BAGHDAD // Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab Al Saadi had 225 fighters, a single Abrams tank, a pair of mortars, two artillery pieces and about 40 armoured Humvees when he set out to retake a strategic city in northern Iraq that had been captured by ISIL in the summer.
It took 30 days for his force to make the agonisingly slow 40 kilometre journey through roadside bombs and suicide car attacks, before successfully laying siege to the oil refinery city of Beiji in mid-November. The entire campaign cost 12 lives and about 30 injured among Lt Gen Al Saadi’s troops, while he estimates his forces killed around 1,500 ISIL fighters.
The campaign earned him the biggest battlefield victory by Iraqi forces since ISIL fighters swept over most of northern and western Iraq in a summer blitz, prompting the collapse of the military.
Yet the general is deeply pessimistic.
Lt Gen Al Saadi, who is second-in-command of the army’s elite counterterrorism forces, says Iraq’s military lacks weapons, equipment and battle-ready troops and that US air support has been erratic. Meanwhile, both the military and government remain riddled with corruption, he believes, while most of the senior generals who were serving when the military fell apart had skills “more suited to World War II”.
“If things don’t get better,” he says, “the country could end up divided” between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations.
The US-trained general believes ISIL are beatable when confronted with a proper force, but worries that the military’s multiple weaknesses prevent it from doing so. Already, ISIL militants are back on the outskirts of Beiji, he says, and there aren’t enough men left to hold the city.
A Baghdad-born Shiite with family roots in southern Iraq, Lt Gen Al Saadi complains of “excesses” by some of the Shiite volunteers who joined the fight against the Sunni militants and on whom the military has come to rely.
“I am a military man, and they don’t respect the rules by which we operate,” he said. Volunteers, for example, looted homes in government-controlled areas around the Sunni city of Tikrit and tried to intimidate army officers. And during Lt Gen Al Saaadi’s march to Beiji, some of the volunteers whom he deployed as a rearguard left their posts.
Speaking at his office in one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces, the chain-smoking general wore a baseball cap and green sweater — the same outfit he wears on the front lines — without a helmet or body armour or any indications of his rank. In the Beiji campaign, Lt Gen Al Saadi was wounded by shrapnel in his arm and dangerously close to his eye. These were on top of the wounds he suffered last summer in the western province of Anbar.
On his office walls hung photos of himself with Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki. The general says he had a close relationship with Mr Al Maliki during his eight years in office. But he believes the Shiite leader bears the “moral responsibility” for the military’s collapse against ISIL.
Mr Al Maliki stepped down in August and was replaced by Haider Al Abadi, who has sought to draw Sunni support against the militants. According to Lt Gen Al Saadi, the current prime minister has largely left the military to run the war against ISIL as it sees fit. Mr Al Abadi has also pushed aside dozens of corrupt or inefficient officers, and stopped payments of millions of dollars in salaries to thousands of nonexistent troops, or “ghost soldiers.”
Lt Gen Al Saadi is the head of military operations in Salahuddin province, where Beiji is located, and his troops were stationed in a base outside Tikrit. ISIL holds Tikrit itself and most of the surrounding area.
A veteran of Iraq’s 1980-88 war against Iran, the general says he turned down offers of help from Iranian military advisers in retaking Beiji. This is despite the fact Iran has been closely helping Iraq’s government in the fight against ISIL.
“If I had accepted help from non-Iraqis, the history books will say the victory was not ours, the Iraqis,” Lt Gen Al Saadi said.
He had troubles from the outset with top military leaders in Baghdad who wanted Beiji retaken quickly.
“I told them I can reach Beiji from Tikrit in three days, but I will lose many of my men,” he said. “[I] told them I will do it my way and get Beiji back. They were unhappy, but they had no choice.”
Setting out from Tikrit in mid-October, the general advanced slowly, abandoning the main road he knew was infested with roadside bombs. Instead, Lt Gen Al Saadi and his men went by foot through the desert, parallel to the road.
Each day, they walked several kilometres before stopping and building a sand barrier on the main road to fend off suicide car bombers. Meanwhile, engineers would clear roadside bombs. Once the road was cleared, the Humvees and lone tank would proceed up to the barrier where they would wait until another stretch of the road was cleared.
Officials in Baghdad repeatedly phoned the general to complain he was moving too slowly. “I told them again and again that I need to move cautiously to protect my men,” Lt Gen Al Saadi said — though he added that prime minister Al Abadi had also called him to express support.
It took the general and his men three weeks to reach Beiji — fighting all the way — then another week to take the town. More than two dozen suicide car bombs were hurled at them and Lt Gen Al Saadi says logistical bottlenecks in the military left him with only one earth-mover to construct sand barriers. The general is also sceptical that the United States are serious in helping Iraq defeat ISIL with its coalition air campaign.
“Sometimes, they would carry out air strikes that I never asked for, and at other times I begged them for a single air strike and they never did it,” he said. “I don’t think they trust Iraq’s government or military.”
* Associated Press