BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi army and police commanders leading an ongoing battle for control of the country's biggest refinery say they cannot defeat Islamic State unless they change tactics to better cope with the insurgents' guerrilla warfare techniques.
The sprawling refinery complex near the town of Baiji north of Baghdad has changed hands several times over many months of fighting, one of the main fronts in Iraq's bid to recapture the third of its territory held by the Sunni Muslim insurgents.
The Iraqi government has had mixed fortunes since a U.S.-led alliance joined the campaign against Islamic State last year by bombing positions in both Iraq and Syria where Islamic State has proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims.
In March, the army and its Shi'ite militia allies recaptured former dictator Saddam Hussein's home town Tikrit in the Tigris river valley north of Baghdad. But the fighters responded with their own major victory last month, capturing the city of Ramadi in the valley of Iraq's other great river, the Euphrates.
Baiji, just north of Tikrit, is an important test of whether the government forces can reclaim momentum. But they have so far failed to secure victory there against a mobile and hidden enemy that has proven expert in unconventional tactics.
"They are professionals in guerilla warfare, contrary to our forces which follow an old fighting style," said Brigadier General Nasir al-Fartousi, commander of the interior ministry rapid intervention division tasked with retaking Baiji.
"We receive fire from one street in Baiji and we set a plan to attack this street. And the next day when we start the attack, we are caught off guard by Daesh fighters attacking us from a different street," he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known in English as ISIS or ISIL.
"We are seeking to reverse the tide against Daesh and follow the tactic of launching attrition battles they use against us. It’s not easy to make a soldier learn guerrilla fighting tactics in one day and a night."
Spokesmen for the interior ministry and army were not available to comment on the remarks.
Iraqi officials say their army has improved in the 12 months since soldiers dropped their weapons and fled as Islamic State fighters swept in from Syria, seized the main northern city Mosul and started bearing down the Tigris toward Baghdad.
The government's recapture of Tikrit in March was its biggest victory since then, although much of the fighting was carried out not by the military but by the allied Shi'ite militia fighters, who are supported by Iran.
When the insurgents responded to the loss of Tikrit by capturing the city of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province along the Euphrates, U.S. officials including Secretary of Defense Ash Carter accused the Iraqi military of lacking the will to fight.
The long battle for Baiji refinery has given the military an opportunity to demonstrate its mettle. Elite units have repeatedly withstood prolonged sieges and recaptured lost ground. But they have not been able to inflict a decisive blow.
Lieutenant Colonel Ali al-Jubouri, who was seriously wounded in the refinery last month by a suicide bomber driving a captured army Humvee packed with explosives, said the army needs to do more to disrupt Islamic State supply lines, rather than just hold out in repeated face-to-face confrontations at Baiji.
The insurgents control the northern approaches to the town, keeping their supply line open to Mosul, and the western and southwestern approaches, allowing them to reach it from Anbar across the desert.
"What’s the point of retaking a place while the enemy’s supply lines stay out of our control? They can easily send reinforcements, regroup and return to seize control. This is what I call a failed battle," he said.
“We should ask a simple question. Why do we have this scenario? The answer is simple. Daesh is controlling strategic areas with routes linking Baiji to both Mosul and Anbar."
Army Colonel Ahmed al-Asadi, part of a security team comprised of the military, police and special forces, said commanders had become too cautious out of desire to please their superiors.
"Commanders avoid losing high casualties, which is now the parameter to judge a successful or failed commander. This is why commanders of the Baiji battle give the priority to minimizing casualties among soldiers, versus making quick advances."
The reliance on Shi'ite militia, known as Hashid al-Shaabi, which are divided among multiple groups, also makes it difficult to control the chain of command, Asadi said.
"Multiple commanderships exist on the ground and unfortunately we have less coordination between the Hashid and its commanders with the military," he said. "Such a situation definitely contributed to the blundering."
Iraqi and U.S. officials say retaking Mosul is the key to defeating Islamic State. But that battle is unlikely to start until the army gains momentum by capturing strategic parts of Anbar and pushing north from Baiji, fights that will require it to learn how to cope with Islamic State's guerrilla tactics.
Fighters slow the advances of government troops with booby traps in houses and roadside bombs. They evade air strikes by frequently moving positions. One sniper can halt an advancing column. Foreign recruits are dispatched as suicide bombers.
Desert terrain around the refinery and nearby towns is challenging for conventional military forces, and the army's air power advantage is limited by anti-aircraft missiles which Islamic State has brought to Iraq from Syria, said Asadi.
Islamic State commanders can also rely on zealous insurgents who would rather die than withdraw.
"They never retreat their positions and their final choice is to detonate the explosive vest they wear," said Fartousi. "We are fighting in a place where bombs and death are at every corner."
Reporting by Baghdad bureau; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff