For four grueling months, Naim al Goud, his kinsmen and the local police fought off an Islamic State offensive against his town near Hit, a key city in Iraq’s war-torn Anbar province. In his telling, their constant pleas for Iraqi army intervention and U.S. airstrikes were ignored.
“Nobody gave us any kind of help,” said al Goud, a sheikh of the Albu Nimr, one of Anbar’s largest Sunni Muslim tribes. He said he texted target locations to Iraqi commanders to relay to their U.S counterparts, with no response. “We saw American fighters flying overhead. Maybe they hit somewhere else, but not the places we wanted them to attack.”
Exhausted, hungry and low on ammunition, al Goud and hundreds of his tribesmen ceased firing on Oct. 22 in return for a pledge from the Islamic State that civilians wouldn’t be harmed. They then set out on a 15-hour overnight drive through the desert, leaving behind families and associates and nursing another in a long list of Sunni tribal grievances that are hindering reconciliation with the Shiite-led government and threatening to derail President Barack Obama’s plan to crush the Islamic State.
“They did nothing for us,” al Goud said in an interview last week in a rented house in Baghdad. “It’s all killing and disaster.”
A week later, the Islamic State executed more than 40 Albu Nimr captives on a Hit street and drove thousands of Albu Nimr civilians into the desert, where hundreds have been slaughtered – more than 400 by Monday. Tribal leaders’ calls for help from the Iraqi army and for U.S. airstrikes again went unanswered.
The Islamic State’s message to the other Anbar tribes was horrifyingly clear: Don’t fight us.
But that’s exactly what the Obama administration envisions in its plan to crush the Islamic State – the Albu Nimr and other Sunni tribes rising up against the Islamic State, just as they did during the 2006-7 U.S. troop surge against the Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaida in Iraq. This time, however, the Anbaris would be incorporated into a newly established national guard, armed by the Iraqi government and advised by the United States.
Yet the new national guard won’t be ready for at least six months – too long, say the Anbar sheikhs. The Shiite-led government in Baghdad remains deeply divided over sending weapons in the interim to Sunni tribes that many Shiites consider to be their rivals. And U.S. officials say they won’t provide training until the Baghdad government is providing the weapons.
“We need to expand the train-advise-and-assist mission into the Al Anbar province,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged to reporters at the Pentagon last week. “But the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes.”
In the meantime, al Goud has become desperate, so frantic that he says he would even be willing to accept an offer from 30 Shiite tribes in southern Iraq to send fighters to defend his people – despite claims that Shiite militias have engaged in atrocities in the Sunni areas where they’ve been assigned since the Islamic State seized much of northern and central Iraq over the summer.
“All of us should be Iraqis and support each other in distress,” declared al Goud, who said even Sunni religious leaders have “ignored the distress we are in.”
“My demand is to arm the Albu Nimr,” he added.
Recapturing Anbar, about 80 percent of which is under Islamic State control, is critical to U.S. strategy. Long a hotbed of Sunni extremism, the vast desert expanse – about one-third of Iraq – borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. From Syria, the Islamic State can move men and materiel though Anbar to Baghdad’s western fringes and five other provinces. It can even threaten the sacred Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf.
With the Iraqi army in disarray, U.S. officials have said only the tribes have the local knowledge and motivation to liberate the province. The plan, however, has been in trouble from the beginning.
For one, the tribes are badly divided. Some have joined the Islamic State; others have joined insurgents led by loyalists of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, who’ve forged allegiances of convenience with the extremists.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army in Anbar largely has withdrawn to its bases, leaving under-equipped tribesmen and police to defend besieged towns and cities on their own, according to an Oct. 29 report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
“Who’s asked about us for the last three months? We have no food, no medicines, no gasoline and no weapons,” said Mal Allah Berzam Hamden, a senior sheikh of the Obeidi tribe from Khan al-Baghdadi, an Anbar town besieged by the Islamic State. “We’ve used our own money to support and fund our fighters. We fight not for our villages and towns. We fight for the whole world.”
Raa’i Abdul Kareem Fedawi, a senior sheikh of the Albu Fayat tribe from the city of Ramadi, parts of which have been held by the Islamic State since January, said he supports the idea of a national guard, on which he and other sheikhs were briefed when the U.S. envoy, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, visited Baghdad in early October.
But the six months required to form it is “a dangerous delay,” said Fedawi, explaining that during that period the Islamic State will continue to advance.
Most critically, the tribes’ deep mistrust and anger with the government in Baghdad hasn’t diminished despite the replacement of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki by the current prime minister, Haider al Abadi. Sunnis despised Maliki for what they denounce as his sectarian policies, arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on protests that triggered a Sunni revolt in Anbar that the Islamic State hijacked at the end of 2013.
Abadi promised to resolve their grievances in a televised meeting with 25 sheikhs last week. But five of those tribal leaders told McClatchy they’ve seen scant evidence of change in the three months since Abadi assumed his post.
For instance, they asserted, there is little difference between the makeup of Abadi’s government and that of his predecessor. Abadi is from the same Shiite religious party as Maliki, who is now a vice president. Many loyalists who implemented Maliki’s sectarian agenda remain in office, and the new interior minister, Mohammad Ghabban, now in charge of police functions, was a senior official of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia trained and armed by Shiite Iran.
Minority Sunnis loathe the Iran-backed Shiite militias for alleged abuses, including torture, kidnapping and summary executions, and consider them proxies through whom Tehran ensures Baghdad remains friendly to Iran.
Another source of Sunni resentment: While the tribes are denied weapons and other support, Baghdad is pouring millions into equipping Shiite militia volunteers while the United States and European allies are arming and training the Kurdish peshmerga militia in northern Iraq. When the Islamic State briefly threatened Irbil in early August, the Obama administration rushed to protect it with airstrikes.
“This is a double standard,” asserted Fedawi, who said that there are thousands of Sunni tribesmen ready to fight the Islamic State if only they had the arms.
Abadi reportedly favors arming the tribes. So apparently does the most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who on Friday urged the government to arm the Anbar tribes and called on Shiite militias – mobilized at his urging – to refrain from harming Sunni civilians.
But Abadi’s Dawa Party, other Shiite religious groups in the government and Shiite militia leaders are said to be fiercely opposed, in part because of fears that the weapons could be turned against them or turned over to the Islamic State.
Some experts believe that Iran also is pressuring the government not to arm the Sunni tribes, fearing that they could become a counterweight to Shiite power that would dilute Iranian influence.
“The United States is not the first player in Iraq. Iran is the first player in Iraq. They think Sunni fighters will be like militias for the Sunnis,” said Najim al Jabouri, a retired Iraqi army general who now is a fellow at the National Defense University in Washington. “I think Iran is working very hard to stop the United States’ strategy in Iraq.”
All those factors will make it hard for Abadi to make the kind of change likely to win the support of the Sunni tribes, raising the prospect of continued stasis favoring further Islamic State advances.
“ISIS will retain control of Anbar,” predicted Jabouri, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “Who can kick ISIS out of Anbar?”
Nancy A. Youssef in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad contributed to this report.