ANBAR / AFP
Heavy resistance has slowed Iraqi forces as they pushed forward toward the center of a town held by IS militants in western Anbar province, commanders at the scene said.
Hundreds of roadside bombs, car bombs and heavy mortar fire slowed advancing Iraqi troops to a near halt Tuesday after entering the small town of Hit the previous day.
Hit — which lies along the Euphrates River in a valley in Anbar’s sprawling desert — is strategically important as it sits along an IS supply line that links territory controlled by the extremist Sunni group in Iraq and in Syria. Through the line, IS ferries fighters and supplies from Syria into Iraq.
Iraqi troops entered Hit on Monday, under cover of heavy airstrikes and a week after launching the operation to retake the town. Their advance has been stalled as tens of thousands of civilians become trapped by the fighting.
A political crisis in Baghdad as well as poor weather conditions further slowed the push. Iraqi commanders overseeing the operation said Tuesday that counterattacks and a shortage of engineering teams to clear roadside bombs slowed their advance.
“If we had more specialized engineers we wouldn’t be in this situation,” said the head of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, Gen. Abdel Ghani Al-Asadi.
Gen. Husham Al-Jabri said Iraqi counterterrorism forces were hit with a barrage of mortars and a string of suicide car bombings on Tuesday morning as they pushed into Hit from the north. He didn’t give casualty figures.
“Our speed depends on the resistance we’re facing,” said Al-Jabri, adding that they want to “keep our casualties in the lowest level.”
At a makeshift base on Hit’s southern edge, Iraqi troops at the front line could be heard saying over a handheld radio to commanders that the “mortars are coming down like rain.”
While Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces are some of the country’s most capable ground forces, they still depend heavily on US-led coalition air strikes to clear territory.
The head of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, Gen. Abdel Ghani Al Asadi, said he was not surprised by the tough resistance and slow progress.
“Every main road is rigged with explosives,” Al Asadi said, explaining that the three small teams of engineers his troops have to clear the area just aren’t enough to deal with the density of the bombs. Over the past five days, two armored bulldozers used by Iraqi forces to clear roads were put out of service by roadside bomb blasts.
“The only thing that’s not rigged with explosives is the air,” Al Asadi said.
On Sunday, a rocket attack killed two Iraqi troops and wounded four others as they entered the city’s northern edge. Since Friday, Al Jabri said his forces have been hit with more than 10 suicide car bombs.
“Incoming V-B-I-E-D, 300 meters, over,” an Iraqi forward air controller radioed to Australian coalition forces using a military acronym to refer to a car bomb. Coalition forces confirmed the location from the Habaniyah air base about 50 kilometers away using a code name to identify the street the car bomb was approaching on.