Belmont Club

Remember the Alamut

Bill Roggio reports on the disasters overtaking the Iraqi Army. A key base near Tikrit being used by the government to counterattack ISIS was reported overrun with heavy loss to equipment and life.

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 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assault on Camp Speicher, as the base was the last remaining holdout of Iraqi forces near the city (Iraqi forces were withdrawn from Tikrit University sometime before the second offensive was launched).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 Daily Beast disputes Camp Speicher’s fall, saying the “Iraqi Army’s Alamo” is still holding out.

A high-ranking officer in Baghdad’s military operations center said only that “Speicher is under the control of the army and the volunteers. ISIS never entered the base.” He declined to discuss further what he said were classified matters relating to the base’s defense.

Without being inside Speicher or peering above the base’s walls, it is impossible to say for sure who controls it. But one clue that ISIS has not taken it over is the lack of documentation on their social media accounts. If ISIS had really killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, destroyed army helicopters, and captured a major base, as they claim, the Twitter-obsessed group would likely be tweeting the evidence and basking in the images of carnage. So far, this hasn’t materialized.

The Iraqi Army isn’t the most reliable source of information, so the facts are still in doubt.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government touts victories in Tirkit on a steady basis while ISIS regularly claims to have slaughtered government forces and taken control of the city. The truth seems closer to a deadlock. The Iraqi Army has the manpower and weaponry to defeat ISIS in open skirmishes but is often fighting from a defense. While the army tries to retake Tikrit, it’s forced to counterattack and hold its ground against an enemy that likes to ambush and then fade away into the sympathetic or cowed elements among the local population.

But if ‘Alamo’ it is, the bastion’s investment or fall was sealed by strategic blunders committed in the past. The Iraqi Army’s woes go deeper than the tactical situation at Speicher. Bill Roggio cites an assessment by a US advisory team, released on July 14 by McClatchy, which paints a grim picture of organizational collapse.

The initial U.S. assessment, which arrived at the Pentagon Monday, apparently is just as grim. In one of its most alarming findings, according to a Pentagon official, the advisers concluded that while Iraqi troops could defend Baghdad against an attack now, they would be unable to launch the kind of offensive maneuvers required to fend off the insurgents for the long term, leaving the capital at continued risk. …

The advisers also warned that the majority of Iraqi brigades are infiltrated by either Sunni extremists or Shiite militias, the official said.

…  the size of the Iraqi debacle in June is becoming increasingly clear:

Four Iraqi army divisions have simply disappeared and won’t be easily resurrected.

The 2nd Division was routed from Mosul … the 1st Division also is basically gone … the same is true of Iraq’s 3rd Division. The division’s 6th and 9th Brigades fled the Islamic State’s advance in the north, and the status of its 11th Brigade is unknown. A small unit of its 10th Brigade is still in Tal Afar, but it is trapped by Islamic State forces.

The 4th Division also was routed. Half its members have disappeared — many suspect they were massacred when the Islamic State captured Tikrit — and only one small unit is known to still exist, surrounded by Islamists at a one-time U.S. military base near Tikrit known as Camp Speicher.

The essential problem according to Jeff Collins is that the Maliki government deserves to lose: “the Iraqi army morphed into a Shiite army.” It’s a rabble, a corrupt, inept, Shiite rabble. Collins adds that to his predecessor’s missteps, the Obama administration added some of his own.

the roots of this battlefield rout stretch all the way back to 2003 when Jerry Bremer, then head of the American appointed Coalition Provisional Authority, abolished the Saddam Hussein-era military and banned all Baath Party members from participating in the new Iraqi government. …

Of course, it never had to be this way. Following the successes of the American ‘surge’ in 2007 and the crackdown, by Maliki, of Shiite militias in Basra in 2008 many in the Sunni community had bought into the new political experiment in Baghdad. But the joint failure of the Obama administration in not obtaining a status of forces agreement that would have kept American advisors in place and later completely absolving itself from anything Iraqi after the 2011 withdrawal has come back in spades to haunt them. The rot, it is clear, is deep and any measures taken by the United States to not only defeat ISIS but prevent another repeat are going to need to be long-term.

Philip ‘PJ’ Dermer, who participated in the Anbar Awakaning recognizes some of the dead and dying in the ISIS videos as his boys — former militants he had persuaded to join the American cause. “I froze when I saw ISIS thugs attacking captured Iraqis. Many of the men being taunted, tortured and killed were leaders of the Sahwa, the Sunni militants who once fought against the American military and the Iraqi government before they realized that their bigger enemy was al Qaeda and joined us in the fight. U.S. forces, grateful for their support, dubbed them Sons of Iraq.”

The Sons of Iraq now find themselves orphaned. Their bigger enemies was al-Qaeda. But that didn’t necessarily mean that Washington would adopt them. The word of ‘PJ’ Derner was not the word of ‘BH’ Obama.

The dilemmas were immense. First, the movement was almost exclusively Sunni while the government in Baghdad and its political support mechanisms were largely Shiite. Second, while the Sahwa had “reconciled” to a large degree with the U.S. by turning against al Qaeda, it had not made such a commitment toward the Iraqi government, which many Sahwa saw as an agent of Iran. For its part, the Iraqi government viewed thousands of armed Sunnis as a strategic threat (this view has not diminished). Most of Iraq’s senior security leadership wanted no part of any militia, Sahwa or otherwise.

Still, the goal of our office was to find ways to foster life after the fight with the Sahwa fully embedded in Iraq, including in its security services. This is what we told the Sahwa and their U.S.-commander counterparts who were trying to manage Sahwa fears and expectations. This is why I froze while watching the ISIS lunacy on YouTube. We, the United States of America, had made the Sahwa and their Sunni popular base a promise, a moral commitment, when they took up the fight beside us beginning in 2007. We told the Sons of Iraq that we would work out the operational mechanisms with the Iraqi government and not leave them twisting in the wind. We made this promise time and again all over Iraq.

And now the Sahwa have been scattered like chaff before a hot wind. Perhaps the real parallel to Vietnam in Iraq lie not in the threat of The Last Helicopter, but in the actuality of Washington’s betrayal. Camp Speicher is nobody’s Alamo; there is nothing so bright or laden with hope about it.  And that lack of high purpose may be a mercy. Sordidness means one less thing to regret.

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