20 July 2014

For Iraq, Debacle in Tikrit as Forces Walk Into Trap Set by Militants

JULY 16, 2014 

BAGHDAD — Iraqi troops and their militia and volunteer allies were on the verge of declaring victory over Sunni militants holding the strategic town of Tikrit and were about to hoist the Iraqi flag over key government buildings, when, a survivor recalled Wednesday, “the doors of hell opened.”

The Iraqi forces had apparently walked into a trap, and some soldiers — and many more of their untrained volunteer supporters — were either killed or badly wounded when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria sprung it, according to accounts from two soldiers and volunteer leaders reached by telephone afterward.

The debacle in Tikrit on Tuesday offered a vivid illustration of how badly the Iraqi military needs advisers. For weeks, the Americans had implored Iraqi leaders not to fight for the centers of cities, but to establish control of roads and highways, and thus set their own conditions for battle. But the 300 American military and intelligence advisers now in the country are not, as of now, working directly with troops and commanders at the front.

The ambush in Tikrit, a few miles from the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, was also a piercing reminder of how difficult it will be to roll back the military gains made by ISIS in June when the Sunni militant group, bolstered by other Sunni insurgents, took control of Mosul after the army melted away, then pushed to Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salahuddin. A look at the map of Iraq suggests that the insurgents have opened far more fronts than the Iraqi security forces can possibly deal with at once.

The results have been small gains and losses of villages and towns every day but only a few signs of substantial progress for the Iraqi government. The security forces had, however, some success in securing the road to Tikrit. Military leaders, urged on by politicians, proceeded into the city — clearly eager to boast they had won it back.

After pounding Tikrit with bombs on Tuesday and saying it would be a matter of hours before the Iraqi government reconquered it, the army and its supporters reached the police academy, the hospital and the municipal building, according to soldiers who were fighting there.

With air support and tanks on their side and ISIS fighters seemingly retreating from the city, the security forces appeared to have been lured into thinking that the militants were truly gone. One cohort began clearing bombs and defusing booby traps from the hospital and then received an order to raise the Iraqi flag on the roofs of all the buildings.

That was when “the doors of hell opened,” said Ali, a soldier in a tank division, who was at the hospital. “The bullets rained on our heads from everywhere, the suicide bombers were throwing themselves from the windows and detonated themselves in the air,” he said. It was unclear if the militants were actually jumping into groups of soldiers in vehicles outside the hospital or if, in the mayhem, it merely appeared that the militants were flying at them from all sides.

“The most casualties were among the volunteers who were deeply vulnerable and unable to protect themselves,” he said.

There was hardly time for the soldiers and militias to defend themselves. “Everyone was evacuating his comrade,” he said.

The fighting went on less virulently after an initial retreat and ended on Wednesday morning when the lone helicopter providing air support ran out of fuel and could not be quickly replaced, soldiers said. The military, militia fighters and volunteers retreated to the edge of the city.

It was difficult to say if this loss would have any lasting effect on the ability of the army to take back Tikrit, but it highlighted the lack of preparation and provision for the volunteers and sometimes outright disregard for their lives. That could affect both their morale and the willingness of other young men to join them.

Volunteers are routinely asked to serve for days in temperatures above 110 degrees without enough water and are given little food. Often, they also must supply themselves with another vital item for a soldier: bullets and in some cases weapons. “We have old weapons and not enough ammunition,” said Abdullah Hassan, 17, on Wednesday in Hoar Hussain, a district in northern Babil Province, barely 90 minutes from the center of Baghdad. “Sometimes they give us ammunition, but mostly we buy our own, and it is getting more expensive as the war goes on.”

He and his cousin and father volunteered more than three weeks ago, soon after the country’s senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on those who could to take up arms to defend the country.

Recently, fighters in Hoar Hussain said they were paying $1.60 per bullet in the local market. They also have to contribute toward electricity for their tiny bases so that they will not be plunged into darkness at night.

Hakim al-Zamili, a member of the bloc of lawmakers loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, and who organized volunteers to help defend shrines and other sites, said some volunteers were sent to Tikrit and fled to Samarra, where Mr. Zamili has been coordinating the defense of the Askariya Shrine. “They came to me to complain and they told me they were sent without training, equipment or vehicles,” he said.

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