Radical Sunni Fighters Are Aided by Local Tribes Who Sympathize With Their Goal to Oust Baghdad Government
The Wall Street Journal
By Matt Bradley in Beirut and Bill Spindle in Amman, Jordan
Radical Sunni fighters, who seized another northern Iraqi city on Monday, are being aided by local tribes who reject the Islamists' extreme ideology but sympathize with their goal of ousting the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The uneasy alliance helps explain how several hundred insurgents from Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, or ISIS, have handily defeated a far larger, better-equipped Iraqi army and come to control about a third of Iraqi territory.
Sunni tribal leaders say mistreatment by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sparked protests and militancy among their ranks that created fertile ground for the al Qaeda offshoot to emerge victorious.
"This is a revolution against the unfairness and marginalization of the past 11 years," said Sheikh Khamis Al Dulaimi, a tribal leader in the Anbar Military Council of Tribal Revolutionaries, a group that has led protests against Mr. Maliki for the past year and a half.
Officials from the U.S. and Iran, which both back the Maliki government, signaled Monday a willingness to work together to halt ISIS's momentum—though with no military coordination, the White House stressed—during talks in Vienna over Tehran's nuclear program.
President Barack Obama formally notified Congress on Monday that he would send up to 275 U.S. military personnel to Baghdad "to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad." Mr. Obama last week also said the U.S. was considering other steps, including airstrikes.
The developments came after the insurgents seized the northwestern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, sparking an outflow of residents. The city was being guarded by a U.S.-trained Iraqi commander who had aimed to amass troops there and mount a counteroffensive to reclaim the city of Mosul from the rebels, said Iraqi military officials.
Last week, as militants advanced from the northern city of Mosul down the Tigris River toward Baghdad, many local Sunnis greeted them as liberators, feted them and cheered in the streets.
But as those insurgents bump against the geographical boundaries where Iraq's Sunnis are a majority, some tribesmen are reconsidering how to handle their allies of convenience. Aside from boasting of a mass execution of its enemies this week, the jihadist fighters have begun enforcing austere Islamic law at gunpoint, Iraqi officials say, in their effort create an Islamic empire, or caliphate, stretching across the boundaries of Syria and Iraq.
The tribesmen worry about Syria next door, where ISIS members are battling other Islamist fighters who are trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"We're terrified of them. They are a problem. But we have to have priorities," said Sheikh Bashar al-Faidhi, a senior member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a relatively moderate group of Sunni leaders that played a prominent role in resisting the U.S. occupation after 2003. "We are going to fight ISIS. But not now."
Although most observers say ISIS fighters played the dominant role in the quick military strikes last week, local Sunni politicians are taking credit for aiding the rebellion, saying the ISIS offensive was only a small part of a larger rebellion against the Maliki government that has been brewing for years.
"We don't deny that ISIS is fighting, but they are not more than 5%," Mr. Dulaimi said. "This is an Iraqi revolution."
Many Iraqi leaders now credit a Sunni-led anti-Maliki protest movement that raged in Iraq's western provinces since December 2011 for laying the groundwork for ISIS's military victories.
The protests, which were largely peaceful, aimed to roll back policies that many Sunnis claimed were discriminatory, such as an antiterrorism law that allowed law enforcement to round up thousands of Sunnis and anti-Baathist legislation that let the government disenfranchise suspected members of the former Sunni-led regime.
The prime minister's office has said that the often harsh measures are necessary to combat a worsening terrorist threat.
The protest movement was led in large part by Sunni tribesmen who say they don't identify with extremist Islam. In some cases, they included military leaders and loyalists of former President Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.
Still, their antipathy for Mr. Maliki's government has led them to support ISIS—at least temporarily.
"For Sunnis on the ground, Maliki is still seen as a bigger threat," said Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political newsletter, and an expert on the Sunni tribal network. "Given how angry so many Sunnis are about the government's policies, it makes more sense to try to own this insurgency than to disown it."
Mr. Faidhi, for example, said ISIS forces are problematic but not one that Sunni resistance fighters should actively confront as long as they are fighting a common enemy. "We're fighting against a regime backed by the United States, Iran and even Russia," Mr. Faidhi said. "The revolutionary resistance has few arms. They are fighting my enemies, as well. So why should I fight them?"
Opposition to ISIS rule could grow as the group settles in and steps up enforcement of its austere version of Islam, Mr. Rabkin said. The group has already announced some rules that are likely to offend even the most conservative Iraqis: Amputations as a punishment for theft, harsh punishments for cigarette smoking and injunctions against shrines and even grave-markers that are common in western Iraq.
But pursuing such lofty goals immediately would be foolhardy, said Mr. Rabkin. After all, the residents of Aleppo, which is Syria's second-biggest city, kicked ISIS out early this year, something he said could be repeated in Iraq. And it was angry residents of western Iraq who turned on al Qaeda-linked forces during the U.S.-backed "Awakening" movement of 2007 and 2008.
For now, Iraq's Sunnis will have to weigh two undesirable options: Life under Mr. Maliki's army or a frightening Islamist militia.
"The Iraqi official channels are exaggerating ISIS's role" in the fighting, said Abdelrazeq Al Shimmari, the head of a anti-Maliki protest group based in western Iraq. "But personally, I would say I'm with any solution with any party that can bring me salvation even if it was the devil."