Seven years ago, I was a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. During that time, I deployed to Iraq twice. The second of these missions took me to the base known by the Marines as Al Asad.
Al Asad, or Ain Al Assad, is the Arabic term for “The Lion”. The base was built in response to the failures of the Arab world against the Israelis in the early 1970’s as a super base to empower Iraq for the future. It now houses elements of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division, along with 300 United States Marine Corps military advisors and trainers. The base is located in the Hīt District of Al Anbar Governorate, about 100 miles (160 km) west of Baghdad and 5 miles (8.0 km) west of the village of Khan al Baghdadi. That means that Al Asad has been in the center of the contested ISIS held lands since their initial invasion in June of 2014.
Today Al Asad is back in the news. Beginning last week, insurgent forces occupied the nearby town of al Baghdadi. Al Baghdadi serves a key strategic point for the base as control of the town means control of access to the nearest highway and the only land connection to the rest of the country, as well as access to the Euphrates River. It is also of tactical importance because the town lies within range of numerous rockets, some acquired from the fallen and abandoned Iraqi bases, some bought from overseas, and some – homemade. This shows the base, the vicinity to the town of Al-Baghdadi, and the fact that it is in range of the rockets.
What it doesn’t show is why I care so much about this particular battlefield. As I said before Al Asad, was one of the bases I was stationed during my two tours to Iraq. On the Eastern edge of the base, along the long road snaking in, is an entry control point. At least there was in 2008. I spent every day of my seven month deployment checking trucks and vehicles for contraband and explosives at that control point. Beside that point was a very large tower where, if I was lucky I could spend the night alone to watch the shifting sands and be alone with my thoughts. On many cold Iraqi nights, I remember staring out that tower into the open desert. From it, I could see the distant lights of the town that lay just beyond the hills to the Northeast. These were the lights of Al-Baghdadi. The town was so small and so insignificant then.
Today, those lights still shine, but illuminate a different town. Insurgents with the Islamic State have occupied it in a bold move, hoping to put pressure on the Iraqi government. According to reports, the Islamic State have been shelling the base since their arrival. So far, there has been no damage reported to the base. This doesn’t surprise me because this kind of rocket fire is more of a nuisance than a real threat. I can say this from personal experience. After you have survived a few of them, it really is just an interruption to the flow of events before long. That may change very soon, however. It was reported that last Friday, a suicide squad of eight men, four with suicide vests, attempted to infiltrate the base. It is probable that they wanted to sneak onto the base and inflict either massive casualties against the Iraqi army or destroy many of the important assets crucial to maintaining security in Al Anbar and the fight against ISIS housed therein. This squad was intercepted by the Iraqi army without achieving their goals, later confirmed by a Marine attack helicopter, observing the area where the fighting had already ended.
This attack, while ending with a victory for the Iraqi Army, marks another crucial event where Islamist jihadi fighters took the initiative to what appears to be a passive Iraqi force. It symbolizes the Islamic States’ ability to mount just outside the walls of the Iraqi army and deliver attacks at the time of their choosing. Though it ended in their failure it was only one of many so far, and we will most likely see many more to come in the future, as well. In what is being called the Siege Al-Asad, the base has endured such attacks since October. Months ago, the base was reportedly surrounded by ISIS fighters, hopeful to destroy a key asset to defense of the nation of Iraq. That invasion was pushed back by Iraqi forces with the aid of US Marines and again, attacks took place in December which were also met with the pushing back of Islamic State forces.
What can be sure is that news of my old home will continue to come so long as the Islamic State exists in Iraq and the Al Anbar province. It will remain an important strategic point for Iraqi defense and a handsome target for jihadist insurgents. Even in the event of unsuccessful attacks like last Friday’s, the continued fighting around Al Asad and the town of al-Baghdadi showcase the Islamic States’ willingness and ability to mount attacks against the Iraqi forces at their most fortified locations. As Islamist forces grow more desperate and more bold with the coming of warmer whether, we should expect to see more of the Lion in the months to come.
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