Dis­placed Sun­nis brace to join fight for Mo­sul Iraq strug­gling to over­come sec­tar­ian ten­sions

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Still limp­ing four months af­ter an Is­lamic State fighter fired a bul­let into his leg, teenager Mustafa Muhammed says he and his fel­low Sunni tribes­men are ready to join an of­fen­sive against the mil­i­tants in their strong­hold of Mo­sul. Sit­ting in a truck in a camp where they live as refugees from the ji­hadists, dozens of young men - part of a force of hun­dreds of tribes­men - will soon head to the front­lines.

There they will face an en­emy which seized con­trol of their lands around Mo­sul two years ago, and whose fighters they know as fear­less and highly un­pre­dictable. “Daesh is never scared. They want to die be­cause they be­lieve they will be mar­tyrs,” said Muhammed. “That’s why they come to bat­tle strapped with sui­cide belts.” Daesh is the Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State, which con­trols large parts of neigh­bor­ing Syria and swept through north­ern and western Iraq in 2014.

Since then Iraq’s Shi­ite-led government has tried to en­cour­age Sunni tribes­men to join the fight against the ul­tra-hard­line Sunni group. But deep distrust be­tween the coun­try’s two dom­i­nant sects, which flared into civil war af­ter the US-led in­va­sion in 2003, pre­vented any mean­ing­ful co­op­er­a­tion. Sun­nis, who dom­i­nated Iraq un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein, ac­cuse Shi­ite leaders of marginal­iz­ing them through sec­tar­ian poli­cies, al­le­ga­tions Bagh­dad’s Shi­ite-led government de­nies. The scene at the Debaga camp sug­gests that a shared ha­tred for Is­lamic State means that - at least for now - Sun­nis are ready to over­come sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions and join the government’s fight against a com­mon en­emy.

That may not last for long af­ter the Mo­sul cam­paign, ex­pected to be the most com­plex mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in Iraq since a US-led in­va­sion top­pled Sad­dam in 2003. The loy­alty of the teenagers in Debaga is ex­pressed not for their coun­try, a com­plex and com­bustible mix of Shi­ites, Sun­nis, Kurds, Yazidis and Chris­tians, but for a Sunni tribal leader named Sheikh Faris Ab­dul­lah. He and other Sunni tribes­men fought Al-Qaeda dur­ing the US oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq, un­der an Amer­i­can-backed ini­tia­tive that proved highly suc­cess­ful, all but wip­ing out al Qaeda in Iraq be­tween 2007 and 2009.

But the mil­i­tants re­grouped un­der the ban­ner of Is­lamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi de­clared a caliphate from the pul­pit of a Mo­sul mosque in 2014. When the group be­gan or­der­ing ex­e­cu­tions and be­head­ings of op­po­nents, Faris es­tab­lished a new Sunni fight­ing force to op­pose it. His fighters took on the group, hop­ing to re­cap­ture towns and vil­lages, and con­tin­u­ing even af­ter an Is­lamic State sniper killed Faris dur­ing an op­er­a­tion in a vil­lage in the Mo­sul area. “We will win the war against Daesh. Af­ter that Sun­nis should rule them­selves in their own re­gion,” said Alaa Ahmed, one of the fighters, in mil­i­tary fa­tigues.

As flies swarmed around the dis­placed and young chil­dren walked bare­foot on sand and gravel, some of the fighters smoked cig­a­rettes to pass the time. Oth­ers stood in chat­ting in al­ley­ways. Debaga, a sprawl­ing camp of mainly pre­fab­ri­cated houses with cor­ru­gated iron roofs, lies on the out­skirts of Er­bil, about 75 km east of Mo­sul. Sheikh Al-Muq­dad Ab­dul­lah, Faris’s son, now leads the force and is op­ti­mistic about the chances of de­feat­ing Is­lamic State in Mo­sul and even build­ing a new sense of unity in Iraq. He said he was en­cour­aged by re­cent gains made by the Iraqi army and Kur­dish fighters against the ji­hadists, which in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say have rigged bombs across Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond largest city.

The fighters say they have re­ceived ba­sic mil­i­tary train­ing from the US-led coali­tion, in­clud­ing how to han­dle AK-47 as­sault ri­fles and iden­tify im­pro­vised bombs. The driver of the truck car­ry­ing tribes­men held up a phone and showed a pho­to­graph of him­self with an AK-47 stand­ing over the torched corpse of an Is­lamic State fighter. “We will win and there will be all kinds of re­forms so that Sun­nis have a voice,” he said. Asked how he had pre­pared his young tribes­men for Is­lamic State tac­tics, he said: “I tell them that a box of cig­a­rettes just like this one could be placed some­where. As soon as you touch it, it could blow up and kill you.” — Reuters

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