When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took office, he was regarded as a moderate Shi’ite leader who could win over powerful Sunni tribal chiefs to the fight against ISIS.
Three months later, Sunnis who once helped U.S. Marines kick the Islamic State’s predecessor al Qaeda out of Iraq view Abadi with deep scepticism because he has yet to deliver on promises to support their neglected Sunni heartland Anbar province.
Abadi, for his part, seems mistrustful of tribal leaders, who are plagued by divisions and accused of misuse of government funds and military support in the past.
A 62-year-old British-educated Shi’ite Muslim engineer, Abadi is a much more conciliatory figure than his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, whose policies were seen by most Sunnis as discriminatory, leading to an uprising in Sunni areas that was exploited by Islamic State fighters this year.
Washington, now providing air support for Iraqi forces, hopes that the new prime minister’s outreach can rebuild the shaky alliance with Sunni tribal figures, particularly in Anbar, which helped the U.S. Marines defeat al Qaeda during the “surge” offensive of 2006-2007.
But on the evidence of a televised meeting Abadi called this week with tribal leaders, he still faces a tough task. The prime minister spoke with little evident charisma, and many of the sheikhs listened to his appeal in stony silence. When they left, they said the government still hadn’t understood their grievances or given them firm enough promises of support.
“We’re bewildered by Abadi’s policy towards Anbar. We want to live in peace and bring back displaced families and stop the bloodshed,” said senior tribal Sheikh Lawrence al-Hardan from Garma town in Anbar.
“But the big question is will Abadi be able to tackle all these issues? The answer is no. What’s happening in the country is beyond Abadi’s ability and capacity.”
Officials in Abadi’s office were not immediately available for comment.
Anbar under serious threat
One of the main battlefields now, as it was in 2006-2007, is Anbar, the vast western desert province that includes the Sunni tribe-dominated towns in the Euphrates River valley running from the Syrian border to the western outskirts of Baghdad.
Islamic State was on the march in Anbar this year even before it seized much of northern Iraq in June. Even as the government and fighters from the autonomous Kurdish region have begun to recapture territory in the north, Islamic State has pressed its advances in Anbar, coming ever closer to Baghdad.
It is now encircling the province’s largest air base, Ain al-Asad, and the vital Haditha dam on the Euphrates. Its fighters control towns from the Syrian border to parts of provincial capital Ramadi and into the lush irrigated areas near Baghdad.
Sunni tribal fighters that have dared to oppose Islamic State are outmanned and say the U.S. military and Iraqi government are not sending enough support. Many have paid a high price for standing up to the fighters in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, Islamic State fighters rounded up and executed 35 tribesmen in Hit, a Euphrates town in Anbar, officials said.
“We asked the prime minister to urgently arm anti-Islamic State tribal fighters. We told him each day that passes adds more complication to the situation in Anbar and the government needs to take immediate actions on ground,” said Sheikh Naeem al-Ga’oud, from the prominent Albu Nimir tribe.
“But speaking honestly all what we got out of the meeting with Abadi was promises.”
The tribes say they want weapons to defend themselves. But handing out guns is tricky in a province where loyalties are often obscure.
Ga’oud and other tribal figures told Reuters that Abadi would not give any firm responses to requests for weapons, arguing that past arms shipments were not monitored properly. Tribal leaders acknowledge that previous arms shipments went awry, but blame the government for mishandling them.
“We know the fact that most of the arms which were supplied to some tribal figures by Maliki in April ended up in the hands of Islamic State fighters,” said Ga’oud.
Other tribal figures said the tribes themselves need to do more to coordinate their activity to win government support.
“Before we talk about Abadi’s ability to handle Anbar, I should say that Anbar’s tribal leaders themselves are divided and completely lack the coordination which was reflected in the government’s position (in the meeting),” said tribal leader Wisam al-Hardan, who fought al-Qaeda in the past.
“Abadi’s government needs to first assess the seriousness and readiness among Anbar’s tribal leaders before it takes any decision to support them to fight Islamic State.”
Many of the Sunni tribal leaders say they can never trust the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad until it does more to rein in Shi’ite militia, which Sunnis accuse of kidnapping, torturing and killing with impunity.
So far there is no sign of the government dismantling the Shi’ite militia, which mobilised to defend Baghdad when the Iraqi army melted away in the face of an Islamic State onslaught in the north in June.
“If Abadi wants us to help him fight Islamic State then he should start battling the militias,” Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, one of the leaders of the Sunni revolt against Maliki.