In early March, Baghdad started a push to retake the historic city of Tikrit, located in the center of the so-called Sunni triangle, from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This is a critical first offensive in what will be a larger campaign to wrest territorial control of the Sunni heartland—the Anbar and nearby Nineveh provinces—from ISIS. Some Americans must be feeling a sense of déjà vu; the U.S. military tried something similar as part of the 2006­–07 Arab Sunni Awakening. Then, as now, counterterrorism operations combined with efforts to win Sunni hearts and minds required the tough, tedious work of offering the right guarantees and incentives to “flip” key leaders of the Iraqi Sunni tribal region away from the terrorists in their midst.

Still, it would be foolish to assume that Iraqi’s Sunni tribal terrain has remained unchanged since the United States helped to empower the Sons of Iraq to rise up against al Qaeda, ISIS’ predecessor. There is no quick fix to the problem of ISIS in Iraq, particularly given the real changes on the ground over the past few years. Although the battle for Tikrit may be an initial salvo, the Iraqi government forces should not rush from a victory there to Mosul, their apparent next stop in the campaign. Although defeating ISIS in Mosul would deal a decisive blow to the militant group’s envisioned caliphate, the Mosul offensive should wait until Baghdad has achieved greater progress laying the political groundwork with new local Sunni leaders.  

SAHWA, 2.0

Iraq’s central government faces even worse terrain and stronger headwinds than the United States military did during the Arab Sunni Awakening.

First, the former Sons of Iraq have lost much of their appeal within their community, discredited by their association with the government of former Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki and its oppressive rule in Sunni areas. Prominent sheikhs from Iraqi tribes, including Ahmad Abu Risha, Hamad al-Hayis, and Wissam al-Hardan, still organize themselves under the “Sahwa” (Awakening) label. Yet because these particular Iraqi Sunni leaders are less credible within their community, even if they were to denounce ISIS now, they very well could be unsuccessful in bringing along the public.

It is therefore surprising that the Iraqi central government, urged on by the coalition against ISIS, is courting these very same leaders to form the backbone of the first Iraqi National Guard corps—Prime minister Haidar al-Abadi’s plan to mobilize some 50,000 Sunni tribesmen to serve in a Sunni-led security alternative for the region. These Sunni fighters will serve under the authority and command of provincial governors who answer directly to Baghdad. In short, they will function as the local security branch of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Policymakers in Washington familiar with the American National Guard model have seized upon this idea. It is critical that Iraqi and U.S. leaders eager to field such contingents recognize that the composition of the force matters, including which Sunnis participate. The force will fail if it is composed of weak Sunni leaders who are discredited in their community.

The United States and the coalition can help the government of Iraq identify more credible Sunni leaders who are capable of rallying their people against ISIS. This may mean that Baghdad will have to accept some local leaders who served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein. There are some individuals who were professional soldiers at the time, rather than core members of the Ba’ath regime, but whom Iraqi officials have blacklisted as unacceptable allies in the fight against the ISIS. Other potential Sunni allies may include clerics and political activists who are conservative but do not support ISIS’ violent Salafist ideology.

In short, the Iraqi government will have to be creative in its search for a new generation of Iraqi Sunni partners as it engages this region, which has been marginalized over the years by Baghdad’s Shia (and Sunni) elite. The litmus test for partnership with Baghdad should rest on Sunni leaders’ political positions: Those who accept the notion of a pluralistic, territorially-unified Iraq and renounce violence should be considered allies in the work of stitching together the Sunni heartland with the rest of Iraq. Persuading these leaders to reject jihadists and to place their trust in the central government will require material, tangible incentives on issues such as federal revenue sharing, a greater commitment to human rights protections for local Sunnis, and new social and economic opportunities for the region.


Any effort to manufacture a “Re-Awakening” must also take into account the circumstances surrounding the Iraqi Sunni armed revolt of 2011–13 to defend Anbar against the excessive violence of the ISF. In 2011, peaceful protestors took to the streets across Anbar, criticizing the Maliki government for economically and politically disenfranchising Sunni communities. Quickly, these relatively benign demonstrations spiraled into an armed uprising, one that ISIS has subsequently exploited. As ISIS advanced through Anbar in June 2014, many forgot the drama of this underlying conflict. Indeed, for over a year Iraqis fought Iraqis and the ISF attacked heavily populated cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, destroying civilian areas and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

This is why today’s proposal to recruit Sunnis must include guarantees from Baghdad on the rule-of-law and security sector reform. Measures in these areas can help to reassure the Sunni community that the human rights abuses of the Maliki era, which overwhelmingly victimized Sunnis, do not repeat themselves under the current Abadi government and future ones in Baghdad.

The recent round of violence, for which Baghdad holds much responsibility, is also the reason that the effort to recruit Sunnis into the ISF in order to fight ISIS is so ambitious and will take so much time. Even the most optimistic estimates of the number of Sunnis who have signed up to receive coalition training to fight with the ISF number less than 1,000 fighters. (Likewise, the notion that 50,000 vetted Sunni National Guardsman can be found in short order to serve in the Anbar region seems aspirational.) Sunnis are distrustful of the ISF­—and will remain so for a long time.

Nonetheless, those U.S. and coalition leaders hoping to retrain and improve the ISF’s capabilities should continue recruiting Sunnis in order to build a multi-sectarian force. Even if such recruitment is hard, if the ranks of the ISF, including the four units that are currently being constituted and trained by the coalition, are too heavily Shia, they will ultimately fail in their ability to defend a unified, multi-sectarian Iraq.


The third shift in Iraqi politics is a result of the second. Under Maliki, Iranian influence grew as did Iran’s physical presence in Iraq in the form of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and al-Quds forces. Today, the success of the ISF training, including the National Guard proposal, will ultimately rest on whether the Iraqi Sunni leaders in Anbar and nearby provinces perceive Baghdad as willing to act independently from Tehran. Iraqi Sunni leaders may tolerate ISIS if it is viewed as the lesser evil compared to a government that is seen as a puppet of Tehran and if the ISF is considered linked inextricably to Iranian-backed Shia militias. Abadi, although he comes from the same secretive, pro-Iranian Dawa party as Maliki, seems more willing than his predecessor to preside over a nationalist, multi-sectarian government that represents all Iraqis. Iraq’s preeminent Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has given Abadi cover as well, suggesting that Iraqi Shia are Arabs and Iraqis and will chart their own path.  

Still, the ISIS advance in Iraq in 2014 helped to justify the presence of—and therefore empower—the IRGC and al-Quds forces. Since then, these forces have grown more involved operationally in the fight against Iraqi jihadists, as demonstrated by their key role fighting alongside the ISF in Tikrit this week. Therefore, in the eyes of Sunnis, Baghdad’s policy is paradoxical: Although Abadi seems to genuinely want independence from Iran as he rebuilds an Iraqi political culture that is open to Sunnis, Kurds, and others, operationally, the Shiite militias working in Iraq have grown more powerful.

If the Shia political elite in Baghdad genuinely believe that the new Sunni political partners are necessary for achieving long-lasting and sustainable peace in Iraq, they will have to distance themselves from Iran, in words and deeds. They will have to rein in the Iranian-trained Shia militias by either deactivating them or integrating them into the ISF, subordinate these fighters to the general command structure.


In 2006–07, U.S. military and Iraqi leaders offered the right combination of backing and support as Sunni leaders decided to officially join the fight against the jihadists as part of the Awakening. Today, the fight against ISIS in Iraq is a more local affair—run by Iraqis in Baghdad with support from an international coalition, friends who can express their views but are not ultimately occupying the country. Success will therefore depend on the willingness of Sunnis in Anbar and nearby provinces to make brave decisions, and on the willingness of Abadi and his government to reassure these populations that they will not again be marginalized or victimized by the security forces.

Although responsibility for engaging Sunnis will primarily fall on Baghdad, how the United States wields its leverage will be key. Its proper role is to apply strong, consistent pressure on the Abadi government to make clear that Iraq’s future depends on the active political inclusion of its Sunni population. The moment of maximal U.S. leverage is now or, more precisely, it was last fall, when the United States began flying sorties over Iraqi airspace to target ISIS. As the U.S. military continues to offer critical support in the fight against ISIS and U.S. diplomats mobilize an international coalition to support Baghdad with financial assistance and security training, U.S. policymakers must seize the moment.

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  • DAFNA H. RAND is Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. NICHOLAS A. HERAS is Middle East Security Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security.
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