Basra and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants advance on Baghdad on Friday, Iraq’s Sunnis are participating on both sides of the battle despite almost universal anger towards Shi’ite Prime Minster Nuri Al-Maliki.
Factions of Iraqi Sunnis, particularly those in the east of the country, have taken up arms against the Maliki government over what they perceive as Baghdad’s sectarian policies. Some Sunni Arab tribesmen are fighting directly alongside ISIS, while others are using the militant group’s advance to target the government.
Iraqi Sunnis in the south of the country, where ISIS has yet to secure a foothold, have so far remained relatively impartial in this conflict, but are becoming increasingly involved as the militant group advances. On Friday, local and international media were reporting that the Sunni Islamist militant group is besieging the town of Al-Mansuriya, in Iraq’s eastern Diyala governorate, less than one hour’s drive from the capital.
Iraqi Sunnis in Basra—a Shi’ite majority town in southern Iraq—are increasingly joining government forces in to help repel the ISIS advance, Asharq Al-Awsat has learned.
Basra governor Majid Al-Nasrawi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The local government in Basra has opened schools, playgrounds and seminaries as training centers for volunteers from the governorate to join the security forces.”
Nasrawi said that a total of 70,000 residents of Basra, a majority Shi’ite city, have volunteered to join militias and security forces fighting ISIS.
“We have already sent the first batch of volunteers to fight ISIS in flashpoint areas of Iraq. The second batch will be made up of 3,000 volunteers who will receive training and then be deployed to protect this governorate and its vital installations as part of the Basra Brigade,” the governor said.
Sheikh Mohammed Al-Jubouri, director of the Sunni Endowment Diwan in southern Iraq, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “more than 500 Sunnis have volunteered to fight ISIS in Basra,” adding that he expects this number to rise to more than 5,000 over the coming period. The Sunni Endowment Diwan, part of Iraq’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, has been calling on Sunnis to unite behind the central government and against ISIS.
“There is a great desire among Sunnis in Basra to join the army and police forces to defend their homeland and purge it of terrorism,” Al-Jubouri said.
But thousands of other Iraqi Sunnis are already fighting against the central government—if not precisely on the same side as ISIS, not directly opposing the militant group, either.
Abu Abdul Na’imi, a spokesman for the Tribal Revolutionaries in Iraq, told Asharq Al-Awsat on Thursday evening that Sunni fighters are closing in on the capital Baghdad from more than one direction. The Tribal Revolutionaries in Iraq is a coalition of Sunni Arab tribes, mostly from central and western provinces, who are fighting against the government.
“We are now on the outskirts of Baghdad, near Abu Ghraib. We have fighters deploying inside the capital. Our fighters will enter Baghdad from two directions, Salaheddin [in the north] and Abu Ghraib [in the west],” he said. “We are just waiting for the final decision on ‘zero hour’ to enter Baghdad.”
Al-Na’imi confirmed that the Tribal Revolutionaries in Iraq are fighting alongside ISIS, but stressed that it is the Iraqi tribes that are in control of the situation, not the militant group. ISIS fighters represent “just 9 percent in some areas, but we are in complete control.”
“The Baiji oil refinery and the town itself are under the control of the tribal revolutionaries,” he added, rejecting international media reports that ISIS was in control of the refinery there.
“Iraqi tribal revolutionaries, together with former senior Iraqi army officers, a large number of its [the army’s] affiliates and factions of resistance that fought against the US occupation, are the ones who are carrying out these military operations.
“Our aim is to enter Baghdad and bring down the Maliki government and put him on trial, together with everyone involved in the killing of Iraqis and sabotaging Iraq. We will set up a national salvation government to establish security and re-write the constitution.”
Reporting by Fares Al-Sharifi from Basra and Maad Fayad from London.