Moscow seen as be­ing ea­ger to fill the void in bat­tle against the Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Key tribal lead­ers from Iraq’s Sunni Arab pop­u­la­tion say U.S. of­fi­cials have failed to work with them in the fight against the Is­lamic State and as­sert that Rus­sia is now in­creas­ingly ea­ger to fill the void — even invit­ing in­flu­en­tial sheikhs to visit Moscow and air their griev­ances.

While the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ad­mits its push for a “Sunni Awak­en­ing 2.0” to break the Is­lamic State’s hold on Iraq has gone more slowly than hoped, the claims made by five sep­a­rate Sunni tribal sheikhs in in­ter­views with The Wash­ing­ton Times paint a far bleaker pic­ture, one in which Wash­ing­ton ap­pears to have bun­gled a chance to re-cre­ate an ap­proach that worked against the ter­ror­ists in the past.

“The Amer­i­cans are not con­nect­ing with the most im­por­tant tribal lead­ers,” said Sheikh Sabah Almahlawi, a leader of the Albu Ma­hal tribe, which played a cen­tral role in the first “awak­en­ing” dur­ing the mid-2000s.

Many tribal lead­ers key to the first Sunni up­ris­ing were as­sas­si­nated when Amer­i­can forces left Iraq be­tween 2008 and 2014, and the Is­lamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — rose to the fore. But Sheikh Almahlawi says there are still a lot of in­flu­en­tial sheikhs out there who want to work with the U.S.

U.S. of­fi­cials, how­ever, have put the gov­ern­ment of Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, a Shi­ite, in the lead on re­la­tions with the Sunni tribes — a move that has out­raged many tribal lead­ers, who claim Ira­nian in­flu­ence is so strong in Bagh­dad that Mr. al-Abadi is po­lit­i­cally in­ca­pable of ex­tend­ing a truly in­clu­sive hand to the Sun­nis.

“The only way the U.S. is reach­ing out to us is through the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment is ac­tu­ally tar­get­ing our peo­ple with Shi­ite mili­tias,” said Sheikh Almahlawi. “If the Amer­i­cans don’t do more to open up and work with the right sheikhs, the war against Daesh will be a com­plete fail­ure.”

He spoke with The Times from Am­man, Jor­dan, where sev­eral high-level tribal lead­ers are op­er­at­ing to­gether, but say they’re ef­fec­tively be­ing ig­nored by Wash­ing­ton.

That’s where the Rus­sians have in­creas­ingly sought to gain a foothold, ac­cord­ing to Sheikh Ja­mal al-Dhari, an­other Am­man­based tribal leader who said in an in­ter­view that “if the U.S. is will­ing to give up [on us], then there are oth­ers want­ing to fill those shoes.”

Rus­sians fill the void

Moscow is in­creas­ingly en­gaged in the war against Is­lamic State. While Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has so far fo­cused most of his ef­forts in Syria, he is also play­ing a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act be­tween Iran and Iraq.

Mr. Putin vis­ited Tehran on Mon­day for talks with Ira­nian lead­ers that re­port­edly fo­cused on the Syr­ian side of the cri­sis and an in­ter­na­tional peace plan in­tended to end the con­flict.

What re­mains to be seen is how Iraq’s Sun­nis might fit into the Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s plans.

Sheikh al-Dhari said that he ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion late this sum­mer to Moscow, where Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry of­fi­cials made it clear to him that “win­ning over Iraq’s Sun­nis is very im­por­tant to them.”

He said he be­lieves the Rus­sians reached out be­cause he is the chair­man of Peace Am­bas­sadors for Iraq, an in­ter­na­tional non­profit group in­volv­ing sev­eral in­flu­en­tial Sunni sheikhs.

The Rus­sian Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

But Sheikh al-Dhari said Moscow has re­cently reached out to other key Am­man­based sheikhs, in­clud­ing Sheikh Zay­dan al-Jabiri, who heads the po­lit­i­cal wing of the Sunni Tribal Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Coun­cil and wields sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence around the city of Ra­madi, which has been un­der Is­lamic State con­trol since May.

The Rus­sians, ac­cord­ing to Sheikh alDhari, are ea­gerly try­ing to ar­range a ma­jor con­fer­ence in Moscow to in­clude sev­eral tribal groups in the com­ing months.

A date has not yet been set, but the sheikh said he be­lieves the con­fer­ence will hap­pen be­cause, “at the end of the day, peo­ple are des­per­ate and look­ing for a strong man to kind of lead the way.”

“When you’re drown­ing, you’re go­ing to grab onto any­thing to keep you afloat,” he said. “We have been wait­ing for the Amer­i­can sal­va­tion and the ship to save us for years now, and we are just run­ning out of pa­tience.”

Pub­licly, U.S. of­fi­cials say ef­forts to re­cruit and train Sunni tribal fight­ers against Is­lamic State are pro­gress­ing, al­beit slowly, with a to­tal of 7,000 tribes­men en­rolled over the past year in a pro­gram run by the al-Abadi gov­ern­ment.

State Depart­ment spokesman Michael Lavallee said U.S. of­fi­cials “con­stantly have con­ver­sa­tions with Iraqis from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, at the lo­cal and na­tional level, in­clud­ing with many Sunni tribes in An­bar,” adding that the “one con­stant we have heard is that Iraqis are de­ter­mined to rise to this chal­lenge, and what they want is our help.”

“It is es­sen­tial that Iraqi lead­ers from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum con­tinue to work to­gether in a man­ner that puts the in­ter­est of uni­fy­ing the coun­try ahead of in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests,” Mr. Lavallee said. “That po­lit­i­cal ef­fort will be very im­por­tant to en­sur­ing that, in the midst of the violence Iraq is fac­ing, the coun­try does not regress in a di­rec­tion along sec­tar­ian lines.”

But be­hind the scenes, of­fi­cials say they are un­sur­prised by the claims com­ing from tribal lead­ers in Am­man.

“I would not doubt that some are be­ing heav­ily re­cruited by Moscow, but it is hard for me to see how th­ese Sunni sheikhs could cozy up to Moscow when [the Rus­sians] are work­ing with Iran,” said one of­fi­cial, who re­quested anonymity to speak freely about the sit­u­a­tion.

“We are will­ing to work with any of the Sunni tribes, and we work very ef­fec­tively with many of them, but a base start­ing point has to be ac­cept­ing the demo­cratic process in Iraq,” the of­fi­cial added. “There are many sheikhs who have de­cided to live out­side of Iraq and mostly work to un­der­mine the sys­tem rather than live in Iraq and work through the sys­tem.”

Buta for­mer se­nior Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who also re­quested anonymity and was di­rectly in­volved in the ef­fort to court Sunni tribes, said U.S. of­fi­cials are “not ag­gres­sively en­gag­ing enough with the sheikhs in Am­man.”

“We have to lis­ten to them and chan­nel their con­cerns into ac­tion that can be taken,” the for­mer of­fi­cial said, not­ing that, in 2007, the Am­man sheikhs helped turn thou­sands of tribal fight­ers against al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni-based ji­hadi move­ment.

But that was a dif­fer­ent time. There were far more U.S. re­sources on the ground in­side Iraq than to­day, in­clud­ing more than 100,000 Amer­i­can troops and U.S. jets pro­vid­ing heavy air sup­port to back up the tribal fight­ers.

Clash­ing vi­sions

Part of the prob­lem this time around, the for­mer of­fi­cial said, is that Sunni sheikhs “both in­side and out­side Iraq had this vi­sion that it was go­ing to be just like it was in 2007, with [the Amer­i­cans] run­ning around with a suit­case of money try­ing to get ev­ery­body to turn against al Qaeda.”

“Well, it didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize that way. What hap­pened the last time cre­ated this ex­pec­ta­tion, and it’s screwed us this time around.”

The real prob­lem, the Sunni sheikhs say, is that Wash­ing­ton isn’t even will­ing to pay them lip ser­vice.

“We’re all in Am­man, and we’re all will­ing to meet with the U.S.,” said Sheikh Raad Alhawi, a tribal leader from north of Bagh­dad, who claims the tribal lead­ers now work­ing with the al-Abadi gov­ern­ment “rep­re­sent less than 3 per­cent” of Sun­nis in Iraq.

Sheikh Hamed Alal­wani, also in Am­man, added that the Amer­i­cans are work­ing with peo­ple who “have no ef­fect on the ground.”

“We’ve said we’ll give you our peo­ple and fight­ers to fight ISIS, but we refuse to be un­der the lead­er­ship and guidance of the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and the Iraqi Min­istry of De­fense,” he said. “They’re try­ing to put us un­der the wing of com­mand of Iraqi mil­i­tary, which is pol­luted by Ira­nian in­flu­ence.”

Sev­eral of the Am­man-based sheikhs came to­gether for a unity con­fer­ence in Doha, Qatar, in Septem­ber.

Ac­cord­ing to Sheikh al-Dahri, a white pa­per drafted dur­ing the con­fer­ence out­lined how Sunni tribes work again un­der the Iraqi gov­ern­ment. “This pa­per was ac­tu­ally sub­mit­ted to Prime Min­is­ter alAbadi, and now two months have gone by, and al-Abadi has not even an­swered or ac­knowl­edged it,” he said.

Sheikh al-Dahri claims that he per­son­ally gave daily brief­ings to a group of U.S. of­fi­cial who hung around the pe­riph­ery of the Doha meet­ing but did not par­tic­i­pate in it di­rectly. “The Amer­i­cans viewed our pa­per fa­vor­ably, I think, but they have done noth­ing to back it up, and this is one rea­son we are dis­ap­pointed,” he said.

But the sheikh was un­able to pro­vide a copy of the pa­per, and not ev­ery­one agrees with his version of what occurred in Doha.

U.S. of­fi­cials were dis­mayed that sheikhs par­tic­i­pat­ing in the con­fer­ence refuse to pub­licly con­demn Is­lamic State.

“How is it that they could have a meet­ing like that, all about the fu­ture of the Sunni sect in Iraq, and not is­sue a state­ment con­demn­ing Daesh and all it’s done?” asked the for­mer U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke anony­mously with The Times. “That would have been a way to get a strong thing go­ing with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, and we told them that go­ing into this thing.

“Well, they said, ‘We want to [get rid of] Daesh, but we want a con­ces­sion from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment be­fore we con­demn Daesh,’” the for­mer of­fi­cial said. “What you’ve got to look for in this crowd are th­ese Baathists with Sad­dam-era ties. All they want to do is ul­ti­mately dis­place the Shi­ite gov­ern­ment in Iraq. … And th­ese guys bitch­ing about it in Doha with­out hav­ing a real pro­gram for what they want isn’t go­ing to make it hap­pen.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Iraqi se­cu­rity forces backed by al­lied Sunni vol­un­teer tribal fight­ers re­gain con­trol of Tamim dis­trict in southern Ra­madi. Sunni Tribal lead­ers from Iraq’s Sunni Arab pop­u­la­tion say U.S. of­fi­cials have failed to work with them in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

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