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Islamic State shells US air base in Iraq's Anbar province

Army and volunteer militias have sent reinforcements to protect Ayn al-Asad air base, home to some 320 US marines
Iraqi troops fight IS forces near the town of Ramadi, north-east of the air base Ayn al-Asad (AFP)

Fighters from the group calling itself Islamic State (IS) have shelled an Iraqi air base that is home to around 320 US marines.

There were reports on Thursday that IS fighters were surrounding Ayn al-Asad air base, which lies some 85 kilometres north-west of the city of Ramadi in the Anbar province.

The town of al-Baghdadi, where the base is situated, was “90 percent” under the control of IS “insurgents” on Thursday, according to a district manager who spoke to Reuters.

The Iraqi army, backed up by volunteer militias, launched a renewed offensive on Friday aimed at retaking the town, local news site al-Sumaria reported.

The assault succeeded in gaining control on Friday afternoon of much of the town apart from the outskirts, a government official told the site.

IS fighters in the area targeted the base with rocket fire and mortar shells on Friday afternoon, a source in Anbar province told Sky News Arabia.

However, Iraqi soldiers backed by US-led coalition aircraft managed to repel a further attack by the Islamic State on the same day, killing eight assailants.

An Iraqi army colonel and a defence ministry official said the botched attack involved at least seven would-be suicide bombers using a military vehicle.

Ayn al-Asad was the second largest air base used by US forces during the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and has been struck by shells at least once since December 2014.

Friday’s reported shelling comes two days after US President Barack Obama urged Congress to authorise the limited deployment of ground troops in the fight against IS.

Hillary Mann Leverett, a professor at the American University in Washington DC, told Al-Jazeera that recent reports that IS could be on the retreat are largely unfounded, and likely had a “political dimension” aimed at smoothing the passage of the anti-IS legislation.

According to Leverett, the reports do not match reality, stressing that despite months of heavy bombing, anti-IS rebels opposition forces in Syria had only managed to regain one percent of territory.

Even if the coalition claim about having killed 6,000 fighters were true, she said, it would represent just 10 percent of IS’s fighting capacity.

Detailing the three US citizens who have been killed while held as IS hostages, Obama also warned that the militant group also threatens “American personnel and facilities located in the region”.

The Pentagon released a statement saying that the coalition aircraft targeted IS with five air strikes since Thursday morning.

A suicide car bomb, four IS “tactical units,” a checkpoint, and an earth mover were destroyed in the strikes, it said without elaborating.

According to the Arabic news website al-Araby al-Jadeed, the Iraqi security forces suffered large losses in their fight against IS.

Even though the Iraqi army and tribal forces had succeeded in driving out IS from most of al-Baghdadi’s neighbourhoods, IS still remains in control of some buildings and positions in the centre of the town.