WASHINGTON - A group of tribal leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province is urging locals to revolt against Islamic extremists and support Iraqi forces as they gear up for battle to recapture the key cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
The Iraqi government announced last week it had launched an offensive to recapture Fallujah, which has been under control of the Islamic State group (IS) for 18 months, but the fight is likely to be prolonged and some analysts question whether Iraqi security forces even are up to the task — even with the Shi'ite militias of the Popular Mobilization Units in the vanguard.
In May, Iraqi forces, including elite U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers, abandoned their posts 48 hours before the jihadists launched a final assault on the provincial capital, Ramadi, fleeing the western Iraqi town. That prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter to raise doubts about the morale and reliability of Iraqi forces, and their willingness to fight the IS militants.
After meetings Thursday in Baghdad with Iraqi officials, Carter told U.S. military advisers in the capital, “We’re willing to do more when and if [Iraqi forces] develop capable and motivated forces of their own that can take territory and hold territory.”
The call for revolt against IS across Iraq’s Sunni-dominated province of Anbar — issued via local mosques — is one of the first signs that efforts by Washington to stir up tribes in the country's western-most province, which borders Jordan and Syria, may be starting to bear fruit.
Last month President Barack Obama dispatched an additional 450 U.S. military advisers to western Iraq to help train Sunni tribal volunteers and Iraqi soldiers.
The U.S. and anti-IS coalition allies have been seeking to replicate the Sunni Awakening of 2006, when a tribal uprising was a key element in assisting U.S. troops to drive al-Qaida jihadists from the very same province.
Leaders of several tribal clans — al-Bu Nimir, al-Bu Fahad, al-Jaghayfa, al-Ubeid, al-Bu Mahal and Kabissat — are reported by local news outlets to be behind the call, which comes in the wake of several recent meetings for tribal sheikhs from Anbar organized by Jordanian officials in Amman.
Al-Jaghayfa clan members have already been fighting doggedly in defense of another Anbar town, Haditha, 150 miles west of Baghdad. The town has been besieged for a year by jihadists eager to seize Haditha’s dam, Iraq’s second-biggest producer of hydroelectric power.
Speaking to the independent Syrian news agency ARA, Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes, head of the Anbar Salvation Council, said some clan forces had already carried out attacks on the Islamic extremists, focusing their raids on IS commanders in Anbar, including a notorious local extremist leader, Ibrahim Daham Rashid al-Issawi.
“Al-Issawi and his deputy, Ahmed al-Alwani, have led atrocities against Iraqi people in Anbar for months,” he said. “Their brutal practices caused the deaths of many people, including police and security forces. We must eliminate this terrorist group before it eliminates us.”
The 2006 Sunni Awakening was underpinned by years of on-the-ground U.S. military presence and frequent face-to-face meetings that aimed to court local sheikhs and build up trust.
Analysts say without American soldiers on the ground now, however, it has been tough for the U.S. to persuade tribal leaders their interests lie with supporting the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad, and not aligning with IS.
Since winter, sympathetic Sunni tribal sheikhs have urged Washington to arm them or to get the Baghdad government to do so. But that hasn’t happened, despite frequent statements by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that a Sunni uprising against the jihadis in Anbar is a key to success. Under the latest Obama administration anti-IS plan, weapons distribution remains up to Baghdad.
Haider al-Abadi’s government has been reluctant to arm Sunni tribesmen who are willing to break with IS or who are prepared to end their neutrality.
Shi'ite militia leaders oppose arming Sunni tribesmen. Al-Jaghayfa clansmen at Haditha — nearly a thousand of them recently were trained by the U.S. military — have complained they have not received promised ammunition and equipment from the Iraqi government, reducing their effectiveness.
Since mid-July, Iraqi forces have slowly tightened a siege on Fallujah, trying to cut off supplies to the city, which also has been shelled by security forces and the Popular Mobilization Units.
Two weeks along, though, the city has yet to be completely isolated, according to local political activists. Traffic remains able to pass through the northern residential neighborhoods and up from the south, where farms extend to the Euphrates River.
As evidence of that, the extremists’ slave trade, with captives being brought into Fallujah, continues to flourish, according to Baghdad’s own Ministry of Human Rights. It reported Thursday that more than 100 Syrian women were up for sale this week in the city’s market, with women captives being sold daily at prices ranging from $500 to $2,000 each.
An Iraqi intelligence official speaking on the condition of anonymity said Baghdad expects the fight over Fallujah, Anbar's second largest city after Ramadi, to be a protracted affair.
The same source also said all the signs are that IS will wage a war of attrition, and the extremists will not give way as they did with the town of Tikrit, which fell to Shi'ite-led Iraqi forces in April after a quicker than expected siege.
That became clear Wednesday when Islamic State fighters retook a neighborhood in Saqlawiyah, northwest of Fallujah, from Shiite militiamen and Iraqi soldiers. IS fighters paraded captured Iraqi military equipment, including U.S.-supplied Humvees, in the streets of Fallujah.
The Shi'ite-led Iraqi forces battling for Fallujah do not have the benefit of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. Shi'ite militia commanders — many of whom disapprove of U.S. participation — chose to focus not on Ramadi, as the Baghdad government wanted, but on Fallujah instead.
Five hundred Sunni tribal fighters have joined Iraqi forces for the Ramadi campaign, which U.S. military officials say is likely to be launched fully within the next two months.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters traveling with the U.S. defense secretary that the Iraqi forces were moving “methodically, deliberately and slowly” — and that Carter had been assured by government officials that Shi'ite militiamen, who Sunni tribesmen fear as much as IS, would not be involved in the battle for Ramadi as it unfolds.