Iraq’s history is writ large among the ruins of Habbaniyah military base: wrecked aircraft, crumbling buildings and much-used military hardware all telling a part of the country’s troubled tale.
A relic of the British Empire, Habbaniyah fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein when he came to power in 1979; what little remains of his regime’s MIG fighter jets lie in the dust at the roadside.
Taken over and built up by the U.S. as they tried to stabilize Anbar province, the sprawling base was handed over to the Iraqi army when American troops withdrew from the region.
In the years since, cared for by an Iraqi army who at times look as if they have been left to fend for themselves, it has become overgrown and neglected in places.
But now, Habbaniyah is preparing for a key role in the fight against ISIS, as the staging ground for the Iraqi government’s attempt to take Ramadi back from the terror group.
CNN was the first western television network to be granted access to the base since Ramadi fell to ISIS.
Iraqi military officials insist they have the men and the tools they need to attack Ramadi, but complain bitterly at what they say is a lack of coalition air support.
The base and its troops are under constant harassment by ISIS forces stationed just across the river that runs along the northern edge of the base.
With machine guns rattling away just behind him, Major-General Khalil Abadi explained that the ISIS positions currently firing on his men appear low down the list of targets for Iraqi and coalition jets.
“They are supposed to give us some support now from warplanes,” he said, appealing for greater backing from the coalition. “We are in control of the ground, all we need is air support.”
The nature of the threat was clear in a brief visit to the front lines: ISIS are separated from the base by the flow of the River Euphrates, but further upstream they have used the Ramadi Dam to cut off much of its flow.
Some believe the river may drop low enough to allow ISIS troops to attack the base.
For now, at least, the military is pumping water in from nearby Habbaniyah Lake to keep levels high – and keep the enemy at bay.
Maj-Gen. Abadi was at the base to inspect its readiness but also to offer words of support to the men stationed there, praising what he called their “steadfastness” in the face of ISIS.
But while Iraq’s state media has portrayed Habbaniyah as the base for a large counter-offensive, the area seen by CNN seemed comparatively empty, with no sense of a massive force being prepared to attack.
The Iraqi military was there, as were Shia fighting groups – particularly the well-resourced Iraqi Hezbollah brigades – but there was no sign of the Sunni fighters who were said to be gathering in readiness for an assault on Ramadi.
One Iraqi official said these Sunni men – vital to ensure the offensive to retake the Sunni heartland of Anbar from being a predominantly Shia operation – numbered 2,000 “on paper” but were more likely only 500 strong in reality.