To retake cities, Iraq turns to Sunni tribes


Masked Sunni Muslim gunmen take their positions with their weapons during a patrol in Ramadi, 62 miles west of Baghdad, Jan. 28, 2014. Iraqi government forces battling al Qaeda-linked militants intensified air strikes and artillery fire on the Sunni city of Ramadi on Monday in a military operation that killed at least 20 ISIL militants in the eastern part of the city, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense said. (REUTERS)

In his battle against an al-Qaeda-led insurgency in western Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is providing arms and funds to unnatural bedfellows — Sunni tribesmen who complain of being neglected by his Shiite-dominated government.

The government has trucked weapons and approved millions of dollars in payments to tribesmen in Anbar province in a bid to win their help ousting al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this month. The United States is also speeding up its supply of small arms to Iraq, urging authorities to pass them on to tribesmen.

The support is a desperate attempt by Maliki to reassert control of Anbar by reviving a wilted initiative — the organization of Sunni tribes and former insurgents into the so-called Awakening movement, also known as the Sahwa — that the United States used to dramatically weaken the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq during the final years of the war there.

But the effort faces major challenges. The ranks of the paramilitary movement have dwindled since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, and Maliki is facing insurrection from parts of the country’s wider Sunni minority, who complain of mistreatment and subjugation at the hands of his government.

With the government wary of arming tribesmen who may turn against it, trust is lacking on both sides. Still, some observers say a revival might be the best chance Maliki, who has ruled out sending the Shiite-dominant Iraqi army into Sunni-majority Fallujah, has to pacify Anbar.

“No one can face the terrorists without the help of the Sunnis. The Americans couldn’t eliminate them without the Sunnis, and nor can the government,” said Dhafer al-Ani, a spokesman for the Sunni Mutahidun political party.

To bring them on board, Maliki has recently said there is no limit on arming and equipping tribal fighters. Government spokesman Ali al-Moussawi said the Iraqi cabinet has approved $3.4 million for payments to tribesmen and more than $17 million for infrastructure projects in Anbar.

“We are supplying them with more weapons and whatever they need,” he said. “They will be treated like any troop in the Iraqi army. They will have salaries and pensions and any right a troop in the Iraqi army has.”

However, promises to incorporate Sahwa fighters into the state security forces failed to materialize after the U.S. withdrawal. Facing cuts in salaries and threats from the al-Qaeda militants they had fought against, numbers dwindled to less than half the more than 100,000 men who made up the movement at its peak.

After 2011, Ani said, Sahwa members “were left stuck in the middle between al-Qaeda’s hammer and Maliki’s neglect.”

In Anbar, growing disillusionment among the Sunni population helped al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), cement its increasing footprint. After the army withdrew from Anbar cities in December — amid frictions over the dismantling of a Sunni protest camp and a raid on a local lawmaker’s house — ISIS took advantage of the security vacuum to seize Ramadi and Fallujah in early January.

Government forces have since regained ground in Ramadi with the help of allied tribesmen and air support, though fierce fighting continues in several neighborhoods.

In Fallujah, where U.S. forces fought some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war, Maliki has said he hopes tribesmen can negotiate the exit of militants. But talks to allow government officials and policemen back into Fallujah have yet to bear fruit.

Arms flow in

Tribesmen say arms flows have picked up in recent weeks. A load of 3,000 Russian machine guns and more than 2,000 Kalashnikovs were transported to tribesmen in Ramadi last week, according to an Iraqi army officer who oversaw the transfer and declined to be named because he is not authorized to give information to the media.

After having backed the anti-government protests by Sunnis in Anbar last year, Ahmed Abu Risha, a former Sahwa leader, is now fighting on the state’s side once more. He said he had received only arms, but not money, in exchange for his support.

“We still obviously have our issues with the government,” Risha said. “But at the moment, al-Qaeda is the biggest problem.”

Still, after years of bitter relations between the government and Iraqi Sunnis and a rapid resurgence in sectarian violence, many observers doubt the tribal fighting force can be recreated.

The army officer said that coordination and cooperation between the army and tribal fighters allied with the government remain limited in Anbar.

“We are not fighting shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “They don’t attack us, we don’t attack them and they just provide security in their areas.”

“It’s too late; the Sahwa is dead,” said one government official formerly involved in the country’s national reconciliation plan, which was aimed at stemming sectarian violence. The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said pouring money and weapons at the problem is not enough to build trust.

“We reject our sons being rentals,” Ani said. “They are used like a disposal tissue, to wipe up the problems and then thrown away.”

Sunnis, who make up about 30 percent of Iraq’s population, accuse the government of a campaign of suppression, arbitrary arrest and detention.

“Maliki has pushed the Sunnis so hard he’s lost them,” Ani said.

Switching sides

Amid that discontent, some tribe members are fighting on the other side.

Sheikh Rafai Mishhin al-Jumaili, a leader in the Jumaili tribe, said his men are fighting against the government near Fallujah, which is currently controlled by an alliance that includes breakaway tribesmen and ISIS. Residents say the al-Qaeda-linked group has opened Islamic courts in the city.

Jumaili, whose father was leader of the Sahwa in the Garma area of Fallujah, said he spent years fighting al-Qaeda alongside American troops. Now, however, he accuses the government of sectarianism, saying it has branded all rebel tribesmen as al-Qaeda to justify attacks on them.

“If the army moves forward to kill you, are you going to receive him with flowers?” he said. “No. We are going to defend ourselves.”

He described those who are fighting on the government side as turncoats.

“They are serving personal interests,” he said.

Loveday Morris is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.
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