Iraq has recruited about 6,000 Sunni tribesmen to join its defense forces, U.S. defense officials say, in an important move to boost Baghdad's drive to defeat Islamic State fighters.
Three senior American defense officials with ties to the Iraqi government have confirmed to VOA that the recruitment of Sunni fighters is underway.
One of the American officials told VOA's Pentagon correspondent that the first contingent of 500 Sunni fighters completed training and formally joined the Iraqi security forces Thursday in a graduation ceremony at al-Taqaddum Air Base in Habbaniyah, 75 kilometers west of Baghdad. Another 500 tribal fighters are expected to begin training there soon.
American troops are present at the al-Taqaddum base, advising and assisting Iraqi military units and Sunni tribal leaders, but the Americans are not directly training the Sunni recruits, the U.S. defense official said.
Analysts say the change in the makeup of Iraqi defense forces, and the large number of Sunni fighters involved, is a step in the right direction for Iraq's effort to repel and defeat Islamic State radicals.
“There’s 6,000 [Sunnis] who are willing to work together [with Shi'ite commanders] - that may be even more important,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “It’s not so much that they’re going to get great training in whatever amount of time we’ve had, it’s more perhaps that they now at least are part of a general concept of operation.”
The Iraqi government has been criticized for months of delay in adding a substantial number of Sunni fighters to its defense force. Security analysts also have said previous training programs for Sunnis were too small and disorganized.
However, news that Sunnis are now being recruited in large numbers is being welcomed as a sign of Iraqi unity. Michael Weiss, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, said Western officials are hoping for a second Sunni Awakening - a reference to the Sunnis' decisive role in the government's campaign to turn aside major threats from the al-Qaida terror network.
Weiss warned, however, that the Islamic State group's rapid growth has put Iraq on the brink of complete destabilization.
“I think Iraq has ceased to exist in all but name," Weiss said, "and I think the United States is clinging to a myth of a cohesive unified country or state. It’s not.”
Brookings' Michael O’Hanlon said the war against Islamic State cannot be won without the involvement of Sunni tribesmen, either as dedicated Iraqi army units or as part of a strong Iraqi police force with paramilitary capabilities.
He noted that 6,000 Sunni recruits are not nearly enough to bolster Iraq's security forces. In the original Sunni Awakening, O'Hanlon said, “it took 50,000 ... or some substantial fraction of that number” to defeat UIslamic extremists. "And therefore 6,000, even if it’s 6,000 well-trained and good ones, is really just the beginning.”