The Islamic State organization — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — is attempting to move within striking distance as Iraqi officials in Baghdad on Wednesday reported discovering the bodies of 50 men in a possible sectarian massacre.
Seizing Baghdad’s commercial transportation hub would be a giant step toward isolating the Shiite majority government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It also would advance its goal of taking the capital itself, thereby endangering thousands of Americans who might need a quick evacuation.
“ISIL is ultimately going to assault Baghdad and probably close down Baghdad International Airport within the next couple of weeks,” said Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official. “They are moving methodically, consolidating their gains and reinforcing positions — not just trying to go running around with their hair on fire.”
Mr. Johnson said the Iraqi security forces are not competent enough to defend the airport on their own.
“There is genuine concern we would not be able to get our people out of there,” he said.
A former Pentagon official who visits Iraq said the Islamic State may decide the best way to close the airport is through artillery and mortar barrages.
Iraq could counter with helicopter strikes and perhaps use the Soviet-designed Sukhoi attack jets that arrived last month.
“The airport is very vulnerable to artillery [and] mortar,” the former official said, adding that such attacks would have a deep psychological effect on residents of Baghdad and force air traffic to come to a halt.
Airport security is provided by Interior Ministry forces who, the source said, are likely to stand and fight but would need reinforcements.
The Islamic militants’ lightning sweep across northern and western Iraq in the past month has heightened tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority. At the same time, splits have grown between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
In an address Wednesday, Mr. al-Maliki accused the Kurdish zone of being a haven for the Islamic State and other Sunni insurgents, The Associated Press reported. He did not provide any evidence, and the claims are likely to further strain Baghdad’s ties which the Kurds, whose fighters have been battling the militant advance in the north.
The men’s bodies, all of them with gunshot wounds, were found in the predominantly Shiite village of Khamissiya, outside the city of Hillah, which is some 60 miles south of Baghdad, said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim.
The dead men were ages 25 to 40, and it appeared they had been killed a few days earlier and their bodies dumped in the remote area, said a local police officer and a medical official. Many of them were blindfolded and had their hands bound.
The Islamic State, which an intelligence source says has at least 3,000 fighters in Iraq, now effectively controls the Iraq side of border crossings into Jordan. It does not have the firepower to confront Jordan’s armed forces loyal to King Abdullah.