Sunni chiefs cru­cial in fight against Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

U.S. of­fi­cials are en­gaged in a high-stakes push to con­vince Sunni Mus­lim tribal lead­ers in Iraq to co­op­er­ate with Bagh­dad and Wash­ing­ton in the fight against Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists, a strat­egy that sources say could take a year and high­lights the need for fight­ers on the ground.

A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial con­firmed Wed­nes­day that re­tired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, whom the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion tapped to lead the in­ter­na­tional ef­fort against the Is­lamic State in both Iraq and Syria, was en route to the re­gion to be­gin push­ing the strat­egy.

The plan, ac­cord­ing to sources who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, is to try and recre­ate the so-called “Sunni Awak­en­ing” that saw Iraqi tribal mili­tias take the fight to the Is­lamic State’s pre­de­ces­sor out­fit, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), be­tween 2005 and 2007.

Cre­at­ing a new awak­en­ing is es­sen­tial to sus­tain­ing gains made by re­cent U.S.-led airstrikes, ac­cord­ing to the sources, who said the ef­fort will in­volve build­ing a Sunni-dom­i­nated provin­cial guard force that can fight the Is­lamic State in western Iraq.

News of the strat­egy comes amid grow­ing con­cern in U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity cir­cles that airstrikes alone won’t be enough to crush the mil­i­tant group.

U.S.-led forces car­ried out more airstrikes Wed­nes­day as Turkey, which shares a bor­der with Syria and Iraq, de­bated whether it will join Wash­ing­ton and a host of its al­lies, in­clud­ing sev­eral Arab na­tions sur­round­ing Iraq, in the fight against the ex­trem­ists.

Turkey’s par­lia­ment is slated to vote Thurs­day on a mo­tion that would al­low for­eign mil­i­tary forces, as well as Turk­ish troops, to make in­cur­sions into Syria and Iraq. The vote’s im­por­tance seemed un­der­scored Wed­nes­day by signs that Is­lamic State fight­ers were re­group­ing — even gain­ing ground near the Syr­i­aTurkey bor­der — de­spite a bar­rage of airstrikes on the area.

The re­silience of the group, also known as ISIL and ISIS, has prompted un­ease in Wash­ing­ton. The Pen­tagon has touted the suc­cess of the bombing cam­paign, but also ac­knowl­edged that the group still threat­ens the Iraqi cap­i­tal of Bagh­dad, more than 250 miles south of the bor­ders with Syria and Turkey.

Sev­eral airstrikes have tar­geted Is­lamic State po­si­tions near Bagh­dad over the past two weeks, and Pen­tagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thurs­day that Is­lamic State fight­ers “con­tin­u­ously pose a threat to the cap­i­tal city, and we con­tin­u­ously, in con­cert with the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, are try­ing to put them back.”

But the re­cent fail­ures of those Iraqi forces are at the cen­ter of a de­bate within the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion over how to re­build the Iraqi mil­i­tary in a way that in­cor­po­rates Sunni fight­ers and of­fi­cers — purged by the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad dur­ing re­cent years.

One of the sources, who spoke anony­mously with The Times, said the White House be­lieves such a Sunni provin­cial guard force can be built with­out de­ploy­ing U.S. ground troops, who bol­stered the orig­i­nal Sunni Awak­en­ing dur­ing the mid-2000s. But with sec­tar­ian ten­sions be­tween Iraq’s Sunni and Shi­ite Mus­lims at their high­est lev­els since then, the source ac­knowl­edged that no one in the ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pects the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the strat­egy to come eas­ily.

The new ef­fort will de­pend on Wash­ing­ton’s abil­ity to in­cen­tivize Sunni sheikhs, who were alien­ated by the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment of for­mer Iraq Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki dur­ing the years fol­low­ing the awak­en­ing — and also felt aban­doned by the U.S. fol­low­ing the full with­drawal of Amer­i­can forces in 2011.

“It’s go­ing to be a darned heavy lift to bring them back,” said the source, who has in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­vel­op­ing plan. U.S. of­fi­cials are now “work­ing on tribal live en­gage­ment very vig­or­ously,” the source said. “We can’t achieve our ob­jec­tive if the tribes aren’t in­volved in this.”

With that think­ing as a back­drop, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is hold­ing out hope Iraq’s new prime min­is­ter, Haider al-Abadi, will embrace the strat­egy. While Mr. al-Abadi is also Shi­ite Mus­lim, he was se­lected to re­placed Mr. al-Ma­liki in mid-Au­gust amid pres­sure from Wash­ing­ton for Bagh­dad to form a new gov­ern­ment that would pur­sue more in­clu­sion of Iraq’s Sun­nis.

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