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Last week, Iraqi Sunni tribes in Anbar Province pledged loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State, also called ISIS. Their timing was stunning. Just hours before, at a press conference in Paris, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken had outlined his support for an acceleration of the United States’ training and equipping those very tribes. But next thing he knew, they were parading in front of cameras in full support of ISIS.
Terrible optics aside, these events should not be misunderstood as a Sunni vote of confidence in the “caliph’s” leadership. Rather, they are a manifestation of the Iraqi government’s continued failures.
This is not the first time that Anbar tribes have been forced to submit to ISIS. Back in October 2014, ill-armed tribal fighters in the town of al-Zwaiha, just east of the Euphrates, were forced to cut a deal with ISIS when their pleas for U.S. support were not treated with sufficient urgency. By the time that General John Allen, who is leading the coalition’s war against ISIS, got the message, al-Zwaiha had been overrun.
Today, Sunni tribes are still not being recruited quickly enough or in sufficient enough numbers. And the West is not arming them well enough to take on ISIS. If the reason were simple inertia, it would be worrying enough. In reality, though, failure is a policy written in Baghdad.
When it comes to the recruitment of Sunnis, there are disturbing similarities between the conflict with ISIS and that with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) a decade earlier. As part of the Anbar Awakening that temporarily crushed AQI, the United States created the Sons of Iraq. This program brought almost 100,000 Sunnis onto the U.S. payroll to fight AQI and to protect the Sunni areas of Baghdad, Diyala, and Saladin from Shiite militia attack.
Baghdad rejected fighters for spurious reasons. If any connection, no matter how tangential, was made to an antigovernment position, the fighter was accused of being a terrorist or Baathist.As the United States wound down its surge and Washington tried to hand over responsibility for the Sons of Iraq to Baghdad, it constantly came up against roadblocks that it was ultimately unable to navigate.
For example, the United States would submit the names of Sunnis for inclusion into the Sons of Iraq and a percentage (around 20 percent, or 20,000) to the Iraqi security forces. Baghdad insisted that each name be vetted by five separate intelligence agencies for any questionable affiliation. The five agencies were the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which the United States set up as the Iraqi equivalent of the CIA and yet has now been disbanded; the Ministry of State for National Security Affairs, which essentially mirrored the intelligence service but had close links to Iran; the Directorate General for Intelligence and Security, which was the equivalent of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency; the Joint Headquarters M2 (Directorate of Intelligence), which was based in the Ministry of Defense; and the National Information and Investigation Agency, based in the Ministry of Interior.
One of the authors of this article spent a year in Iraq in 2007 witnessing the vetting process in action. It was deliberately lengthy for two reasons: to keep the Sons of Iraq out of the armed services and to avoid paying them for their service. Baghdad rejected fighters for spurious reasons. If any connection, no matter how tangential, was made to an antigovernment position, the fighter was accused of being a terrorist or Baathist. As the pool of Sunni fighters who could join the military dwindled, Baghdad filled the ranks with Shiite loyalists.
Those who did get jobs were often handed menial tasks, such as making the tea and acting as janitors. And they were victims of daily harassment by state forces. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government demanded addresses and next-of-kin details for each fighter, ostensibly to pay them. But many believed that the information would be passed on to the militias and security forces, which would use it to target Sunnis.
Washington was ultimately not in a place to address the problem. It carried on paying the Sons of Iraq until 2010. But once Baghdad took control, there was little it could do. In 2011, the Sons of Iraq security initiative was dismantled.
The same chain of events seems to be playing out today. As the Iraqi government undoubtedly assures the United States and its allies that the delays in building a real Sunni force are the fault of the bureaucracy or the Sunnis themselves, the real cause is likely a deliberate ploy to delay the creation of such a force.
The Shiite militias are able to operate with little government oversight. There is no real vetting process for these fighters—relabeled as PMUs—which is just one of the reasons those forces are doing so much of the fighting in Iraq.The Iraqi government does not want to arm the tribes because it fears a future Sunni uprising, concerns that Iran has stoked. The same Iraqis who insisted on lengthy vetting processes before are now warning that a Sunni force should not be created. Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, a leading Shiite militia group within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), and Maliki are likewise warning of the dangers. U.S. Central Command plans to send more advisers and trainers and use existing bases in Anbar to retake Ramadi will also be compromised by Baghdad sending its recruits ahead of the very Sunnis needed to fight ISIS.
In turn, the Sunni tribes are being forced to cut a deal with ISIS or face the terrorist group’s wrath with no protection from Baghdad. When they choose the former option, Baghdad uses it as evidence that the Sunnis’ true allegiances lie with the terrorists, not the Iraqi state.
At the same time, the Shiite militias are able to operate with little government oversight. There is no real vetting process for these fighters—relabeled as PMUs—which is just one of the reasons those forces are doing so much of the fighting in Iraq.
Stopping the ongoing marginalization of the Sunnis matters for Iraq’s future. Only a Sunni force can both defend the areas that ISIS has set its sights on and retake the areas that it currently occupies without a bout of sectarian bloodletting. Iraqi Sunnis will fight for their neighborhoods, have knowledge of the territory, and have earned their stripes when it comes to fighting jihadists (see the Anbar Awakening). The PMUs, on the other hand, will be inclined to defend cities historically important to the Shiites. Even the offensive planned for Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold, can be understood in these terms: it cuts off ISIS’ route to Karbala.
Yet if the Sunnis are not given what they need in terms of weaponry, deals with ISIS—doubtless made under the threat of beheadings and public immolations—will become more common. The Sunnis have little choice.