- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

U.S. officials are engaged in a high-stakes push to convince Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in Iraq to cooperate with Baghdad and Washington in the fight against Islamic State extremists, a strategy that sources say could take a year and highlights the need for fighters on the ground.

A State Department official confirmed Wednesday that retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, whom the Obama administration tapped to lead the international effort against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, was en route to the region to begin pushing the strategy.

The plan, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, is to try and recreate the so-called “Sunni Awakening” that saw Iraqi tribal militias take the fight to the Islamic State’s predecessor outfit, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), between 2005 and 2007.

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Creating a new awakening is essential to sustaining gains made by recent U.S.-led airstrikes, according to the sources, who said the effort will involve building a Sunni-dominated provincial guard force that can fight the Islamic State in western Iraq.

News of the strategy comes amid growing concern in U.S. national security circles that airstrikes alone won’t be enough to crush the militant group.

U.S.-led forces carried out more airstrikes Wednesday as Turkey, which shares a border with Syria and Iraq, debated whether it will join Washington and a host of its allies, including several Arab nations surrounding Iraq, in the fight against the extremists.

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Turkey’s parliament is slated to vote Thursday on a motion that would allow foreign military forces, as well as Turkish troops, to make incursions into Syria and Iraq. The vote’s importance seemed underscored Wednesday by signs that Islamic State fighters were regrouping — even gaining ground near the Syria-Turkey border — despite a barrage of airstrikes on the area.

The resilience of the group, also known as ISIL and ISIS, has prompted unease in Washington. The Pentagon has touted the success of the bombing campaign, but also acknowledged that the group still threatens the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, more than 250 miles south of the borders with Syria and Turkey.

Several airstrikes have targeted Islamic State positions near Baghdad over the past two weeks, and Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thursday that Islamic State fighters “continuously pose a threat to the capital city, and we continuously, in concert with the Iraqi security forces, are trying to put them back.”

But the recent failures of those Iraqi forces are at the center of a debate within the Obama administration over how to rebuild the Iraqi military in a way that incorporates Sunni fighters and officers — purged by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad during recent years.

One of the sources, who spoke anonymously with The Times, said the White House believes such a Sunni provincial guard force can be built without deploying U.S. ground troops, who bolstered the original Sunni Awakening during the mid-2000s. But with sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims at their highest levels since then, the source acknowledged that no one in the administration expects the implementation of the strategy to come easily.

The new effort will depend on Washington’s ability to incentivize Sunni sheikhs, who were alienated by the Shiite-dominated government of former Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the years following the awakening — and also felt abandoned by the U.S. following the full withdrawal of American forces in 2011.

“It’s going to be a darned heavy lift to bring them back,” said the source, who has intimate knowledge of the administration’s developing plan. U.S. officials are now “working on tribal live engagement very vigorously,” the source said. “We can’t achieve our objective if the tribes aren’t involved in this.”

With that thinking as a backdrop, the Obama administration is holding out hope Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will embrace the strategy. While Mr. al-Abadi is also Shiite Muslim, he was selected to replaced Mr. al-Maliki in mid-August amid pressure from Washington for Baghdad to form a new government that would pursue more inclusion of Iraq’s Sunnis.

U.S. officials are now banking heavily that Mr. al-Abadi will come through. “One thing he’s acknowledged is that there has to be a different relationship in the future for the Sunnis in order to incentivize them” to join the fight against the Islamic State, said one of the sources who spoke with The Times.

Washington simply has to be able to “portray to them that the political calculus is going to be different under a non-Maliki government,” said the source, who spoke anonymously due to the sensitive nature and timing of the U.S. effort. “Part of the outcome we hope to achieve is that there’s enough reform in Baghdad that an increased sense of sovereignty can be granted to the Sunni provinces in Iraq.”

But making that happen will depend on whether the al-Abadi government is ready to share revenues from Iraq’s oil wealth directly with Sunni provincial leaders without attempting to control what those leaders do with the money.

The State Department said Wednesday that neither former Gen. Allen nor Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, whom the administration recently appointed to serve as the general’s deputy senior envoy, were available for comment.

But in an interview with CNN Wednesday, Gen. Allen expressed hope that Sunni tribes in Iraq can be convinced to band together against the Islamic State.

“There will come the time when ISIS cannot tolerate the tribal structure within ISIS territory, because that tribal structure is in direct opposition to the full exertion of ISIS influence over the population,” the general said.

“ISIS will turn on the tribes as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow,” he said. “The tribes recognize this is a very real way, and I think, within their own capabilities, we are already seeing tribes that are rising up against ISIS.”

Gen. Allen’s remarks dovetail with a strategy paper written recently by a former high-level Sunni Iraqi military officer who was instrumental in creating the original awakening that drove AQI from Iraq’s Anbar province during the mid-2000s.

“Let it be clear that it is Sunnis and Sunnis only who can fight and get rid of ISIS,” states the paper, signed by a small clutch of influential Iraqi expatriates, including the now-Jordan-based former Sunni Iraqi military general Raad al-Hamdani.

But the paper, which has circulated during recent weeks among some national security experts in Washington, also highlights the challenges that lay ahead for U.S. officials — asserting that the U.S. flatly left Sunni tribal leaders in the lurch during the years following the awakening.

Washington has since provided “no solid assurances” to convince them to rise again against the latest threat, states the document, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

The document homes in on grievances among Sunni tribal leaders, claiming that while “Sunnis want nothing less than to get rid of ISIS and their atrocities,” they are also “between a rock and a hard place” in western Iraq.

It also goes on to assert broadly that “the US policy in Iraq in the post invasion era capitulated to the Iranian domination” and that “Iraq was left in a complicated socio-political mess dominated by Shii Islamic Parties with all of its baggage in the form of armed militias and corrupt organizations serving only the Iranian domestic security.”

It’s a sobering accusation, particularly in light of evidence during recent months that the Islamic State’s surge in Iraq has depended heavily on support from more secular Sunni factions in the nation — several of which are believed to be controlled by former Sunni military officers who waged war against Iran as young Iraqi soldiers during the 1980s.

U.S. intelligence officials have told The Times that several such factions, including the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) — a Baath Party loyalist outfit that has been lurking in northern Iraq since shortly after former dictator Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 — are seen to be fighting with, not against, the Islamic State.

Officials have said the factions, which include others such as the Islamic Army in Iraq, may be Islamist in name but are actually ideologically opposed to al Qaeda and have no loyalty toward the recent establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.

The 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Jaysh al-Mujahideen, the Jaysh Muhammad and the Jaysh al-Fatihin are all believed to fit into the category, aligning with the Islamic State only out of shared desire to bring an end to Shiite Muslim dominance over the government in Baghdad.

The involvement of such groups may help to explain why the U.S. intelligence community has increased its estimates on the total number of fighters aligned with the Islamic State movement. A CIA spokesman told The Times this week that the agency believes the Islamic State “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria … an increase from our previous assessment of at least 10,000 fighters.”

The spokesman said the new total “reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity and additional intelligence.”

In light of such factors, the sources who spoke with The Times this week said it remains to be seen whether Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq currently have enough influence to pull a large number of fighters away from the extremists. That is a “challenge point” in the U.S. strategy, one of the sources said.

Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.

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