IRBIL, Iraq -- Islamic State gunmen overran a former U.S. military base early Friday and killed or captured hundreds of Iraqi government troops who’d been trying to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the worst military reversal Iraqi troops have suffered since the Islamist forces captured nearly half the country last month.
The defeat brought to an end a three-week campaign by the government in Baghdad to recapture Tikrit, which fell to the Islamic State on June 11. Military spokesmen earlier this week had confidently announced a final push to recapture the city.
Instead, Islamic State forces turned back the army’s thrust up the main highway Wednesday. Beginning late Thursday, the Islamist forces stormed Camp Speicher, a former U.S. military base named for a pilot who disappeared during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and overwhelmed the troops there.
Witnesses reached by phone, who asked not be identified for security reasons, said that by Friday morning the final pocket of government troops had collapsed, an ignominious end for a counteroffensive that had begun with a helicopter assault into Tikrit University but ended with troops trapped at Camp Speicher.
There was no comment from the Iraqi government. On Wednesday, the military had acknowledged that its forces had made what it called a “tactical retreat” to Ajwa, a town about 10 miles south of Tikrit, after the push into the city failed.