The Iraqi Government Doesn’t Give a Damn About Anbar Province
Baghdad must aid Sunnis if it wants to defeat Islamic State
The capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, is by far Iraq’s biggest defeat fighting Islamic State this year.
Local police and Anbari Sunni tribal fighters had long complained that Baghdad wasn’t keeping promises to support them. Islamic State forces laid siege to Ramadi for months, culminating in a May 17 triple suicide bombing and ground assault on the Anbar Operations Command headquarters in the city center.
Fleeing Iraqi army troops abandoned American-made equipment including several tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces. Islamic State carried out on-the-spot executions of suspected Sunni tribal fighters.
On May 19, the National Forces Union, a bloc of Sunni political parties in parliament, issued a statement blaming the government and calling for an investigation into the fall of Ramadi. It’s not in the end of the war by any means, but it’s still a catastrophe.
Baghdad’s immediate solution is to send thousands of Shia militiamen into Anbar, further escalating tensions. Many Anbaris — opposed to Islamic State and fearful of Shia militias — have fled to land controlled by the Kurds rather than Baghdad.
The refugees all seem to say the same thing. Baghdad just doesn’t give a fuck about Anbar. It’s hard to walk away with any other conclusion.
When Islamic State fighters began seizing large swathes of Iraq in 2014, Anbari tribal fighters were among the first to resist them. But the Shia-dominated central government ignored the Sunni fighters’ pleas for reinforcements. Support came late and did little to prevent the fall of Fallujah.
It wasn’t until the fall of Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — that Baghdad got serious about fighting Islamic State.
Islamic State is a Sunni extremist group which demands everyone submit to its authority. Kurdish forces, the Iraqi Army, Shia militias and a hodgepodge of minority militia groups have more or less banded together to fight back.
Building support among Sunnis is key to defeating the terror group. Shia fighters are less likely to risk their lives for Sunni territory. Even more important is holding territory after capturing it … without pissing off the local population by burning their homes or stealing their stuff.
Shia and Kurds make up a large proportion of Iraqi troops on the front lines. But Sunni Arabs have resisted Islamic State by providing intelligence or disrupting their rule in other ways.
Last year, we interviewed Amsha Ali, one of thousands of Yezidi women enslaved by Islamic State. She escaped with the help of a Sunni Arab man in Mosul who hid her from militants until a Kurdish driver could move her to Peshmerga lines.
It goes without saying that defying Islamic State is extremely dangerous, no matter your religion or ethnicity. During the battle of Rabia last autumn, the group executed several Sunni tribesmen. The villagers had acted as scouts for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
Other Sunni Arabs have taken a more active role in the war. They’ve fought against Islamic State in both central Iraq and the northern Ninevah plains — sometimes inside militant-controlled territory.
Verifiable information on Sunni resistance fighters in and around Islamic State-occupied Mosul is scarce. But there’s long been reports of Sunni fighters carrying out arson, ambushes and sniper attacks on militants and infrastructure in the city.
In January, Iraqi Vice Pres. Osama Al Nujaifi confirmed the existence of “Mosul Liberation Battalions” in an interview with NBC. He said that resistance fighters carried out 300 attacks against Islamic State in Mosul and Nineveh province. The battalions are decentralized, making it harder for Islamic State to hunt down and eradicate their members.
On May 11, a group calling itself the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement told Kurdish reporters it killed a senior militant leader named Abu Doua Souri in eastern Mosul. They claimed Souri was in charge of both training camps and car bomb factories in the city.
“We have successfully carried out attacks during the last month and killed a number of prominent IS members,” Mohammed Al Ba’aj, a member of the group told Kurdish news outlet BasNews.
In January, McClatchy News Agency reporter Mitch Prothero embedded with a band of Sunni fighters at a farm house in the Ninevah plains beyond the Kurdish front lines in the north.
Most of the men are former soldiers or police officers who reorganized after their comrades fled Mosul.
The fighters said they had no support from Baghdad. Their relationship with the Peshmerga was only slightly better. Kurdish troops came to their aid when Islamic State attacked with tanks — but they provided no weapons or ammunition.
The Peshmerga may have been willing to help save them, but they didn’t trust them. There’s a lot of bitterness left over from the oppressive years of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated and genocidal Ba’athist regime.
Islamic State has many other ethnic groups in its ranks besides Arabs — including Kurdish Sunni militants. Nevertheless, Sunni Arab refugees in the north have increasingly faced discrimination and violence — and accusations of being terrorists in disguise.
Shortly after Kurdish forces liberated Mount Sinjar, Peshmerga leaders investigated allegations that Yezidi militiamen attacked a Sunni Arab village as they looked for their missing women. Ironically, the village was near Rabia — the same place Islamic State killed local Sunnis for helping Kurds.
In January, an American volunteer fighter with the Iraqi Christian militia Dwekh Nawsha told us that Sunni Arab fighters shouldn’t get any weapons or support.
He alleged most Sunni Arabs are either cowards or collaborators, and that military aid should go to Christian and Kurdish groups instead.
But refusing to ally with Sunni groups is a good way to lose the war. In August, Peshmerga Gen. Abdulla Musla Boor told War Is Boring he believed moderate Sunni Arab groups needed more support to disrupt the militants’ operations.
Several other Peshmerga officers told us they believe the Iraqi army can only secure Sunni Arab lands with the help of Sunni Arab allies. They are uniquely positioned to help gain the trust and cooperation of the local population.
During the battle of Jalawla, Kurdish forces worked with members of the Sunni Arab Karawe tribe to gather intelligence and track militants. It was a seemingly unlikely alliance. The Karawe came to Jalawla as part of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign to change northern Iraq’s demographics in the 1980s.
But the Islamic State’s brutality caused a rift in the tribe. Some joined Islamic State while others sided with the Kurds. Sheikh Hwandi, the leader of the Karawe tribe, refused to support the militants. He ended up losing his legs in an Islamic State assassination attempt.
Today, Jalawla is in ruins and most of its residents — both Kurdish and Arab — live in refugee camps around nearby Khanaqin. Local leaders are in talks to form an integrated security force of local Kurds and Arabs to police and protect the town whenever they return.
It’s worth mentioning that many Sunnis from Jalawla reside in camps administered by the central government, which were formerly run by the Kurds. Some residents claim that since the switch, services had become unreliable.
As a result, they said they’re willing to live under Kurdish rule — but they don’t trust Baghdad.
The Kurdish Regional Government has allowed an army of refugees loyal to Ninevah province’s exiled Sunni Arab governor Atheel Al Nujaifi to train in Kurdistan. Sunni Arabs are the largest group in the volunteer army, but Kurds, Shias, Yezidis and Christians are also members.
“For me, it’s not a problem to fight Daesh now and retake Mosul, but how to keep Mosul without problems after the liberation,” Nujaifi told us in an interview. “We think Daesh cannot stay any more, and will leave even if there is a small fight. But the source of the problems are still there.”
“Daesh didn’t come from nothing,” he added. “It came from sectarian problems from when [the Iraqi government] didn’t give the Sunnis any power in the new regime in Iraq.”
Like many other Sunni groups, the Moslawis have struggled to find weapons. They bought several on the Kurdish black market, and Nujaifi said the Turkish government has agreed to help arm them.
Now they’re waiting for Iraqi forces — currently bogged down in the south — to arrive. Nujaifi wants Baghdad to recognize his fledgling force as part of the Iraqi National Guard, and to place them in charge of protecting Mosul after the army drives Islamic State out.
“When the Sunni fight Daesh, it won’t just be a military fight, they will fight Daesh militarily and ideologically,” Nujaifi said. “And also, they will give hope to people that the Sunnis will be a real partner in Iraq.”
But now Baghdad has once again failed to reinforce Sunni forces in Anbar. This could further slow the march on Mosul and complicate the war effort. And the situation was already pretty messy.
The recent battle for Tikrit in central Iraq progressed slowly and with heavy casualties. Iraqi army, Shia militia and regime-allied Sunni fighters all clashed with Islamic State militants during the battle.
But many Shia militiamen and Iraqi army troops burned and looted Sunni homes … and administered extrajudicial killings after Islamic State fled. This can only help strengthen the militants’ support base.