Sunnis need aid to fight Islamic State

Anyone who wants to understand how the Islamic State can be rolled back needs to heed the message of two Sunni Arabs who visited Washington last week.

I’m not referring to the Saudi crown prince and his deputy, who came to seek assurances from President Barack Obama that he’s not cozying up to Tehran. (When it comes to ousting the Islamic State, the Saudis are as much a part of the problem as they are part of the solution.)

Rather, I’m referring to two prominent Iraqi politicians who came to warn that the Islamic State can’t be defeated unless Washington helps Iraqi Sunnis who want to drive the jihadis out.

One of the visitors was Rafe al-Issawi, an urbane, English-speaking physician who was once Iraq’s respected finance minister. But the previous prime minister, the sectarian Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, had Issawi’s bodyguards arrested in 2012 and started investigating him on bogus terrorism charges. Under Maliki, thousands of Sunni civilians were imprisoned.

The Maliki government “intimidated and exiled all Sunni leaders” who wanted to participate in Iraqi politics, Issawi told me. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is a far more conciliatory Shiite leader, he continued, but is unable to get the charges against Issawi dropped because of opposition by powerful Shiite militias.

“They are squeezing Sunnis to extremism,” Issawi said.

I heard similar complaints from Atheel al-Nujaifi. He was the elected governor of Iraq’s Nineveh province until the Islamic State invaded in June and captured its largest city, Mosul. Many Sunnis initially welcomed the Islamic State as preferable to the Maliki government, Nujaifi told me, in Erbil, Kurdistan, to which he fled after the Islamic State takeover.

Most of those Sunnis are now fed up, he added. However, they will only rise up against the Islamic State if they believe they have a future in Iraq.

“If we want to get people involved, we must give them hope for some change,” he said, in a message he repeated in Washington. “Sunnis must see that things won’t return to the way they were before June 10.”

So the first prerequisite for a rebellion against the Islamic State is to assure Sunnis that they have a political future in Iraq. Nujaifi said Sunnis now want autonomy for provinces such as Anbar and Nineveh, where they comprise most of the population, something authorized by the Iraqi constitution but which they previously opposed.

The second prerequisite, equally important, is to help Sunni tribesmen who want to fight the Islamic State in Anbar and Nineveh, but complain they aren’t getting sufficient weapons and training. Here, despite the modest U.S. military presence, Americans have a critical role to play.

“Maliki and Abadi have refused to give weapons to Sunni tribes,” Issawi complains, but have given Shiite militias “more heavy weapons than the army.”

He is particularly critical of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of Shiite militias, some of whom are well-organized fighting forces backed by Iran. (Other less controversial PMF units consist of volunteers who answered the call of senior Shiite clerics when the Islamic State was threatening Baghdad.).

Issawi fears that, with Iran’s help, the Tehran-backed militias aim to create an Iraqi version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has become the backbone of Iran’s military forces. The head of the IRGC’s Quds force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, has frequently appeared in Iraq at the side of Shiite militia commanders.

“Is Soleimani the most powerful general in Iraq?” I queried Issawi. “Do you have any doubt?” he quickly replied.

The role of the Shiite militias – and their relationship to anti-Islamic State Sunnis tribes – will be especially important in Anbar, the next battlefield in the fight against the Islamic State (the much-heralded fight to take back Mosul probably won’t happen this year).

Sunni leaders are fearful about Shiite militias entering Anbar, given their previous track record of seizing or destroying Sunni property and land. Rather than use militias to fight the Islamic State, Issawi wants the Iraqi parliament to create national guard units that would fight at the provincial level, under the aegis of the Iraqi army. But, given strong Shiite opposition, the legislation is stalled.

Meantime, U.S. officials are urging the tribes to provide around 7,500 men for training by U.S. and other coalition officers at bases in Anbar. The tribal fighters would then be considered a Sunni arm of the PMF until the day – if it ever comes – when the national guard is approved.

A thousand of Issawi’s fellow Albu Eissa tribesman have already entered this program, but he says “the training in Anbar is not serious.” He says the Sunni fighters either get no arms or else weapons too light to battle against the heavily armed the Islamic State. He also says there is no clear mission or command structure. The still-broken Iraqi army has very little presence in Anbar.

This raises the question of whether such a scattered Sunni tribal force can make headway against the Islamic State in Anbar, and what the administration can do to improve the odds.

U.S. officials have pledged air and intel support to the Sunnis, and say they won’t provide such help to Shiite militias backed by Iran. However, U.S. weapons support will go primarily to the Iraqi army, not the Sunni tribal forces. It’s unlikely that the Iraqi government will give Sunnis the weapons they need.

Unless Washington can pressure Baghdad to provide Sunnis with heftier military and political support, it’s hard to see them pushing the Islamic State out of Anbar and Mosul. And if the Sunnis don’t do it, it’s hard to see who else will.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email her at: trubin@phillynews.com.