BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Around 200 Iraqi soldiers were trapped in an army camp in western Iraq on Wednesday, besieged by Islamic State militants who routed hapless army forces in a raid on a base close to Baghdad at the weekend.
A soldier cornered in the camp said food, weapons and ammunition were running short, with forces sent to rescue them struggling to clear a route.
“There are troops behind us but they can’t reach us because the whole area is planted with roadside bombs and land mines,” said Hussein Thamir, a soldier who spoke to Reuters from inside the Albu Etha camp, about 10 km south of the city of Ramadi.
“There was an army group in front of us whom (Islamic State) destroyed completely six days ago,” said Thamir.
“If we withdraw, will be killed.”
Using similar tactics, Islamic State insurgents on Sunday overran an army base in Saqlawiya, just 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, killing or capturing between 400 to 600 soldiers, a senior Iraqi security official said.
The heavy losses revealed once again the parlous state of the Iraqi army, which is riven by endemic corruption and low morale, and which crumpled this summer as Islamic State took control of roughly a third of the country.
The Islamic State has declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Both Saqlawiya and Ramadi, are in the western Anbar province where there is a major road that links the two war-battered countries.
Separately, security and medical sources said 20 militia volunteers were killed and 41 wounded in a village near Baquba, north of Baghdad, where Islamic State militants ambushed them.
Washington has launched air strikes in Syria and Iraq to try to dislodge the radical Islamists, but has so far failed to stop the militants from carrying out high-profile attacks.
“The situation inside and outside Ramadi is very bad. They (the army) are in a defensive mode. They are not attacking. Each day (Islamic State) is carrying out an operation. We will lose Ramadi unless the American air force carries out air strikes on positions,” said an Iraqi intelligence officer in Anbar.
Police and tribal sources said the Iraqi army, backed by special forces and pro-government fighters were fighting the insurgents in Albu Etha.
“We are launching a tough battle to isolate Islamic State fighters in a desert area near Ramadi and this time we are determined to deal them a fatal blow,” Anbar’s police chief, Major-General Ahmed Saddag, told Reuters.
Thamir said around 200 soldiers from the 2nd battalion, 40th brigade, 10th division were trapped in the camp. “We are protecting ourselves by hiding behind some houses.”
He said he could see fighting about a kilometer away, with the army trying to clear a route for them to escape. “They are not able to reach us, we can see them.”
Eyewitnesses and tribal sources said the insurgents had been transporting weapons and ammunition seized from attacks on Sijir and Saqlawiya into nearby Falluja over the past couple of days.
Saddag said 132 soldiers were taken prisoner in Saqlawiya, but their fate was not clear. When Islamic State militants seized an army detachment at Camp Speicher in June, it gunned down hundreds of unarmed military recruits.
In a statement posted on a jihadist website, Islamic State said it had killed nearly 300 people in the assault on Sijir and Saqlawiya and gave a breakdown of the military vehicles the army had lost, including 41 Humvee vehicles.
The statement’s authenticity could not be verified.
The government says it detained two commanders for negligence over the Saqlawiya fiasco.
Former National Security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie blamed the army’s performance on endemic problems like low morale, poor discipline and a lack of coordination between volunteer militia and army forces.
“There is no quick fix for this. It needs long-lasting, durable, sustainable solutions. There are structural problems,” Rubaie told Reuters.
The army needed to be reconstructed, weapons had to be delivered faster, officers had to be trained and the capacity of military and civil intelligence increased, Rubaie said.
“I’m afraid I will give you bad news, but it will get worse before it gets better, because the threat to national security is overwhelming and on Baghdad in particular.”
Additional reporting by Ned Parker in Baghdad and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Crispian Balmer