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An opening for Iraq's Shiite militias?

Summary: The fall of Ramadi on May 17 was a major setback in the fight against ISIS.

The fall of Ramadi on May 17 was a major setback in the fight against ISIS. But the combined failure of the army, the police and the Sahwa (Awakening) forces to defend the city has pushed the local government in Anbar and an increasingly greater number of tribal leaders to request Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to authorize the Popular Mobilization Forces to retake the city. This step might signal a shift from the previous division among Sunni leaders about whether or not the Popular Mobilization should play a role in securing Sunni territories -- particularly in Ramadi.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (Al-Hashd al-Shaabi) committed massive violations in Tikrit after regaining control of the city on March 31, 2015. The Salahuddin Provincial Council accused Shiite fighters of looting and burning homes and buildings in Tikrit and of preventing the council from entering the city. Tikrit was subjected to the control of Shiite militias for several days until Abadi ordered their withdrawal, and some Sunni tribes now fear the Popular Mobilization Forces will commit similar violations in other cities. This has led to disagreements with other tribes, many of which are eager to rely on the Popular Mobilization to get rid of ISIS. These disagreements have exacerbated national divides on how to develop a strategy for fighting ISIS.

In mid-April, just hours after most of the Popular Mobilization Forces withdrew from their main stronghold in the Sufia region, east of Ramadi city center, toward the adjacent Habbaniya Base -- ISIS launched attacks on several areas in the city and its outskirts. Following this, the security forces and tribal fighters withdrew from the region, and ISIS seized the city on May 17.

Prior to Ramadi's fall, there had been no agreement among political and tribal leaders on a clear plan to combat ISIS in Anbar province. This was mainly due to divisions among local tribes on whether to rely on the Popular Mobilization Forces to defeat ISIS, even though these same militias had previously participated in fighting in other cities in Anbar -- without committing any subsequent violations -- such as in Al-Karma district (40 kilometers west of Baghdad), Nahiya al-Baghdadi (110 kilometers west of Ramadi), and the Al-Assad Base, where hundreds of U.S. advisers reside.

But aside from Sunni tribal divisions, Abadi must balance other conflicting perspectives. The United States is refusing to get involved if the Popular Mobilization Forces are not withdrawn from Ramadi, fearing that the forces' participation will trigger a slide toward sectarian fighting. For their part, Popular Mobilization leaders insist they do not need authorization to enter Ramadi and fight ISIS -- which they believe the Iraqi army and security forces are unable to confront alone. Meanwhile, Shiite political forces still oppose the prime minister's efforts to arm Sunni tribes and use them alongside the security forces.

The challenges of arming Sunni tribes are a key part in this debate. For example, the Iraqi government -- in particular the Defense Ministry, which oversees the Popular Mobilization as a U.S. precondition for allowing alliance aircraft to participate in Anbar battles -- claims corruption is a major obstacle to arming Sunni tribes, and alleges that tribes resell weapons to ISIS. Already, weapons the U.S. provides to the Iraqi government easily find their way to Shiite militias instead of being appropriately distributed among all parties. This imbalance has led to complaints from Sunni tribes and politicians that they are not receiving enough money or arms. They believe the problem is not a lack of men -- which the assistance of the Popular Mobilization Forces would alleviate -- but a lack of arms.

Meanwhile, the failure to create a Sunni National Guard and arm local tribes perpetuates the feeling among Anbar tribes that the central government lacks confidence in them. In late April, parliament discussed a U.S.-backed draft resolution that would treat the Kurdish forces and the Sunni tribes as two independent countries in terms of receiving direct U.S. aid, stop aid to Shiite militias and withhold a part of the aid provided to the central government if the draft law to create a National Guard Force was not ratified. The Sunnis and the Kurds welcomed the draft resolution, while the Shiites rejected it, believing it would lead to the division of the country. This prompted Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians to walk out of the session. The Salam Brigades, affiliated with current Sadrist leader Moqtada al-Sadr, even threatened to target U.S. interests in Iraq and the region in response to this "divisive project."

Together with recent abuses in Tikrit and the ill-treatment of the families of Sahwa force members who recently fled toward the capital, these developments have increased local resentment in Anbar. This has boosted the appeal of ISIS in the regions it controls and enabled it to take advantage of these crimes to promote the idea that it is protecting the Sunni community from Shiite militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. ISIS succeeded in taking advantage of the divisions among tribes, obtaining pledges from some tribal leaders to fight alongside the group -- or at the very least to remain neutral.

Even among tribes opposed to ISIS, demands have emerged "to reject the involvement of Popular Mobilization factions in the operations to liberate Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha, and Al-Qaim" and the need to involve alliance aircraft, including U.S. and Arab forces, to fight ISIS. The majority of tribal sheikhs residing in Irbil or Amman, who do not receive government aid, reject involving the Popular Mobilization in the Ramadi battles -- even after the city fell to ISIS. They believe the province is not in need of outside fighters due to the large number of volunteers from Anbar. In contrast, the major tribes of Fallujah, which are defending the district of Amiriya Fallujah, have called multiple times for involving the Popular Mobilization Forces to lift the siege from the city and stop ISIS bombing.

Tribal leaders who oppose the involvement of the Popular Mobilization forces do so on grounds that their involvement would preclude U.S. involvement in the future, should they need it. Meanwhile, Popular Mobilization leaders are calling on Anbar tribes to exert pressure on Abadi, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to give orders to bring their forces to Anbar. And the Albu Fahd tribe, one of the largest in Ramadi, authorized Abadi to make such a decision.

Prior to the fall of the city, these internal divisions within Anbar were obstructing an agreement on a clear plan to confront ISIS -- with or without the involvement of the Popular Mobilization Forces. The tribes' diverging agendas and their complex relationships with the United States, the federal and local governments, and the Popular Mobilization leadership played an important role in promoting these divisions. However, the fall of Ramadi may help persuade local governments, tribal leaders (including Sahwa leaders), and Sunni politicians to allow the Popular Mobilization Forces to play a role in future fights against ISIS. After all, they have no choice -- given that the United States has yet to arm Sunni tribes, and the government has yet to create a national guard capable of mobilizing and training Sunnis to fight ISIS.

Raed El-Hamed is an Iraqi researcher. This commentary, translated from the Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:May 25, 2015
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