Key tribal leaders from Iraq’s Sunni Arab population say U.S. officials have failed to work with them in the fight against the Islamic State and assert that Russia is now increasingly eager to fill the void — even inviting influential sheikhs to visit Moscow and air their grievances.
While the Obama administration admits its push for a “Sunni Awakening 2.0” to break the Islamic State’s hold on Iraq has gone more slowly than hoped, the claims made by five separate Sunni tribal sheikhs in interviews with The Washington Times paint a far bleaker picture, one in which Washington appears to have bungled a chance to recreate an approach that worked against the terrorists in the past.
“The Americans are not connecting with the most important tribal leaders,” said Sheikh Sabah Almahlawi, a leader of the Albu Mahal tribe, which played a central role in the first “awakening” during the mid-2000s.
Many tribal leaders key to the first Sunni uprising were assassinated when American forces left Iraq between 2008 and 2014, and the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — rose to the fore. But Sheikh Almahlawi says there are still a lot of influential sheikhs out there who want to work with the U.S.
U.S. officials, however, have put the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, in the lead on relations with the Sunni tribes — a move that has outraged many tribal leaders, who claim Iranian influence is so strong in Baghdad that Mr. al-Abadi is politically incapable of extending a truly inclusive hand to the Sunnis.
“The only way the U.S. is reaching out to us is through the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government is actually targeting our people with Shiite militias,” said Sheikh Almahlawi. “If the Americans don’t do more to open up and work with the right sheikhs, the war against Daesh will be a complete failure.”
He spoke with The Times from Amman, Jordan, where several high-level tribal leaders are operating together, but say they’re effectively being ignored by Washington.
That’s where the Russians have increasingly sought to gain a foothold, according to Sheikh Jamal al-Dhari, another Amman-based tribal leader who said in an interview that “if the U.S. is willing to give up [on us], then there are others wanting to fill those shoes.”
Russians fill the void
Moscow is increasingly engaged in the war against Islamic State. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far focused most of his efforts in Syria, he is also playing a delicate balancing act between Iran and Iraq.
Mr. Putin visited Tehran on Monday for talks with Iranian leaders that reportedly focused on the Syrian side of the crisis and an international peace plan intended to end the conflict.
What remains to be seen is how Iraq’s Sunnis might fit into the Russian president’s plans.
Sheikh al-Dhari said that he accepted an invitation late this summer to Moscow, where Russian Foreign Ministry officials made it clear to him that “winning over Iraq’s Sunnis is very important to them.”
He said he believes the Russians reached out because he is the chairman of Peace Ambassadors for Iraq, an international nonprofit group involving several influential Sunni sheikhs.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
But Sheikh al-Dhari said Moscow has recently reached out to other key Amman-based sheikhs, including Sheikh Zaydan al-Jabiri, who heads the political wing of the Sunni Tribal Revolutionary Council and wields significant influence around the city of Ramadi, which has been under Islamic State control since May.
The Russians, according to Sheikh al-Dhari, are eagerly trying to arrange a major conference in Moscow to include several tribal groups in the coming months.
A date has not yet been set, but the sheikh said he believes the conference will happen because, “at the end of the day, people are desperate and looking for a strong man to kind of lead the way.”
“When you’re drowning, you’re going to grab onto anything to keep you afloat,” he said. “We have been waiting for the American salvation and the ship to save us for years now, and we are just running out of patience.”
Publicly, U.S. officials say efforts to recruit and train Sunni tribal fighters against Islamic State are progressing, albeit slowly, with a total of 7,000 tribesmen enrolled over the past year in a program run by the al-Abadi government.
State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee said U.S. officials “constantly have conversations with Iraqis from across the political spectrum, at the local and national level, including with many Sunni tribes in Anbar,” adding that the “one constant we have heard is that Iraqis are determined to rise to this challenge, and what they want is our help.”
“It is essential that Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum continue to work together in a manner that puts the interest of unifying the country ahead of individual interests,” Mr. Lavallee said. “That political effort will be very important to ensuring that, in the midst of the violence Iraq is facing, the country does not regress in a direction along sectarian lines.”
But behind the scenes, officials say they are unsurprised by the claims coming from tribal leaders in Amman.
“I would not doubt that some are being heavily recruited by Moscow, but it is hard for me to see how these Sunni sheikhs could cozy up to Moscow when [the Russians] are working with Iran,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the situation.
“We are willing to work with any of the Sunni tribes, and we work very effectively with many of them, but a base starting point has to be accepting the democratic process in Iraq,” the official added. “There are many sheikhs who have decided to live outside of Iraq and mostly work to undermine the system rather than live in Iraq and work through the system.”
But a former senior Obama administration official, who also requested anonymity and was directly involved in the effort to court Sunni tribes, said U.S. officials are “not aggressively engaging enough with the sheikhs in Amman.”
“We have to listen to them and channel their concerns into action that can be taken,” the former official said, noting that, in 2007, the Amman sheikhs helped turn thousands of tribal fighters against al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni-based jihadi movement.
But that was a different time. There were far more U.S. resources on the ground inside Iraq than today, including more than 100,000 American troops and U.S. jets providing heavy air support to back up the tribal fighters.
Part of the problem this time around, the former official said, is that Sunni sheikhs “both inside and outside Iraq had this vision that it was going to be just like it was in 2007, with [the Americans] running around with a suitcase of money trying to get everybody to turn against al Qaeda.”
“Well, it didn’t materialize that way. What happened the last time created this expectation, and it’s screwed us this time around.”
The real problem, the Sunni sheikhs say, is that Washington isn’t even willing to pay them lip service.
“We’re all in Amman, and we’re all willing to meet with the U.S.,” said Sheikh Raad Alhawi, a tribal leader from north of Baghdad, who claims the tribal leaders now working with the al-Abadi government “represent less than 3 percent” of Sunnis in Iraq.
Sheikh Hamed Alalwani, also in Amman, added that the Americans are working with people who “have no effect on the ground.”
“We’ve said we’ll give you our people and fighters to fight ISIS, but we refuse to be under the leadership and guidance of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense,” he said. “They’re trying to put us under the wing of command of Iraqi military, which is polluted by Iranian influence.”
Several of the Amman-based sheikhs came together for a unity conference in Doha, Qatar, in September.
According to Sheikh al-Dahri, a white paper drafted during the conference outlined how Sunni tribes work again under the Iraqi government. “This paper was actually submitted to Prime Minister al-Abadi, and now two months have gone by, and al-Abadi has not even answered or acknowledged it,” he said.
Sheikh al-Dahri claims that he personally gave daily briefings to a group of U.S. official who hung around the periphery of the Doha meeting but did not participate in it directly. “The Americans viewed our paper favorably, I think, but they have done nothing to back it up, and this is one reason we are disappointed,” he said.
But the sheikh was unable to provide a copy of the paper, and not everyone agrees with his version of what occurred in Doha.
U.S. officials were dismayed that sheikhs participating in the conference refuse to publicly condemn Islamic State.
“How is it that they could have a meeting like that, all about the future of the Sunni sect in Iraq, and not issue a statement condemning Daesh and all it’s done?” asked the former U.S. official who spoke anonymously with The Times. “That would have been a way to get a strong thing going with the central government, and we told them that going into this thing.
“Well, they said, ‘We want to [get rid of] Daesh, but we want a concession from the central government before we condemn Daesh,’” the former official said. “What you’ve got to look for in this crowd are these Baathists with Saddam-era ties. All they want to do is ultimately displace the Shiite government in Iraq. And these guys bitching about it in Doha without having a real program for what they want isn’t going to make it happen.”
Sheikh Almahlawi pushed back against that characterization: “We’re not interested in trying to overthrow the government. Absolutely not,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get Iran and the Iranian influence out of Iraq. We’re trying to get a shared government that everyone can get involved in.”
Sheikh Mahmoud Alazzawi, representing the Alazzawi tribe, one of Iraq’s biggest, agreed, saying that “the Iraqi government is not only controlled by Iran, but even the Sunnis participating in the government — in order to get the position they hold right now, they’ve had to actually fly to Tehran to get the Iranian government’s blessing to be in those positions.”