During the summer the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) faced one collapse after another. First the country’s second largest city Mosul fell, then western Kirkuk province, and northern Salahaddin including Tikrit. The militants were then stopped, and the Islamic State (IS) turned north and east towards the Kurds and Yazidis. Eventually, it seemed like a rough stalemate had settled across the nation’s fighting. That changed in the middle of September when the IS was able to overrun a small army base north of Fallujah called Camp Saqlawiya. This showed that the insurgents still hold the operational initiative, and can mass forces in parts of the country despite the increasing western air presence.
Camp Saqlawiya was located just to the north of Fallujah in Anbar (En verite)
In the middle of September 2014 the insurgents were able to seize some small towns to the north of Fallujah, which led to the ISF sending in a force to retake them. One of those towns was Siger, which is just outside of Saqlawiya. In response 400 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, a SWAT unit, and elements of the League of the Righteous militias were sent to liberate the villages. The 3rd Brigade contingent ended up at Camp Saqlawiya. The Islamic State claimed this was all a trap they set to draw in government forces and destroy them. This became a reality in Saqlawiya.
The militants quickly surrounded the camp and took the neighboring territory to stop any relief columns that might be sent. The first day the Islamic State attacked using captured ISF Humvees and used loudspeakers to call on the soldiers to surrender. They were eventually able to take the main road to the base cutting off its supplies. A tank unit from Ramadi did get within 500 yards of the base, but couldn’t break through the insurgent lines. When the entrapped soldiers saw the column they tried to fight their way to it, but were turned back by IS fire. That would end up sealing the fate of the camp. The cordon around the camp was never broken.
Anbar Operations Command head Gen. Fliah called the soldiers at Camp Saqlawiya complainers showing his lack of care for his troops (Iraqi News)
As the siege lasted for five days the troops began running low on ammunition and supplies. They called their commanders, family members, lawmakers, and a humanitarian group all pleading for help. Officers said that relief was coming, but none did as the in coming roads were full of improvised explosive devices. Worse yet, the head of the Anbar Operations Command told the Washington Post that the soldiers were being whiners just because they were under attack, and claimed that supplies got into Saqlawiya, but survivors denied that. The general’s comments point to how the ISF leadership did not take the situation at Camp Saqlawiya seriously or worse yet did not care. It was this type of callousness that led to the fall of much of northern Iraq during the summer. Just like in this case, local officers in Ninewa and Salahaddin called their commanders for orders about what to do and for help in the face of the advancing insurgent forces and received no serious replies. Instead their leaders abandoned them.
The fifth day of the siege was the last as the militants were finally able to break the soldier’s defenses. On September 21, the troops were given orders to withdraw to Mazram army base in northern Fallujah. The ISF also claimed that it took Siger and broke the siege on the camp, but that proved untrue. That night the IS attacked using two suicide bombers in captured Humvees, followed by three suicide bombers with explosive vests. The base believed that this was the relief column that was promised and welcomed the incoming vehicles, only to find out they were insurgents dressed in army uniforms. The explosions opened up the camp, and an assault team entered using mortars, RPGs, and heavy machine guns. Some soldiers claimed the mortar shells were full of chlorine, but this was only reported in one Al Jazeera story. With IS fighters inside the perimeter the soldiers broke up into small groups to try to escape. The Washington Post claimed that 400 got out, but there was no way to confirm this as many soldiers were spread out, captured or killed in the surrounding area. 40 soldiers were said to have died in the night attack however. IS claimed they captured four M1A1 Abrams tanks, a Russian tank, three BMP armored personnel carriers, and 41 Humvees, although there was no way to prove that either. Shafaq News reported that 180 captured soldiers were taken to Fallujah, while politicians said that 300 soldiers in total died during the siege. Survivors interviewed by the Washington Post put the losses at anywhere from 100 to 500 soldiers killed. This was quite a feat for the militants as they had massed their forces for a week outside a military base, turned back relief efforts, and successfully took their target. They had not been able to take an ISF base since Camp Speicher outside of Tikrit in June.
The fall of Camp Saqlawiya showed that the militants are still on the offensive in parts of Iraq. Since January when fighting broke out in Anbar the insurgents have continuously expanded their hold upon the province, and it’s now said they control up to 85% of it. The United States Air Force has started striking targets in the governorate, but it has not seemed to stop the militants’ operations there. More importantly this was another expose of the incompetence of the leadership of the Iraqi Security Forces. The comments by the Anbar Operations Commander showed that they do not care about their soldiers. Iraqi army planes and helicopters could have been deployed to break the IS cordon or at least drop supplies. Instead, false stories were spread that the camp had been relieved, while it was allowed to fall. Even to this day survivors of the base claim that they are being mistreated. Prime Minister Haider Abadi has promised to reform the security forces, but that will take years. Until then he will have to deal with the legacy of his predecessor Premier Nouri al-Maliki who politicized and coup proofed the ISF by appointing loyalist officers rather than competent ones. There is also widespread corruption within the force that undermines its professionalism. That all means more Camp Speicher’s and Saqlawiya’s can happen until the army and police are thoroughly rebuilt.
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