Using secret tunnels built by Saddam Hussein and rough terrain to outfox Iraqi troops, Islamic State insurgents are getting dangerously close to Baghdad with the support of heavily-armed Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi security and intelligence officials said.
The al Qaeda offshoot, which poses the biggest security threat to Iraq since the fall of Saddam in 2003, has made new bold advances in the north, reaching a major dam and seizing a fifth oilfield and three more towns after routing security forces from the Kurdish autonomous region.
But some Iraqi intelligence and security officials are far more alarmed by the Islamic State’s less heralded campaign in rural areas just south of the capital, rugged Euphrates valley terrain once known to U.S. forces as the “triangle of death”.
While the Islamic State’s march on Baghdad from the north has been halted near the town of Samarra 100 km (60 miles) from the city limits, the fighters have more quietly building up their forces on the capital’s southern outskirts.
“We told the government that urgent military operations are essential to prevent the Islamic State from taking over further towns south of Baghdad; otherwise they will be very close to the capital,” said Falah al-Radhi, head of a security panel in the provincial council of Hilla, the province just south of Baghdad.
For several weeks, the Sunni insurgents have been moving fighters, weapons and supplies from strongholds in western Iraq through secret desert tunnels to the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, about 60 km (40 miles) south of Baghdad.
Iraqi security forces targeted an ISIS gathering in Jurf al-Sakhar south of Baghdad (Number 5 in map). ISIS has been moving fighters and supplies to the city via secret tunnels. (ISW Map)