Iraq's Sunni tribes: Once bitten, twice shy

Iraq's Sunni tribes: Once bitten, twice shy
Winning over Sunni tribes in the fight against IS is hampered by brutal retribution and past deceits.
5 min read
07 November, 2014
Iraqi tribes are reticent to believe Washington's promises [Getty]

The kidnapping and disappearance of hundreds of men and boys from a central Iraqi town is the most recent attack by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) against those Sunni tribes resisting their hegemony.  

Around 500 members of the Jabouri tribe in al Alam, near Tikrit, are reported to have been detained by IS since the weekend after a group of young men tore down the militant group's black flag from the town square.

This comes on the back of a series of massacres against IS' Sunni opponents, including the recent killings of more than 300 members of the Al-Bu Nimr tribe.

The bloody confrontations between IS and those Sunni tribes who stand against them have their roots in the quagmire of Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003 and the later governments of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"We are seeing a new copy of the Sahwa - but the situation is different now. The tribes are not united against IS like they were before," said Maki Naxzal, a journalist and analyst from Fallujah currently living in Jordan.

The Sahwa was a 2005 US-led effort to use Sunni tribes in Anbar province to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) - the precursor to the Islamic State group - as well as to counter other armed groups fighting the occupation.

    We betrayed the promises we made to those tribal players.
- Ali Khudairi

AQI flourished in post-invasion Iraq, emboldened by the dismantling and dissolution of both the state and the security services. The political power vacuum, sectarian violence and growing resentment to a foreign occupation all emboldened the militia.

While the Sahwa was largely successful in beating back AQI, Washington largely managed to isolate and marginalise the very groups who who had been co-opted to fight al-Qaeda. We are now witnessing the fallout from these policies, as IS consolidates its power over most of Anbar province.

Betrayed promises

"We betrayed the promises we made to those tribal players. We said: 'Turn your guns away from us, turn them towards al-Qaeda, let's fight al-Qaeda together - and in return we will provide you full American sovereign guarantees that we will reintegrate you into Iraq's political process,'" reflected Ali Khudairi, the longest-serving member of the US administration in Iraq, in a recent interview with the BBC World Service.

The promised reintegration never materialised and Washington, reportedly in agreement with Iran, accepted the contentious victory of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the 2010 elections. This feeling of deception fed into the reticence to join the fight against IS now evident among Sunni tribes.

The Associated Press reports that just 5,000 of an estimated 30-40,000-strong tribal population are backing the Baghdad government.

"There is a great feeling of having been sold out among the Sunni tribes. They tell me: 'We were the ones who defeated al-Qaeda and we got nothing, we were not even incorporated into the army,'" said Saad Jawad, an Iraqi fellow at the Middle East Centre in the London School of Economics.

The security services built under the Maliki governments since 2006 were widely thought to be riddled with corruption, clientelism and sectarianism. This weakened the state's ability to stand up to IS on two fronts.

First, the armed forces were filled with unmotivated and opportunistic officers and soldiers - as evident by their routing in Mosul. Second, military violence and extortion were exercised against the Sunni community - and this has again reinforced the reluctance among the majority of tribes to ally themselves with the government.

Among the marginalised Sunni fighters were experienced cadres of the former Iraqi armed services. Sidelined from any kind of participation in the post-Saddam era, many of them are now the leading figures in the Islamic State group's military campaign that has taken control of huge swathes of the country.

Wooing the tribes

Maliki was eventually forced from office this summer, with his deeply divisive leadership becoming increasingly unsustainable. His successor, Haidar al-Abadi, has promised to create a more inclusive government and is trying to win over Sunni leaders still suspicious of the Baghdad government.

    You cannot correct all of these years of neglect and oppression in a couple of months.
- Saad Jawaad, LSE

"We are ready for your requests for weapons and ammunition," he told tribal leaders in a recent televised address. The prime minister has been holding reconciliation meetings with elders in a bid to convince them of his integrity. His challenges, however, are plenty.

"You cannot correct all of these years of neglect and oppression in a couple of months. The people need to see real change on the ground," said LSE's Saad Jawaad.

In the wake of the Al-Bu Nimr massacre, one of the leaders within the community complained that their requests for arms and support had fallen on deaf ears and they were hung out to dry. Their defeat reiterated to any potential Sunni opponents the military prowess and unforgiving retribution of IS as well as the perceived fickleness of support from the Baghdad government.

"The new Sunni defence minister, from Mosul, will have to give the political guarantees, logistical support, money and arms to persuade the tribes that there is a united 'one Iraq' approach rather than sectarian 'politics as usual'. This won't be easy," said James Denselow, a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

Foreign hands

The success or failure of the attempts to incorporate the Sunni tribes into a united political and security solution will to a large degree depend on whatever agreement can be reached by the US and Iran.

A cornerstone of the US administration's plan for Iraq is to train 20,000 Iraqi troops and incorporate Sunni tribes into a new national guard - but the US won't incorporate the tribes until the Iranian backed government agrees to arm them substantially. 

The deal they reach over Iraq will be heavily influenced by the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme. Securing a result on this is the centrepiece of Obama's foreign policy and as such will weigh heavily on the fate of the Sunni tribes deliberating where to lay their loyalties in a critically divided Iraq.