Iraq’s Sunni tribes need support from Washington

Sunni tribal leaders warn that many Sunnis are ready to fight alongside ISIL. Reuters
Sunni tribal leaders warn that many Sunnis are ready to fight alongside ISIL. Reuters

Despite bold statements of solidarity and pledges of aid, the US is losing the support of Iraq’s Sunnis, a critical ally who could be key in its war against ISIL.

While the Pentagon has pledged up to $24 million in arms for Iraq’s Sunni tribes, every dollar is being allocated through Iraq’s central government, whose track record raises doubts that the arms will fall into the intended hands.

Washington’s strategy for the Iraq front calls for Sunni tribes to fight alongside government forces, whose past abuses remain fresh in the minds of many residents in Anbar and Mosul.

America’s woes are not only military, but political. In return for aiding the coalition in its war against ISIL, Iraq’s Sunnis are asking for support for their own struggle with central government. Washington has remained silent on these grievances: namely the release of political prisoners, amendments to the country’s oppressive anti-terror law, rooting out of corruption and devolution of powers allowing local forces to maintain security in Sunni provinces.

Baghdad has opted only to arm hand-picked, pro-government tribal figures who lack the manpower to turn the tide against the jihadist movement.

Pledges made in late October by a grouping of pro-government leaders during a meeting with Haider Al Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, to summon an army of 30,000 have yielded just 50 fighters.

Sheikh Naeem Kaoud of the Albu Nimr tribe, viewed by many Sunnis to have long “sold out” to the government in return for political favours, has mustered some 200 fighters who have seen limited action and have indeed lost much ground in and around Ramadi since November.

The announcement on December 13 by Khaled Obeidi, the defence minister, that Baghdad has armed 1,300 fighters of the Sunni-dominated Ahmed Sadaq Brigade also did little to rally Iraq’s Sunnis.

The bulk of the brigade is reportedly made up of non-tribal affiliated fighters from various provinces and includes government forces.

All the while, the Tribal Revolutionary Council and the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries – the largest groupings of Iraq’s Sunni tribes and their band of 30,000 battle-tested local fighters – remain on the sidelines, desperately waiting for a sign that the coalition will live up to its promises.

Also being overlooked are some 14,000 former Awakening Council fighters who rose to the calls of the US and drove out Al Qaeda from western Iraq some seven years ago.

Yet as each day passes, the coalition is seemingly no closer to aiding Iraq’s Sunni tribes and that delay is costing the US and its allies much more than battlefield positions.

Buoyed by a multibillion dollar budget and expanding military and intelligence wings, ISIL is reportedly forcibly conscripting hundreds of tribal and former Awakening Council fighters who would readily put their services to the international coalition.

With ISIL firmly entrenched in Mosul and expanding through Ramadi and northern Iraq, potential supply lines to arm the tribes of Anbar are on the brink of being cut off.

Yet the failure to directly fund and back Sunni tribes is having a deeper impact.

Threatened by the return of Shiite government forces in west Iraq, Sunni tribal leaders warn that many Sunnis are ready to fight alongside ISIL.

With Washington’s failure to address their political grievances or push Baghdad to make concessions, more and more tribesmen are seeing the war against ISIL as an extension of the government’s campaign to marginalise Iraq’s Sunnis.

The sentencing to death in a Baghdad court of former Sunni MP and Ramadi local hero Ahmed Al Alwani and Washington’s mute response to his trial, have only cemented the sentiment.

Unless Washington changes course soon, coalition and government forces entering west Iraq will not find eager allies but a “nationwide Sunni uprising”, warns Ali Hatem Suleiman, tribal council leader.

That is one conflict that neither Iraq nor the region could afford.

Taylor Luck is an Amman-based political analyst and journalist

Published: December 17, 2014 04:00 AM

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