Iraqi Sunnis ready to fight ISIS but lack support, says tribal leader

Sunni volunteer fighters parade as they prepare to support Iraqi security forces in liberating the city of Ramadi from ISIS militants, in Khalidiya, 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. (AP)

More than 10,000 fighters from the Sunni province of Anbar are “ready” to fight Islamist militants who continue to occupy Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul but are disadvantaged due to Baghdad’s weak support to their plight, a prominent sheikh told Al Arabiya News on Thursday.

Sheikh Abdulwahab Sarhan al-Dulaimi, head of the Anbar Tribes Council Against Terrorism, said “if we include other Sunni provinces, there more than 30,000 fighters in total ready to fight [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] ISIS but what is missing is them being armed and being prepped” especially after these radical elements “killed and displaced” and “destroyed infrastructure” of Sunni areas.

Reports suggest that Sunnis and Sunni tribes in Anbar are not fully unified. An August conference on liberating the western province held in Baghdad ended in a brawl and chair-throwing fight. But the council, which started on February last, year, has finally emerged with all of Anbar’s tribes under one “umbrella” from Sep. 30, according to Dulaimi.

...hard to get Sunnis to join the PMU as they run the risk of being called a sell-out

Michael Pregent, adjunct lecturer on international security at the National Defense University

Despite the development, Iraqi Sunnis lack unified leadership, and face distrust from Baghdad because of the extent to which ISIS has been able to expand in predominantly Sunni areas.

Sunnis also do not trust an Iran-backed Shiite volunteer known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and have long urged Baghdad to recruit more of its population into the army.

While the PMU includes other four brigades which are not made up of Shiites - one Sunni, two Christian groups and a Yazidi, Sunnis are underrepresented despite a proposal by both Haitham al-Mayahi, the U.S.-based director of the international relations office of PMU and former U.S. Army Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Silverman to bring Sunni fighters who defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq. These fighters were also known as the Awakening or al-Sahawat (in Arabic) fighters in late 2006.

In defense, Naim al-Aboudi, a spokesman for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which with other Shiite militias dominate most frontlines, said the volunteer forces belongs “to the Iraqi government,” and it “represents all Iraqis.”

However, Michael Pregent, adjunct lecturer on international security at the National Defense University, told Al Arabiya News that it would be “hard to get Sunnis to join the PMU as they run the risk of being called a sell-out.”

The PMU has faced allegations of human rights abuses in areas captured from ISIS, and there is fear and distrust between Sunnis and Shiites.

On Aug. 10, an ISIS suicide bombing of a Shiite wedding party in the eastern city of Baquba killed 58. Shiite militiamen responded by killing local Sunnis and dumping at least 25 bodies in the city’s river, Reuters reported on Oct. 21, adding that the massacre went unreported in local media.

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Dulaimi said Sunni fighters are “60 percent” armed, “but the weapons we’ve received don’t match [ISIS’s] capability,” and comprise “light arms such as simple rifles.” He added that Baghdad could not fulfil its promises due to a “strained budget.”

The government is facing a budget deficit of about $22 billion, out of a budget of roughly $105 billion, Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said Wednesday.

With crude oil prices more than halved in the past year, Iraq is struggling especially since its fiscal revenues for 2016 are 80 percent dependent on oil.

Baghdad faces the added problem of the PMU at times acting out of its own free will. For example, the shelling of civilian areas when retaking the Sunni city of Tikrit from ISIS was not reported to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

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Baghdad stuck in between

The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is also stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Last month, an Iraqi official told London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that Qassem Soleimani, commander in chief of Iran’s Quds force, was received by a convoy of vehicles, including PMU leader Abu Mehdi Mohandis, in the thoroughfare leading to Baghdad airport without Abadi’s knowledge.

When [Americans] we were there [Iraq]... tribal leaders could call the Americans, and within minutes they’d have helicopters in the air and forces on their way to help... What’s happening now is just support with words only. It doesn’t keep anybody alive

Pregent, who stayed in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 as a U.S. advisor

Mustafa Alani, the director of the National Security and Terrorism Studies Department at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, described the current tribal forces as having a “new formation different than the previous ones which could compensate for al-Sahawat.”

Al-Sahawat forces were dismantled and disarmed after al-Qaeda’s defeat. After heavy U.S. pressure, Baghdad accepted to absorb up to 20 percent of al-Sahawat fighters into the security forces, with others to be given government jobs. However, many complained that they were given menial jobs.

The disarming of al-Sahawat has left Sunni populations vulnerable in a country where militias are growing increasingly powerful.

While al-Sahawat had U.S. backing, “the biggest problem” facing Sunni fighters today is that the Americans “can’t protect them,” said Pregent, who lived in Mosul in a period spanning 2005 to 2006 as an advisor for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

“When we were there... tribal leaders could call the Americans, and within minutes they’d have helicopters in the air and forces on their way to help,” he said. “What’s happening now is just support with words only. It doesn’t keep anybody alive.”

“If Sunnis are allowed back to the Iraqi security forces, and are given rank and pay, you’ll have 30,000 Sunnis going after ISIS,” Pregent said, adding that the problem is a lack of trust between Sunnis and the government.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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