SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were trapped or missing on Sunday following a chaotic retreat from an army base in western Iraq, military officials said, underscoring the ability of Islamic State insurgents to remain on the offensive despite expanded airstrikes from the United States.
At least 820 soldiers were stationed at Saqlawia Camp, north of the insurgent-controlled Iraqi city of Fallujah, when it came under attack from five suicide bombings on Sunday afternoon, said Lt. Col. Ihab Hashem, a deputy commander with the Iraqi Army’s 8th division who was at the camp. Two bombers drove explosives-packed armored vehicles and three others detonated vests, he said.
Five battalions had been stranded at the base without supplies for six days after Islamic State militants seized a bridge that was the last access route to the camp. Soldiers said they were forced to boil up water from a muddy stream, and were running low on ammunition, when the bombings struck on Sunday.
“We lost control,” Hashem said after crossing Islamic State-controlled territory to another army base. “We couldn’t gather to retreat. Some are dead, others stayed.”
He said retreating soldiers had abandoned their vehicles and were traversing enemy territory in small platoons in order to avoid detection.
“Some are still crossing, they are walking through the trees and houses trying to hide from the insurgents.”
The Islamic State has carried out mass-executions of Iraqi troops it has caught in the past – including killing what Iraqi officials say were 1,700 soldiers at Camp Speicher near the northern city of Tikrit during the group’s surge forward in June.
The latest advance comes despite stepped-up U.S. airstrikes against militants. France also launched airstrikes against the extremists last week.
Iraqi military officials said U.S. jets gave air support to a failed army effort to reach the stranded soldiers on Sunday morning. However, U.S. Central Command did not announce details of operations in the area.
Only around 25 percent of the soldiers at Saqlawia, in the western province of Anbar, had managed to reach the safety of the nearby 1st division base at Camp Tariq, Hashem said.
“The situation is very bad,” said Lt. Col. Abdulwahab al-Saidi, head of counterterrorism operations for Anbar.
One solider who remained at Saqlawia, who declined to give his name because he’s not authorized to speak to the press, said when reached by phone that just 50 or 60 soldiers were left there and were stranded with no vehicles left to use to leave. He put the number of suicide bombings by vehicle at three.
“We don’t have enough ammunition here to defend ourselves,” he said. “Maybe we can last a day.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.