By Diane L. Maye
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
Recently, after a month-long military operation, the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State in the city of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein and a stronghold for IS forces.
Tikrit’s recapture could not have been accomplished without the help of a popular mobilization movement known as the Hash’d al Shaabi, which consists of primarily Shi’ia paramilitary groups, and coordination from Iranian military advisors from the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. Although they liberated the city, the aftermath of the battle saw looting and lawlessness, which upset the town’s Sunni citizens. Iraqi officials have now set their sights on the much larger and much more complex Anbar province, a vast, predominately Sunni stretch of desert in western Iraq. Yet, liberating Anbar province with the help of the Hash’d al Shaabi could ignite even greater sectarian resistance in the Sunni heartland.
Currently, the Iraqi government intends to build a National Guard, which is designed incorporate Arab Sunnis into the country’s security apparatus and push back the Islamic State. In theory, the National Guard would be funded and trained by members of coalition in opposition to IS, including the United States. Working with the Sunni communities of Iraq is something the U.S. military did before. In 2006, the U.S. actively engaged Sunni tribal leaders and former military officers, which resulted in them switching sides to fight al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). The Sunni Awakening successfully pushed back AQI in Iraq’s western provinces and key Baghdad neighborhoods. Yet, the current plan to arm Sunni Arab tribal forces in Anbar province is beset by completely different political and military circumstances than the Sunni Awakening of eight years ago.
Unlike the Sunni Awakening, this initiative didn’t rise up organically from the people. There are great fears amongst many influential Shi’ia political blocs that creating Sunni paramilitary groups could actually exacerbate the sectarian divide, not alleviate it. Many former Sunni Awakening leaders resent U.S. policy makers and blame the Iraqi government for failing to fully integrate them into the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Army. Furthermore, while the U.S. and other coalition partners have a light cadre of military experts on the ground, without a serious commitment to train and monitor the arming of these groups, many Iraqis fear that the weapons could easily end up back in the hands of terrorist organizations. Coordinating and facilitating the Sunni Awakening was difficult when the Americans had a force of 140,000 on the ground Iraq; without the presence of a neutral body to oversee and coordinate the program, it will be impossible to control the logistics, training and supply of weapons. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, over the past eight years, Iran has become a powerful presence in Iraq. Tehran is likely to put pressure on tribal leaders that join the effort, which could significantly hinder the efforts in this region.
The issue facing policy makers today is that without a serious commitment from the Sunni tribal leaders and Sunni political leaders to fight IS, the Anbar initiative is likely to stall. Yet, arming these groups can create an even bigger problem for the Shiite-led Iraqi government if their alliances change. Over the next several weeks, Prime Minister Abadi will be challenged to make the proper concessions without alienating one side or the other.
Also by Diane Maye: The Islamic State is a Fever
About the Author
Diane Maye is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at George Mason University and an adjunct faculty member at American Military University.