BAGHDAD Iraqi soldiers described on Monday how Islamic State fighters inflicted heavy losses in a chaotic raid on a military base just an hour's drive from Baghdad, highlighting the jihadists' ability to attack high-profile targets despite U.S. air strikes.
Soldiers, officials and tribal sources gave differing accounts of what happened on Sunday when the militants stormed the camp at Saqlawiya that they had been besieging.
However, casualties among the Iraqi government forces appear to have been very heavy, with many soldiers either dead, forced to flee or missing following the assault near the city of Falluja, which Islamic State has controlled since January.
A statement for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office said he had issued orders to detain two commanders for "negligence" in the incidents 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, while some troops who escaped accused the military leadership of failing to help them during the siege.
Islamic State fighters seized large areas of northern and western Iraq in a summer offensive, drawing accusations of extreme brutality and prompting the U.S. air attacks after they advanced on an autonomous Kurdish region.
Their raid at Saqlawiya is the latest since the northern city of Mosul fell to Islamic State in June to exposes the Iraqi military's shortcomings. It followed a massacre of an army detachment at Camp Speicher in the same month, in which military recruits were led off the base unarmed and murdered in their hundreds.
Like at Camp Speicher, it remains unclear how many men were present at the base in Saqlawiya and how many are now dead and missing. However one officer who survived the raid said that of an estimated 1,000 soldiers in Saqlawiya, only about 200 had managed to flee.
"This failure is not the fault of the soldiers ... the mistake was that of the military leadership, they failed," said the officer, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The officer said that Islamic State insurgents had gained control of Sijir, near Falluja, a week ago, allowing them to surround the Saqlawiya base.
"We were without ammunition and without food. Every time we contacted military commanders, they promised to send helicopters to air drop reinforcements but nothing happened," said the officer, who fled to another base close to Falluja on Sunday. "We ... were drinking salty well water and eating canned tomato paste."
The government statement quoted the spokesman of the armed forces general command as saying that orders had been issued four days ago for supplies and military reinforcements to be sent to Saqlawiya and Sijir, in addition to intensifying overflights.
On Wednesday, the insurgents sent a Humvee vehicle rigged with explosives into the camp. Guards mistakenly assumed that an army driver was at the wheel.
"When it exploded, it caused a lot of confusion. Islamic State exploited that and entered the camp. Now most of regiment headquarters within the base are under the control of Islamic State," said the officer, adding that one, small army unit remained besieged in the camp.
"KILOMETER OF DEATH"
About 200 soldiers managed to escape the base on Sunday after battling with the militants in the area which soldiers call the "kilometer of death".
"On the road, the images were tragic. Burnt Humvees and burnt corpses of soldiers are still on the streets," said the officer who retreated to the nearby Camp Tareq.
One soldier, identified as a Saqlawiya camp survivor, recounted his testimony in a video that was shown on Iraqi state television and widely circulated online. Reuters could not immediately verify its authenticity.
The survivor referred to the militants sending in a booby-trapped vehicle, appearing to corroborate the testimony of the first army officer. He also mentioned the lack of food and ammunition at Saqlawiya.
"Those who ran, got away and those who stayed were left behind. We left in three transport vehicles and two gas tankers and headed for Sijir," he said, adding that they found Islamic State insurgents waiting for them there too.
"Again we got injured by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and there were those who got killed by gunfire and those who fled amid the tall grass and orchards," said the survivor, whose name was not disclosed, and who was shirtless and wearing his trouser fatigues.
He said that "200 or less" soldiers managed to escape.
"The bodies of slaughtered soldiers are left in Sijir and Saqlawiya on the main roads and near the factory," he said.
An intelligence officer who is in charge of an area of operations that includes Saqlawiya said insurgents gained control of Sijir area last week and "the army was forced to retreat .. in the farms between Saqlawiya and Falluja".
An army convoy sent in to break the siege on Sunday was ambushed by Islamic State fighters. Many soldiers were killed, others were taken prisoners and a few managed to flee, he told Reuters.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement late on Sunday that it had "lost communication" with some soldiers in Sijir and Saqlawiya.
At a parliamentary session on Monday at least two lawmakers asked for clarification surrounding the attacks in Saqlawiya, but did not receive any answers from officials.
(Additional reporting by Raheem Salman; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Ned Parker and David Stamp)