Fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have taken control of large parts of the western Iraqi town of Al-Baghdadi, threatening an airbase where United States Marines are training Iraqi troops, officials said.
Al-Baghdadi, about 50 miles northwest of Ramadi in Anbar province, has been besieged for months by ISIL, which captured vast swaths of northern and western Iraq last year.
ISIL attacked Al-Baghdadi from two directions on Thursday and then advanced on the town, intelligence sources and officials in Iraq’s Jazeera and Badiya operations commands said.
The officials said another group of fighters then attacked the heavily guarded Ain Al-Asad airbase 3 miles southwest of the town but were unable to break into it, Reuters reported.
Whenever ISIL wants to attack an Iraqi army base, they typically start by taking the towns surrounding it. The group has never captured a coalition airbase, however, which would be able to call in airstrikes should it come under direct threat.
About 320 U.S. Marines are training members of the Iraqi 7th Division at the base, which has been struck by mortar fire on at least one previous occasion since December.
Navy Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, confirmed that there was heavy fighting in Al-Baghdadi. She said there had been no direct attack on the airbase, but added, "There were reports of ineffective indirect fire in the vicinity of the base."
A local official, Naji Arak, confirmed that ISIL fighters had entered Al-Baghdadi and attacked some government buildings. He initially estimated the fighters had taken 90 percent of the town but later said he could not confirm the extent of the group's control, as intermittent clashes continued into the early morning.
The death toll from the fighting was not immediately clear.
Most of the surrounding towns in Anbar were taken by ISIL during the group's rapid advance across the Syrian border last summer.
Elsewhere in Iraq, five civilians were killed when bombs went off in two towns south of the capital Baghdad, police and medical sources said.
Al Jazeera and Reuters