Washington and Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The heads of prominent Sunni tribes involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq’s Anbar province have welcomed US President Barack Obama’s decision to speed up the support the US is already offering the tribes.
Following a meeting with the National Security Council in Washington, which was attended by CIA Director John Brennan and a number of other top national security advisers, a White House spokesman told AFP Washington would be “accelerating the training and equipping of local tribes” as part of their support for an Iraqi-led operation to retake the city of Ramadi from ISIS.
Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar region, Iraq’s largest province, was captured by the group on Friday, in what was a major defeat for the Baghdad government, amid a complete withdrawal of Iraqi government troops in the face of the ISIS onslaught on the city.
Sunni tribes from Anbar have been at the forefront of efforts to block the advance of ISIS in the province, which has had a presence there since late 2013—even before its stunning capture of Iraq’s second city Mosul, which catapulted the group into the international spotlight.
Reacting to the White House announcement, Rafie Al-Fahdawi, the head of the prominent Albufahd tribe in Anbar, which counts as one of the leading tribal groups fighting ISIS in the province, told Asharq Al-Awsat he welcomed the decision.
“Our fighters were pleased by this decision, and we await its implementation with great eagerness, particular since ISIS fighters are now spreading throughout the Anbar region,” he said.
However, Fahdawi added that “despite our immense happiness with the decision, we wish more than anything that the tribes had been armed before the fall of Ramadi to ISIS’s fighters.”
Sunni tribal militias from the region have long complained of marginalization from Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad, which they say has been more intent on arming the Popular Mobilization forces, a Shi’ite-dominated group of volunteer militias, at the Sunni militias’ expense.
The Sunni groups argue they are the most effective bulwark against the spread of ISIS in Anbar, due to their intimate knowledge of the local terrain and previous experience in helping expel Al-Qaeda from the region in 2007.
They say the Iraqi army is unable to stop the spread of ISIS in Iraq, particularly in Anbar, especially after the fall of Mosul in 2014, when Iraqi troops fled their posts in the face of the ISIS advance.
Commentators from both inside and outside Iraq have drawn parallels between the fall of Ramadi and that of Mosul, and have accused Iraqi government troops stationed at Ramadi’s provincial government complex of capitulating too easily to the extremist group.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Mazhar Al-Malla, a member of the Anbar provincial council, echoed these comparisons, but went even further, claiming the withdrawal in Ramadi was “suspicious.”
“The withdrawal of the army this time was different from its withdrawal in Mosul. Back then the army withdrew due to the strength of the ISIS assault, whereas this time the withdrawal was politically motivated and directed by certain political sides which wanted the army to withdraw and the city to fall to ISIS,” he said.
“This is a conspiracy against Anbar and this is part of a plan to allow the Popular Mobilization to enter, whatever the price—even if the whole province falls to ISIS.”
The Sunni-dominated region has been a hotbed of insurgency since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Anbar tribes were also involved in the US “surge” of 2007 targeting Al-Qaeda in the region, fighting alongside US troops to purge the province of the militants.
Anbar residents as well as local tribal militias have complained, following successive Shi’ite-led governments, of marginalization by Baghdad, with mass protests breaking out in late 2013.
While Washington’s decision seems poised to redress the balance in terms of speeding up support for local Sunni militias, National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey told AFP following the announcement that the decision did not constitute a “formal strategy review” with respect to the tribes.
Washington already trains around 6,000 Sunni tribesmen, who are to be provided with arms and ammunition once they complete training and can rejoin the battle against ISIS.
But the White House has said the latest move is a bid to speed up the support, not to increase it.
Another perennial grievance of the Sunni tribesmen is what they claim is Baghdad’s refusal to deliver the US supplies meant for the tribes. Malla told Asharq Al-Awsat that even in light of the White House’s decision, this still remained a serious issue.
“Despite the US weapons reaching the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s weapons storage facilities since the beginning of last month, they have still not been handed over to the Anbar tribes,” he said.
He added that the US ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, had told him the US was now seeking to set right the balance among the forces battling ISIS in Iraq so that one of the sides does not claim victory at the expense of another.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday, Sheikh Naim Al-Kaoud, the head of another prominent Sunni tribe in Anbar, also said he believed the army’s withdrawal from Ramadi was deliberate.
“There are those who did not wish for the victory against ISIS to be claimed by the Anbar tribes, as it was against Al-Qaeda . . . The tribes are basically fighting a war on two fronts right now: against ISIS on the one, and those other forces who want us to lose this fight on the other,” he said.
Immediately following the fall of Ramadi to ISIS, Premier Abadi called for the Popular Mobilization to head to the city to retake it from the extremist group.
The Shi’ite-dominated militias have been accused by observers and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), of committing atrocities against civilians in areas of Iraq they have liberated from ISIS control.
An HRW report in March said it had photographic and video evidence as well as eyewitness testimony showing the Popular Mobilization forces had burned entire villages and carried out sectarian-motivated mass killings of Sunni civilians in these areas.