Sunni tribesmen within the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar were aiding and assisting the militants in their successful offensives against Iraqi forces, the officials said. Al-Qaim is in Anbar province, Iraq's largest geographically.

The Sunni tribesmen's support is pivotal in the fighting, a senior security official in Ramadi told CNN.

If the Sunni tribes do not decide to help and support Iraqi security forces, then it will be very difficult for Iraqi forces to regain the full control of Al-Qaim, the senior official said.

In the meantime, Iraqi forces were waiting for more troops to arrive in Al-Qaim, located about 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) west of Baghdad.

Falluja fighting, Baghdad bombings

Elsewhere in Iraq's western Anbar province, Iraqi security forces killed 15 "terrorists" and destroyed four vehicles on Saturday afternoon in Falluja, said Iraqiya State TV, citing security officials.

Falluja is about 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, and Iraqi forces have so far blocked the militants from marching on the nation's capital. Falluja has been under control of ISIS militants and Sunni tribesmen since January.

The militants in Falluja, however, have been trying to take over Sunni areas close to Baghdad, such as Abu Ghraib and small villages close by, Ramadi security officials told CNN.

Abu Ghraib is a largely Sunni area in the western outskirts of the capital.

Despite the government effort to protect Baghdad, several bomb attacks occurred across the capital city, killing at least seven people and wounding 32 more, officials said Saturday. One of the bomb attacks hit Baghdad's Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite area in the eastern part of the Iraqi capital, police officials in Baghdad told CNN Saturday.

U.S. advisers due to arrive in Iraq soon

The Iraqi government was waiting for the initial group of U.S. military advisers to arrive in Iraq soon, a senior defense official said, as crowds paraded nationwide in a show of unity for the government.

This first detail is expected to be very small, the official said. The total number of U.S. military advisers who will eventually deploy will be about 300.

In addition, some U.S. military personnel already at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will be reassigned and become advisers, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The first group of advisers will conduct an initial assessment of Iraqi troop capabilities and of what may be needed for a larger group of U.S. advisers, including additional security measures where they may be deployed, a senior defense official said Friday.

Meanwhile, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr successfully called on his supporters to hold a military parade nationwide to enhance unity among Iraqis: Thousands of Shiites wore variouis security forces uniforms in a march in Sadr City. The influential Shiite cleric has previously called for people to protect the country's Shiite and Christian religious sites.

More than 1 million Iraqis have fled their homes this year because of conflict, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday. The number is likely to rise as Islamist militants and Iraqi security forces battle for control.

An estimated 800,000 people left Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul after it fell to fighters from ISIS, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. The city has a population of 1.6 million.

ISIS, born from an al Qaeda splinter group and supported by Sunni factions, continues its fierce advance in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is accused of fostering sectarian tensions by marginalizing Iraq's Sunni Arab and Kurd minorities.

Obama told CNN on Friday that U.S. military efforts are hopeless without a change in government.

"If we don't see Sunni, Shia and Kurd representation in the military command structure, if we don't see Sunni, Shia and Kurd political support for what we're doing, we won't do it," he said.

The complete interview will be aired Monday on CNN's "New Day."

The United States withdrew its final troops from Iraq in 2011, nearly nine years after leading the invasion that ousted longtime leader Saddam Hussein.


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