AMERIYAT AL-FALLUJA , Iraq — More than 1,000 recruits stood at attention in fatigues, their heads held high, during a ceremony Friday for what Iraqi officials hope marks the formation of a force to push out the Islamic State militants who control most of Anbar.
The next military offensive against the extremist Sunni group is expected to take place in this western province, Iraq’s largest. Under an agreement between local leaders and key officials in the capital, including the prime minister, it is hoped that the largely tribal recruits will play an important role in that offensive. As many as 6,000 tribesmen could be trained and armed, which officials and tribal elders in the predominantly Sunni area describe as an important step in repairing fraught relations with the Shiite-dominated authority in Baghdad.
But mistrust festers.
After routing al-Qaeda-linked militants nearly a decade ago, U.S.-backed Sunni tribesmen in Anbar and other provinces faced sectarian-driven discrimination from Baghdad. Many of them eventually sided with the Islamic State, a switch that facilitated the group’s sweeping advances throughout Iraq last June. Also, analysts and diplomats warn about the divisive role of powerful Shiite militias, which Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere accuse of sectarian-driven attacks.
At Friday’s ceremony, however, Anbar’s governor, Sohaib al-Rawi, expressed hope that a new leaf has been turned with Baghdad. The first recruits represent a “revolution” against the Islamic State, he announced at the gathering, which was held at an abandoned industrial complex here, a government-held city in the province.
“Your country has been stolen by a bunch of thieves and thugs, and you have to fight to take it back,” the governor told the newly recruited fighters.
After the Islamic State advances last summer, the government pledged arms and training for Sunni tribes. In October, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a similar call amid reports of mass executions of Sunni tribesmen by the extremist group.
Little of the promised aid has been delivered, however, partly because of Shiite suspicion of Sunni loyalties. Two years ago, the Iraqi government rushed weapons to tribesmen for fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State. Many of those arms ended up in the extremist group’s possession.
“There’s distrust because many tribal sheiks took advantage of this for personal benefits and sold the weapons in the black market,” said Safaa al-Assam, an analyst who lives in Baghdad.
But recent advances in Anbar by the Islamic State appear to have added urgency to mobilizing Sunni tribesmen.
Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-
Abadi, said the government supports the Anbar training program. The tribal fighters will come under the authority of the “popular mobilization units,” or PMU, an umbrella group of largely Shiite militias that technically falls under government control.
In a briefing with journalists Thursday, Rawi, Anbar’s governor, said that placing tribal forces in the province under the authority of the PMU will bring important government oversight. Candidates are being carefully vetted, and the distribution of weapons will come under serious scrutiny, he said, adding that fighters will receive a monthly salary from Baghdad of about $650. Training will be conducted by local police and military forces at a base in Anbar, he said.
Rawi hopes the program will attract tribesmen who have grown disenchanted under the Islamic State’s brutal rule, saying that it could help to “build a state and expand rule of law.” In a sign of persistent tribal suspicion of Baghdad, however, recruits for the program have primarily come from one tribe, Albu Eissa.
Still, the plan would seem to align with statements by U.S. officials suggesting that arming tribesmen should be managed by Baghdad. The United States is leading an international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and it has sent military advisers to train Iraqi forces and some tribesmen.
The Anbar plan also seems to align with a proposal backed by the prime minister to form national guard units at the provincial level, a move meant to reduce sectarian tensions. Since replacing the divisive Nouri al-Maliki in September, Abadi, a Shiite, has earned respect for cooperating with Sunnis.
But analysts say his power has been constrained, partly because of the Shiite militias, some of which are backed by Iran. Government forces have drawn heavily on militias for operations to win back territory from the Islamic State, an issue that dissuades Sunni tribesmen from joining the military operation in large numbers, tribal sheiks say.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described this as a symptom of one of many still-unresolved political disputes that will hinder the fight against the Islamic State.
“The problem isn’t that the Islamic State has gotten stronger, it’s that Iraqi unity hasn’t gotten better,” he said.
At Friday’s ceremony here, several tribal sheiks accused Shiite militias in the area of intimidation, including arbitrarily detaining residents and of theft. The militias control the road from Baghdad to the east.
“We fear them more than Daesh, of course,” said Chihad Mishaan, 55, an Albu Eissa tribal elder, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State.
Tribesmen as well as local police officers said clashes broke out last week in the city after a Shiite militia, Kitaeb Hezbollah, seized a copper mill. Tribal fighters and police officers exchanged fire with the militia, which retreated from the mill, said Nayef al-Chiyad, another leader from Albu Eissa. He added that it was the second time in a week that the militia tried to take the facility, which he described as “full of things for the militia to steal and sell off.”
Three police officers from the city confirmed the clashes.
“They were dressed in police and military uniforms, so at first we didn’t realize who they were,” Chiyad said. “That’s why these militias are so dangerous.”
A spokesman from Kitaeb Hezbollah described the incident as part of the group’s “security precautions” in the city.
For Ahmed Houran, a 19-year-old recruit in the Anbar force who is a member of the Abu Nimr tribe, fighting is not so much about driving out the Islamic State as it is about revenge. Late last year, the extremist group killed his father and brother during battles near the city of Hit.
“I’m here to avenge my family,” he said during the ceremony.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.