MAKHMOUR, Iraq — The Iraqi army soldiers smoked nervously as they described their ordeal. Sent to clear a village of Islamic State fighters, they found themselves pinned down by sniper fire. A few hours later, after 10 comrades were wounded, they withdrew.
"We need to get new uniforms," soldier Ali Basra, 22, said, pointing to torn and blood-spattered fatigues. "But we'll return to take the village."
Last Thursday's mission was supposed to be a simple operation to harden untested Iraqi army soldiers: clear villages held by Islamic State fighters before crossing the Tigris River to retake the larger town of Qayyara, home to an airfield and oil fields. Their longer-term goal is to clear the way for a future push to reclaim the extremist group's stronghold of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
Instead, it proved to be a slog because of heavy rains, tougher-than-expected resistance from the militants and reports of the low morale that has dogged the Iraqi military ever since the Islamic State swept into Iraq in 2014. The stalled operation underscored just how difficult it will be to dislodge the militants from Mosul.
While the U.S.-led coalition supporting the Iraqi forces says the operation is unfolding according to plan, Kurdish fighters question the ability of their Iraqi army partners to free Mosul.
"After the first day, the Iraqi army was unable to take a single meter of (Islamic State) territory successfully," Kurdish Col. Mahdi Younis said at an outpost here, 70 miles south of Mosul. "No one should expect the least success from the Iraqi army. They have no will to fight."
On the desk in Younis' office lay a pile of cellphones taken from Iraqi soldiers stopped at a checkpoint. "Deserters," he said.
Outside in the hallway, 10 men in civilian clothes crouched against a wall. "These are the lions which escaped," joked Kurdish fighter Mohamed Jasem as he watched over them.
Coalition officials said such criticism is premature. "We believe that the Iraqis have performed according to the plan that they've set," said coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren. "The Iraqi army, we believe, is improving every day."
Michael Knights, an authority on the Iraqi military at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed, calling the Iraqi army's inauspicious start nothing more than a "wobble."
"It is worth remembering that the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) were completely driven out of this area in the late winter of last year," Knights said. "Now the Iraqi army is facing the same challenges trying to push forward into the same terrain."
The Iraqi army "had some tough fighting," said Knights. "Give it some time for these units to gain their balance."
When the operation began Thursday, soldiers from the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal fighters advanced to retake three villages held by the Islamic State with air support from the coalition, artillery fire by U.S. Marines and logistical support from the Kurds.
By Saturday, the Iraqi soldiers were bogged down outside the strategic hilltop village of Nassrash, where suicide bombers killed at least seven soldiers. The next day, rain turned the area's dirt roads into quagmires and cloud cover prevented coalition jets from providing effective support.
Iraqi commanders declined to comment on the operation or allow reporters near the front lines, but many Sunni Arab villagers displaced by the fighting were critical of the mostly Shiite Iraqi army.
"The Iraqi army came to take their revenge on us because of our ethnicity," Sheikh Ahmed Khalaf Hamid said at a processing center holding 2,000 displaced villagers.
He accused Iraqi army units of burning and looting homes, shooting livestock and firing indiscriminately at civilians, possibly killing two of them in the crossfire with the Islamic State.
"The way they treated us was no better than the way ISIS did," Hamid said, using an acronym for the extremist group.
This week, commanders were waiting for the weather improve before advancing.
"Our forces are surrounding Nassrah village," Sheikh Fares, leader of the Sabawi tribesmen fighting alongside the Iraqi Security Forces, said Tuesday. "In the next two days the village will be freed completely, God willing."