BAGHDAD — Sunni militants captured a major border post into Syria late Saturday, opening the way for fighters and weapons to move across the border with ease, a development that Iraqi and Western officials described Sunday as worrisome.
The militants seem intent on methodically consolidating their hold on the large Sunni provinces to the west and north as the Iraqi army’s attention is focused on securing Baghdad.
The militants already have considerable strength in Anbar province, but it has been primarily in remote villages and towns, with the exception of Fallujah, which they have also seized. Now, with the taking of the border post of al-Qaim after a three-day fight, and the nearby towns of Ana and Rawaa, they will be able to move on the road that leads to Haditha, where there is a major dam.
The Iraqi prime minister’s top military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta, in his briefing Sunday, gave a different interpretation of what had happened in al-Qaim, Rawaa and Ana, saying that the security forces had withdrawn to join the battle elsewhere.
“As a tactical procedure to reopen the military forces in Al-Jazeera and al Badiyah security operation field, the security forces in Rawaa, Ana and Qaim withdraw from these areas to reinforce other troops in other areas,” he said.
Atta did not mention whether the army had also fought in the western town of Rutba, but local officials said the militants drove into the small town with 50 trucks, burned the police station and clashed briefly with the police before taking control.
“Around 50 vehicles full of militants and weapons came from Houran valley and after sporadic clashes with police they took control over the central town,” said Ratif al-Ubaid, a member of the Rutba local council. “Then they left a group of them to secure the town and then headed toward the border,” he said.
In al-Qaim, it appeared that 70 volunteers from Baghdad who had come to join the battle on the side of the Iraqi army were killed in an ambush. They were traveling in food freezer trucks to camouflage their arrival, but it seemed the militants knew they were on their way, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. The militants have allowed him to remain in his job, he said.
It was not clear how many Iraqi army soldiers were killed in the fight, but there were many and they fought hard, according to the police.