CAIRO — Islamic State militants staged attacks near Baghdad and the Libyan city of Surt on Tuesday, underscoring the group’s persistent strength on both fronts despite a monthslong American-led air campaign against it in Syria and Iraq.
In Libya, the Islamic State captured a critical power plant along the coastal road westward from its stronghold in Surt toward Misurata, a commercial center whose powerful militias are the backbone of a coalition that controls the capital, Tripoli. The loss was the second significant retreat in less than two weeks by the Misuratan militia that the provisional government in Tripoli had originally sent to expel the Islamic State from Surt.
More than 1,500 miles to the east in Iraq, two gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked a local council building in Amiriyat al Falluja, a bold incursion into the center of a city about 37 miles southwest of Baghdad. The city is one of the last bastions of government control in Anbar Province after Islamic State militants captured the major city of Ramadi three weeks ago, and Iraqi troops had fought against the fighters on the outskirts of Amiriyat al Falluja for months before the attack on Tuesday.
The extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is gaining ground in both countries in large part because of the feebleness of the national authorities, leaving the United States and its allies without effective ground forces in their efforts to crush the group. The Obama administration is considering whether to increase military training for the Iraqis.
Interactive Feature | Government Office Attack
In Libya, the capture of the power plant now means the Islamic State can threaten to cut off electricity to parts of the central and Western regions of the country.
The group’s takeover of the plant comes less than two weeks after it captured the badly damaged airport on the outskirts of Surt, as well as a water utility plant that the Misuratan militia had previously used as a base.
Leaders of the militia had said at the time of that retreat that they were pulling back to the power plant on the road toward Misurata in order to defend it after other fighters had pulled out, complaining that they had not been paid.
On Tuesday, the militia — known as Brigade 166 — posted a statement on Facebook saying that it had been forced to retreat again after losing five fighters in an early morning attack by the Islamic State militants.
Graphic | Where ISIS Has Gained Territory in Libya Islamic State fighters seized important locations around Surt.
“Up until now, the Brigade 166 has not received any support from the general staff of the army,” the statement said, referring to the “army” of the provisional government in Tripoli.
The Tripoli government “will have to dispatch a force as soon as possible,” the statement continued. “Until then we are going to be powerless.”
The Misurata-dominated provisional government in Tripoli is locked in a struggle for power against a rival military leader, Gen. Khalifa Hifter; he has the backing of the internationally recognized government, based in the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda.
Extremists pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, meanwhile, have capitalized on the chaos to establish a growing presence on the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean even as they have come under attack in Syria and Iraq. A faction of the Islamist fighters in the eastern city of Darnah has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and so has what appears to be a separate group based in the southern desert region.
Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.
The coastal city of Surt, the hometown and birthplace of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, has become the Islamic State’s most significant Libyan foothold. The group has established full control of the center of the city since at least the beginning of the year, and militants acting in the name of the Islamic State have staged several attacks on Misurata forces, as well as a mass shooting at a luxury hotel in Tripoli and less lethal attacks on several embassies and government buildings.
United Nations diplomats have been working for six months to negotiate the formation of a unity government that would bring together Libya’s two rival factions, in part to more effectively counter the Islamic State’s expansion.
The diplomats leading the effort released what they called a final draft of a unity proposal late Monday night, and on Tuesday representatives of both sides who had helped negotiate the deal traveled to Berlin to present it to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council is expected to provide support for the proposed unity government as it attempts to stabilize the country.
Western diplomats hope that the deal will bring together moderates from both sides to fight against hard-liners in each camp, as well as the Islamic State. But it was not yet clear on Tuesday how much support or opposition the final proposal might win within the two warring factions.
Graphic | ISIS Finances Are Strong ISIS has more than enough in its coffers despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group.
In Iraq, the fall of Ramadi to the Islamic State last month has raised alarms about the continued weakness of the central government in Baghdad as well. United States military officials have expressed growing impatience with the failure of the government’s forces to stand their ground or roll back the militants, even with heavy air support from the American-led coalition.
The attack on Amiriyat al Falluja on Tuesday underscored the group’s sustained ability to strike even inside tightly controlled government territory.
The two Islamic State gunmen who carried out the attack wore police uniforms and suicide vests. They attacked at about 11 a.m. during a meeting of local sheikhs inside the council building, said Shaker al-Issawi, the head of the council. Mr. Issawi said the gunmen killed two civilians and two police officers before his own bodyguards shot and killed the attackers.
Mr. Issawi said the authorities believed that the gunmen had been hiding among the thousands of displaced Sunni Muslims from Anbar Province who had been sheltering in Amiriyat al Falluja.
The Islamic State is a Sunni Muslim group hostile to Shiites, and it has drawn support from the Sunni communities alienated by the Shiite leadership of the government in Baghdad. Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority dominates the government, and allied Shiite militias backed by Iran have played a major role in fighting the Islamic State.
Mr. Issawi’s assertion that displaced Sunnis were responsible for the attack on Tuesday threatened to further inflame local sectarian tensions. Many Sunnis forced from their homes by the Islamic State and searching for safety in Amiriyat al Falluja and elsewhere are already facing suspicion from Iraqi Army officers and Shiite militiamen, who fear there are Islamic State infiltrators among them.
The United States has become increasingly flustered over what it views as the Iraqi military’s anemic performance. Last month, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the Iraqis had shown “no will to fight” in their rout from Ramadi by Islamic State fighters.
During a visit to Israel on Tuesday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the top American military officer, said that he had asked war commanders to look into expanding the number of training sites for Iraqi forces. Speaking to a small group of reporters, General Dempsey said a decision had not been made on whether that would make additional American troops necessary.
“TBD — to be determined,” General Dempsey said. A Defense Department official said afterward that a decision to increase American troops in Iraq would likely require only a “modest” number of additional trainers.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Kareem Fahim from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by Suliman Ali Zway from Tripoli, Libya; Falih Hassan from Baghdad; and Helene Cooper from Jerusalem.
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(via NY Times)