Right after Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha arrived in Washington, the Islamic State attacked his compound in Iraq’s western Anbar province in a not-so-subtle message as he requested U.S. weapons for his tribesmen fighting the extremist group.
This week, as Abu Risha prepared to return to Iraq, he was briefed on more troubling news: the alleged massacre of more than 70 unarmed Sunni Muslim men at the hands of Shiite Muslim militiamen in the volatile eastern province of Diyala.
The violence that bookended Abu Risha’s trip shows the grave challenges he faces as he tries to rebuild a program that U.S. officials have long credited with defeating the insurgents in the days of al Qaida in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State.
Many U.S. and Iraqi officials say that a Sunni fighting force, preferably in a National Guard-style role, is the missing element in the anti-Islamic State coalition. Yet plans to build one are tangled up in sectarian politics in Baghdad and hesitation from Washington about arming any group in Iraq after the American-trained military collapsed over the summer and the Islamic State ended up with millions of dollars’ worth of U.S.-supplied weapons.
Abu Risha was in Washington to warn that the U.S.-led operation will never succeed without well-equipped Sunni partners leading the ground push against the Islamic State, which is sometimes referred to as ISIS. Seven months of U.S. airstrikes haven’t loosened the extremists’ grip on much of western and northern Iraq. And unless the recently formed government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi reins in the powerful Shiite militias, Abu Risha said, Sunni recruits will become even harder to muster.
“We are optimistic about seeing good out of this government,” he said of Abadi’s administration. “No one can defeat ISIS without Sunnis. This is what the whole international community has said.”
Abu Risha was a central figure in the Awakening movement, which created an effective anti-jihadist Sunni force during the U.S.-led occupation but petered out after the U.S. military handed it over to the Shiite-led Iraqi government. His brother, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, founded the Awakening movement and was killed by an al Qaida in Iraq attack in 2007.
Reviving the program is a hard sell in today’s Iraq, with scarcer U.S. paymasters, Iranian-backed militias carrying out state security functions and more than a third of the country claimed as part of the Islamic State’s caliphate.
From any vantage point, the pitch to would-be Sunni recruits isn’t exactly appealing: either succumb to a merciless band of head-chopping jihadists, or fight them in tandem with the same Iranian-backed militias that used power drills to kill Sunni captives only a few years ago.
Shiites, meanwhile, worry that any guns they give to Sunni tribesmen to fight the Islamic State will one day be trained on them; extremist infiltrators have killed countless Iraqi security forces and civilians in the past decade. Plans for a new guard force are stuck in Parliament, where there’s little appetite for the risks in creating a Sunni paramilitary to add to Iraq’s mosaic of armed groups.
U.S. officials, too, are keenly aware of the potential perils of arming forces from either sect; the weapons could end up with either Iranian-backed paramilitaries or Sunni insurgents, as they have numerous times in the past.
Abu Risha insists that his men – he claims he can rally 30,000 – are up for the challenge, but only if both Baghdad and Washington make a leap of faith. He said his fighters were ready to confront the Islamic State but lacked the snipers and diverse arsenals of the jihadist foot soldiers.
“If you want to duplicate the Awakening experience, but tell the men to go fight with bare chests, then we’re sending them to be massacred,” he said.
Abu Risha arrived in Washington in mid-January as part of a Sunni delegation that included other tribal and provincial leaders. The Iraqis met with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House and visited the home of retired Gen. John Allen, the special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State. They also caught up with U.S. diplomatic and defense officials they’d gotten to know during the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Hikmat Sulaiman, the delegation’s spokesman and a political adviser to the governor of Anbar province, said the challenge they faced in Baghdad was evident from the moment the trip was announced.
Sulaiman said Abadi publicly supported the Sunni delegation and met with members before they left. Almost immediately afterward, however, a member of the prime minister’s political party denounced the U.S. trip – a reflection of the divisions over how to incorporate Sunnis into the anti-Islamic State campaign.
The delegation got criticism from both Sunnis and Shiites, judging from Iraqi media coverage and social media postings about the Washington trip. Some Shiite politicians called it a violation of the constitution because only the Iraqi government is authorized to procure weapons for the country. Several headlines suggested the Sunnis were tattling in Washington rather than talking in Baghdad.
While there were pockets of support, many Sunnis, too, were suspicious of the visit. The Awakening program, though effective against the insurgency, lost legitimacy when it faltered after the American handover. Its leaders are often criticized as lackeys for Washington, Baghdad or both. One commenter on a Facebook thread about the visit chided: “How do we ask America for help when it is the one behind the destruction of the country? What will history say about you?”
Members of the delegation say there’s little official acknowledgment of what’s at stake for their fighters as compared with Shiite volunteers who truck to battle from the south. They’ve all paid a steep cost for their opposition to al Qaida and its latest incarnation; each can tell of assassinated relatives and mortared homes.
“No one feels safe for their families. We live here,” Sulaiman said. “People from Nasiriyah and Babil can come and fight, and feel fine about their families and go back to them. We cannot.”
He said the government must do more in response to the increasing allegations of sectarian transgressions by the Shiite militias. Abadi has announced an investigation into the reported Diyala massacre, which the Reuters news agency described in chilling detail based on witness accounts. Sunnis say many other, smaller-scale slaughters go unreported.
In some Sunni areas where the militias have retaken control from the Islamic State, Sulaiman said, the gunmen still forbid the locals from returning and reclaiming their property. The looting allegations have become so widespread that even the Shiite clergy was compelled to issue reminders that such conduct is unacceptable.
“This is not liberation for me,” Sulaiman said.
Then there are the galling photos of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, popping up on the Iraqi battlefield, mingling with the Shiite militiamen whose advances were made possible largely by U.S. air cover. Sulaiman called such images “frustrating but expected,” though he added that such a stunt in Anbar province likely would spell the end of local cooperation against ISIS.
“I told this directly to (National Security Adviser) Falih al Fayadh: If Qassem Suleimani appears in Anbar, everything will break down,” Sulaiman recalled.
Abu Risha was just as clear-eyed about the challenges, but he sounded more confident in Abadi’s resolve. He said the prime minister had taken good steps so far, clearing nonexistent “ghost soldiers” from security forces’ rosters and taking aim at corruption. He said U.S. officials had told him they wanted to give more assistance and had “put the ball in Abadi’s court.”
Now, Abu Risha said, he’s counting on the prime minister to stand up to critics and force through a plan that equips Sunni fighters in the same manner as Kurdish and Shiite militias, by giving him a letter of support for a formal request for arms that he can present to the Americans. Without Sunni partners, he said, victory against ISIS will remain elusive.
“We don’t want to send our sons to a battle they’re not prepared to fight,” Abu Risha said.