Islamic State militants clad in Iraqi fighter uniforms and suicide vests launched a sophisticated attack Friday on the second-largest U.S. air base in Iraq, creating havoc at the site of a U.S.-led training operation.
Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said during a Friday briefing at the Pentagon that 20 to 25 militants — most of them wearing the uniforms of the U.S. partner nation — rushed the Ain al-Asad base near the western Iraq town of al-Baghdadi and were able to breach the base perimeter.
Some of the militants detonated their suicide vests, though it is unknown how far into the base the militants were able to get before members of the Iraq army were able to quash the attack, Adm. Kirby told reporters.
“I can’t sit here and tell you the degree to which the perimeter was breached,” he said. “I just don’t have that level of detail. But they certainly did arrive at the perimeter of the base.”
About 320 U.S. Marines have been training troops from the Iraqi 7th Division on how to combat the Islamic State at Ain al-Asad, Reuters reported.
The attack is not the first to occur since training began. The base was struck by mortar fire at least once since December, Reuters reported.
Pentagon officials have been tracking the progress that Islamic State militants have been making gaining ground near the base. Those militants recently took over the town of al-Baghdadi and have been able to maintain authority for the past several months, Adm. Kirby said.
But that gain should not be viewed as progress, he said.
“I’m not saying that we’re dismissing the serious of the potential breach here or of the increased activity of [Islamic State], but we ought not to make more of it than needs to be made of it,” he said. “This is arguably the first in at least a couple of months, if not more, where they have had any success at all at taking any new ground. This is an enemy that we still assess to be in a defensive posture. It’s one town.”
The U.S. military began in late December training Iraqi forces at four different sites to combat the Islamic State. That training is expected to continue for the duration of the multinational effort to destroy the group, which has taken over large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.