IRBIL, Iraq — Islamic State gunmen overran a former U.S. military base early Friday and killed or captured hundreds of Iraqi government troops who’d been trying to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the worst military reversal Iraqi troops have suffered since the Islamist forces captured nearly half the country last month.
The defeat brought to an end a three-week campaign by the government in Baghdad to recapture Tikrit, which fell to the Islamic State on June 11. Military spokesmen earlier this week had confidently announced a final push to recapture the city.
Instead, Islamic State forces turned back the army’s thrust up the main highway Wednesday. Beginning late Thursday, the Islamist forces stormed Camp Speicher, a former U.S. military base named for a pilot who disappeared during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and overwhelmed the troops there.
Witnesses reached by phone, who asked not be identified for security reasons, said that by Friday morning the final pocket of government troops had collapsed, an ignominious end for a counteroffensive that had begun with a helicopter assault into Tikrit University but ended with troops trapped at Camp Speicher.
There was no comment from the Iraqi government. On Wednesday, the military had acknowledged that its forces had made what it called a “tactical retreat” to Ajwa, a town about 10 miles south of Tikrit, after the push into the city failed.
Interviews with Tikrit residents and statements on Twitter accounts associated with the Islamic State described massive government losses. One Twitter post said Islamic State militants had shot down or destroyed on the ground as many as eight helicopters, a number that if confirmed would be a catastrophic loss for the government. Another Twitter posting said Islamic State militants had set the base’s fuel storage tanks on fire and that a suicide bomber had attacked a “gathering” of government soldiers.
One resident said that as many as 700 government soldiers and 150 fighters he described as Iranians, but who may have been Shiite Muslim militiamen, had participated in the final battle. Sunni Muslims in central Iraq often inaccurately describe Iraqi Shiites as Iranians.
“They were being bombarded and mortared all night, and by Friday morning you could see burning helicopters everywhere and the fighting had stopped,” the resident said.
He said many of the captured soldiers had been executed. “They are parading prisoners through the streets of Tikrit,” the resident said.
A military officer from the Kurdish peshmerga militia, who until the recent political split between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad had served in the Iraqi military’s special forces, confirmed the defeat.
“The government forces, which were a mix of regular army, special forces units and Shiite militias, have been destroyed,” he said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity so as not to aggravate the already poisonous relationship between the Kurds and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad.
“When they were unable to push past Ajwa with reinforcements on Wednesday, their fate was sealed,” the officer said.
The Kurdish officer said he doubted the residents’ account of 150 Iranians present in the fighting, though he said it was possible that Iranians had taken command of Shiite militias fighting with government soldiers. He said he thought that Iran’s commander in Iraq, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, had begun to re-evaluate the strategy for assisting the government in recapturing territory taken by the Islamic State.
“Hajj Qassem,” he said, referring to Suleimani with an honorific, “has given up on the Iraqi army. His plan in Iraq is to replicate the plan which worked for him in Syria: to use the army to hold checkpoints but properly train elite fighters to do the real fighting, like he’s done with Hezbollah and other Syrian militias.”
The officer cast doubt, however, on the quality of those forces. “In Iraq, there is no Hezbollah,” he said, referring to the Lebanese militia renowned for its fighting prowess.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mitchprothero