Sunni chiefs crucial in fight against Islamic State
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.