Baghdad should cooperate with the locals to retake Anbar

Baghdad should cooperate with the locals to retake Anbar
Baghdad’s military strategy needs to be coupled with political concessions to Sunni communities and tribes to recapture Anbar and maintain stability, argues Zana Gul.
5 min read
28 Jul, 2015
Iraqi forces are attempting to recapture Anbar and Fallujah from IS (AFP)

On Sunday, Iraqi government forces recaptured Anbar University from the Islamic State (IS), seizing a key position for any offensive to retake the city. But the recent setbacks across the country tell a different story about the war.

Military advancement is not enough to win over IS. Baghdad's military strategy needs to go hand in hand with inclusive political initiatives with the various ethnic, tribal, and religious communities.

The government's public policy should offer a genuine opportunity for reconciliation between Baghdad and Sunni dominated territories.

In Sunni circles, divisions manifest among various segments, politicians and tribal leaders. Most notably, Iraqis are divided between pro-government and anti-government camps, especially in their power-sharing arrangement with Baghdad.

Conditional support to Baghdad

Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, Head of the Dulaim tribe (one of the largest Sunni tribes in Iraq), who is now based in Erbil, said in an interview on June 6 with Al-Taqhier TV, "we need from Baghdad our rights, dignity and political concessions that includes a Sunni region within federal Iraq, and weapons to fight Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State)".

This appeal echoes the former Governor of Nineveh Atheel al-Nujaifi's statement requesting the devolution of power and the building of an "Arab Sunni Army".

Al-Suleiman claims that unless their demands are fulfilled they are unwilling to take part in military operations to recapture Anbar’s cities.

Similar sentiments have been voiced by concerned Sunni leaders who reject the engagement of  Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha’abi) - an umbrella for Shia-majority militias backed by Iran - to dislodge IS in Sunni areas.

     The government's public policy should offer a genuine opportunity for reconciliation between Baghdad and Sunni dominated territories.

Other Iraqi Sunni tribes such as Abu Nimer, Abu Fahad, al-Ubeid and al-Jabour tribes are fighting alongside the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to liberate Anbar from IS militants. For example, Abed Mutlaq al-Jabbouri, a senior leader in al-Jabour tribe said, "this situation has imposed a new reality: everyone is fighting IS. There are no Sunnis, no Shias. We are all sons of Iraq".

However, the grievances popular among Sunni groups catalysed by years of marginalisation, side-lining of their legitimate demands and leaders, and unfulfilled promises especially during former Prime Minster al-Maliki’s tenure are shared with the majority of Sunnis.

Despite PM Abadi’s efforts for national reconciliation, Baghdad still needs deeper engagement with locals that can reassure them that their legitimate demands will materialise.

This engagement process includes the decentralisation and transfer of power to locals, expediting supplies of weapons to Sunni tribes, fighting corruption, containing sectarian rhetoric and reconfiguring the welfare system to avoid discrimination of Sunnis.

This will build trust between Baghdad and Anbar’s population including other Sunni territories, to liberate the cities from IS and control them in an effective and sustainable manenr.

A comprehensive military strategy could expel IS but it is not a remedy for the long-standing Sunni discontent towards the Shia-led government that has been aggravated since 2003.

Anbar operation

Currently, Baghdad’s operations in Anbar have decelerated. Meanwhile, IS militants have further entrenched their defenses and the number of explosions have increased in Baghdad. Before Iraq’s announcement of the Anbar offensive two weeks ago, Iraqis were in disarray on which city should be retaken first.

     Despite PM Abadi’s efforts for national reconciliation, Baghdad still needs deeper engagement with locals that can reassure them that their legitimate demands will materialise.

The US pushed the Iraqi government to recapture Ramadi (Anbar’s capital), which fell to IS in May. But, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) vowed to liberate Fallujah, which had fallen to IS in January 2014.

Nevertheless, the Shia militias began their operation pounding then surrounding Fallujah to chop up IS supply lines. They viewed it as an immediate and strategic threat to Baghdad.

The PMF, supported by Iran, were left behind in the Anbar offensive, where the US-led coalition airstrikes have been intensive.

Iraqi soldiers, federal police forces and counterterrorism units (Counter Terrorism Service) surrounded Ramadi over the last month in preparation for the offensive. For the first time, 3000 Iraqi forces (two brigades) trained by the US-led coalition and 500 Sunni tribes joined the operation.

It is estimated that between 1000 and 2000 IS fighters are situated in Ramadi. The US advisors in Anbar province who are situated in two military airbases, Ain al-Assad and al-Taqaddum, have trained the Sunni recruits.

Al-Taqaddum, 15 miles east of Ramadi, houses 450 advisors who were allocated to support the Anbar offensive. These forces are from around 3600 US military advisors across Iraq. The US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Baghdad on July 23 and met Iraqi officials focused on assessing the ISF and the Sunni recruits in the Anbar operation.

Carter also met with Sunni leaders, which illustrates the significance of the operation and encouragement for Sunni involvement.

Last week, the first four of thirty-six F16 fighter jets, purchased by Iraq, were delivered by the US. These warplanes belong to the Iraqi Air Force that will be utilised in the Anbar offensive against IS.

The fighter jets will elevate Iraq’s Air Force capabilities as they have been dependent on Russian-made second-hand Sukhoi jets. But the new aircrafts are not expected to cause military breakthroughs in the war.

The long and daunting fight to retake Ramadi and Fallujah reflects the various military challenges at hand. IS militants have had time to plant booby traps and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), appoint snipers and dig trenches.

In Anbar, according to the Iraqi Displacement Tracking Matrix, 250,000 individuals fled Ramadi since April and 75,000 from Falluja since July. A considerable number of civilians remain in the aforementioned cities. For example, approximately 50,000 remain in Falluja where IS closed main roads out of town preventing locals from leaving.

The war against IS is also political

There are two major military operations against IS in Iraq with – at least on the surface – different political and military alliances. A momentous offensive on both cities is anticipated in the forthcoming weeks. The Anbar operation is a new test for Abadi’s government and its military strategies. Retaking Anbar will compensate for the devastating loss of morale with the key city of Ramadi two months ago.

All long-term military possibilities, gains, and losses depend on Iraqi locals. Reaching out to the locals will secure long-term stability that exclusively-military strategy can hardly achieve.

Zana Gul is a PhD candidate in the Politics Department at the University of Sheffield, researching Iraq’s politics, security and foreign relations. He has years of work experience with Kurdistan Regional Government. Twitter handle: @ZanaGul1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.