Note: the Iraqi military later denied that the Islamic State controls all of Camp Speicher, but did say the airbase was overrun, several helicopters were destroyed, and the airfield had to be retaken by Iraqi troops See Threat Matrix report, Iraqi military says it retakes control of key base in Tikrit.
Two days after repelling an Iraqi military attempt to retake the city of Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies are said to have overrun Camp Speicher, a large base just outside the city that was being used in the failed effort to retake the provincial capital.
The Islamic State’s Salahaddin Division claimed in an official statement released on Twitter yesterday that it overran Camp Speicher and is in “control of the airport and the base completely.” In the statement, the Islamic State claimed it killed “scores” of Iraqi military personnel, including a brigadier general and a colonel. It also said that a number of pilots were killed in a “martyrdom” or suicide operation on the base before it was overrun.
The Islamic State also said it destroyed seven aircraft on the tarmac and its “detachments of air defense” shot down two additional aircraft, all of which are thought to be helicopters. The Iraqi military had been using helicopters to ferry troops and supplies to Camp Speicher and Tikrit University, where special forces troops attempted to gain a foothold in the northern part of the city.
Additionally, the Islamic State said it destroyed several armored and other vehicles, while the base’s fuel supply was set ablaze.
The Islamic State’s claims were echoed by McClatchy, who interviewed residents of Tikrit as well as a Kurdish military officer. One Tikrit resident said that more than 700 Iraqi soldiers and 150 “Iranians,” who are likely members of the Shia militias that have been augmenting the military, were based at Speicher. Captured members of the military and militia are said to have been paraded in the streets of Tikrit. Many are said to have been executed.
The Iraqi government and the military, which have released only rosy assessments of the fighting on all fronts, have not commented on the situation in Tikrit.
The Iraqi military made its first effort to retake Tikrit in late June, when it airlifted commandos into Tikrit University in an effort to gain a toehold north of the city. An advance on the city from the south was defeated. Then, on July 16, the Iraqi military launched Operation Decisive Sword. A large column of military and militia units entered southern Tikrit and thought they liberated the city, but as they celebrated they were ambushed with suicide bombers, IEDs, and conventional attacks. The Iraqi forces then withdrew from the city.
After the Iraqi military withdrew from southern Tikrit on July 16, the Islamic State immediately began its assault on Camp Speicher, as the base was the last remaining holdout of Iraqi forces near the city (Iraqi forces were withdrawn from Tikrit University sometime before the second offensive was launched).
The loss of Camp Speicher, and perhaps more importantly, the loss of the helicopters and its pilots if the Islamic State’s claims are true, is a serious blow to both the morale and the operational capabilities of the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military, which has failed to retake major cities and towns from the Islamic State and its allies, now may find it more difficult to support and defend the Bayji oil refinery just to the north, which has been largely resupplied by helicopters.
Iraqi military is in disarray
The latest failed Tikrit offensive and the loss of Camp Speicher highlight the deteriorating condition of the Iraqi armed forces. The military has been forced to cobble together units since at least four of its 15 regular army divisions are no longer viable. The Long War Journal estimates that at least seven divisions have been rendered ineffective since the beginning of the year; see Threat Matrix report, US advisers give dark assessment of state of Iraqi military.
In Tikrit, the military is fighting alongside poorly trained militias who are ill-suited to conduct offensive operations. Additionally, SWAT forces, while highly trained and likely more motivated than regular forces, are being misused as infantry.
The Iraqi military and the government have been unable to regain control of Ninewa and much of Salahaddin and Diyala provinces after losing them in an offensive launched by the Islamic State and its allies that began on June 10. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is firmly under the control of the Islamic State.
Most of Anbar as well as northern Babil province are also under the Islamic State’s control. Fallujah and other cities and towns fell after the Islamic State went on the offensive in Anbar at the beginning of January. The Iraqi military has been unable to retake areas in Anbar lost earlier this year. Half of Ramadi, the provincial capital, is said to be held by the Islamic State. The military recently airlifted 4,000 militiamen to Ramadi, a further indication that the two Iraqi divisions stationed in Anbar, the 1st and the 7th, are no longer cohesive fighting forces.