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BAGHDAD – Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi had 225 fighters, a single Abrams tank, a pair of mortars, two artillery pieces and about 40 armored Humvees when he set out to retake a strategic city in northern Iraq captured by Islamic State militants over the summer.
It took 30 days as his force made an agonizingly slow journey for 40 kilometers (25 miles) through roadside bombs and suicide car attacks, then successfully laid siege to the oil refinery city of Beiji. The campaign earned al-Saadi the biggest battlefield victory by Iraqi forces since Islamic State fighters swept over most of northern and western Iraq in a summer blitz, prompting the collapse of the military.
Yet al-Saadi is deeply pessimistic. In a two-hour interview with The Associated Press, he said Iraq's military lacks weapons, equipment and battle-ready troops and complained that U.S. air support was erratic. Both the military and the government remain riddled with corruption, he said. Most of the senior generals serving when the military fell apart had skills "more suited to World War II," he said.
"If things don't get better," warned the general, "the country could end up divided" between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations.
The extremists are beatable when confronted with a proper force, he said. But he worries that the military's multiple woes prevent it from doing so. Already, there is a danger the jihadis could retake Beiji, he said.
A Baghdad-born Shiite with family roots in southern Iraq, al-Saadi complained 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, he said. During his march toward Beiji, some of the volunteers whom he deployed as a rear guard left their posts.
The government and its media consistently praise the volunteers' role in the war against the Sunni militants.
The U.S.-trained al-Saadi, who is second-in-command of the army's elite counterterrorism forces, spoke 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 helmet or body armor or indications of his rank. In the Beiji campaign, he was wounded by shrapnel in his arm and dangerously close to his eye, on top of wounds he suffered last summer in the western province of Anbar.
On his office walls hung photos of himself with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Saadi said he had a close relationship with al-Maliki during his eight years in office. But the Shiite leader, he said, bears the "moral responsibility" for the debacle against the Islamic State group.
Al-Maliki stepped down in August, replaced by Haider al-Abadi, who has sought to draw Sunni support against the militants. According to al-Saadi, al-Abadi has largely left the military to run the war against the Islamic State as it sees fit. Al-Abadi has also shaken up the military, pushing aside dozens of corrupt or inefficient officers. He has also stopped payments of millions of dollars in salaries disbursed to thousands of nonexistent troops, or "ghost soldiers."
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. The Islamic State group holds Tikrit itself and most of the surrounding ground.
A veteran of Iraq's 1980-88 war against Shiite Iran, al-Saadi said he turned down offers of help from Iranian military advisers in retaking Beiji. Iran has been closely helping Iraq's government in the fight against the extremists.
"If I had accepted help from non-Iraqis, the history books will say the victory was not ours, the Iraqis," he 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, al-Saadi advanced slowly, abandoning the main road he knew to be infested with roadside bombs. Instead, he and his men went by foot through the desert parallel to the road.
Each day, they walked several kilometers, stopped and built a sand barrier on the main road to fend off suicide car bombers, while 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, he said.
The top brass in Baghdad called him repeatedly on his cell phone to complain he was moving too slowly. "I told them again and again that I need to move cautiously to protect my men," he said — though he added that al-Abadi called him to express support.
It took three weeks to reach Beiji, fighting the whole way, then another week to take the town. All in all, more than two dozen suicide car bombs were hurled at them. He said logistical bottlenecks in the military left him with only one earth-mover to construct sand barriers, which broke down often or had its tires shot out by snipers.
He blames one of its breakdowns for the death of police Lt. Gen. Faisal Malik al-Zamel during the fight in Beiji. With no sand barrier, a suicide attacker in an explosives-packed truck — its tires and windshield protected by plates of armor — struck while al-Zamel stood in the open speaking on his telephone on Nov. 7.
"His men shouted for him to get back inside his armored vehicle but he didn't act fast enough," said al-Saadi, who was at the scene.
Al-Saadi was also left skeptical that the Americans are serious in helping Iraq defeat the extremists with the coalition air campaign.
"Sometimes, they would carry out airstrikes that I never asked for, and at other times I begged them for a single airstrike and they never did it," citing logistical issues or orders from higher up, he said. "I don't think they trust Iraq's government or military."
Also, al-Saadi's only means of communication with Baghdad was a mobile phone and whenever it had no signal he could not call in airstrikes.
In the end, his strategy paid off. Beiji was recaptured in mid-November, and the entire campaign cost 12 lives and about 30 injured among his troops. On the other side, he estimates his forces killed around 1,500 Islamic State fighters.
Brig-Gen. Ayad al-Leheibi, of the police's Rapid Deployment Force, echoed that estimate and confirmed most of the details in al-Saadi's account. Al-Leheibi and about 120 of his men fought alongside al-Saadi in the Beiji campaign.
Now al-Saadi worries the victory is in danger of being reversed. Already Islamic State militants are back on the outskirts of Beiji, and he said the men left to hold the city are too few.
One unit of reinforcements was attacked on the way to Beiji and quickly retreated, he said. A second one, 50-man strong, made it to the city but came under night attack by militants.
"There was so much confusion and panic, they started shooting at each other in the dark," he said. "We lost 10 men, nearly as many as we lost in the entire campaign."