Iraq’s vice-president for reconciliation says air strikes alongside failure to reconcile Shias and Sunnis may drive more tribes to join jihadis
Bombing in Kobani, Syria
From the air, things appear to be going well for the US-led coalition that has dropped more than 1,700 bombs on Islamic State (Isis) targets in Iraq and Syria, scattering the terror group in some areas and slowing its momentum in others.
But the view on the ground tells a different story, officials and tribal leaders in Iraq say. The absence of a political process to accompany the air strikes is instead driving Sunni communities to consider allying with Isis, they claim, especially in sensitive areas around Baghdad.
Iraq’s vice-president for reconciliation, Iyad Allawi, said a lack of a political process between the Shias who dominate the country’s power base, and disenfranchised Sunnis was a “grave mistake” that could mean the air attacks end up achieving little.
“The whole strategy needs to be revisited and readdressed and the international allies should be part of this,” Allawi told the Guardian. “People are asking me what will come after Isis. What would be the destiny of [local] people? Are they going to be accused of supporting or defeating Isis? Would they be accused of being Ba’athists? It is going to be really difficult for them to engage without reconciliation.”
Allawi said the areas surrounding Baghdad – where Isis had made inroads even before the group overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last June – are now increasingly unstable and vulnerable.
“The Baghdad belt demonstrates the lack of strategy and reconciliation. There is widespread ethnic cleansing there, militias are roaming the areas. Scores and scores of people … have been expelled from their areas and they can’t go back because of the dominance of the militias.”
A senior Iraqi official, Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises the government on Isis, agreed. “The areas around Baghdad are suffering from a lot of sectarian violence and the tribes there have started to reflect on the idea of joining Isis. The tribes believe that there are moves to deport them from their lands.”
Samarra to the north of the Iraqi capital and Sunni areas just to the south remain tense and dangerous, despite more than seven months of air strikes that have supported the embattled Iraqi military and the large number of Shia militias that fight alongside it.
Controlling both areas is considered vital to establishing control of Iraq. Two other senior Iraqi officials contacted by the Guardian during the week claim the security forces’ relative control now would fast melt away if tribes threw their weight behind the insurgency.
Tribal leaders themselves echo those fears, insisting deep distrust between them and the government could push some tribes to opt for the clout of Isis over moribund political moves.
“The tribes are divided this time on defending the government, said Anbar-based tribal leader Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Bahari. “We don’t have faith in the government especially because they are mainly dealing with the sheikhs of tribes who fled years ago and are staying in Amman or Dubai for fear of their lives.
“The government didn’t make a mistake once or twice. They kept repeating the same mistake over and over and the government didn’t deliver any of their promises till now. Why would we trust them?
“The situation around Baghdad is fragile. Most of the areas are under Isis. The situation in Abu Ghraib [on Baghdad’s western outskirts] is very fragile and the army will probably lose it in any day.”
Hashimi said the air strikes both in Iraq and Syria were of limited use: “The Americans have used three tactics: creating obstacles and defence; attacking weapons storages and oil refineries to cut Isis finances; and attacking the structure of the organisation. They haven’t done much to the latter and Isis have started adapting to the American strategy which has reduced the damage to them.
“The American advisers … are embarrassed for not delivering their promises to the Sunnis. Relatively speaking, the Americans are losing.”
US officials in Baghdad have spent much of the past three months trying to prevent a further slide away from state control. Officials have rekindled some links with tribal leaders who led a successful counter insurgency at the height of the civil war in 2007 against Isis’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq.
That collaboration was dubbed “the Awakening” and using popular support is again central to plans to drive Isis away from towns and cities it occupies. Washington announced on Friday that it would send 400 troops to train Syrian rebels to fight against Isis.
Now though, Iraqi tribes are resisting taking the lead on another Awakening, believing the last one gave them few long-term benefits. While the revolt did restore tribal control over Anbar province, the toll in blood and treasure was high. More importantly, it did nothing to change the balance of power with Baghdad, which increasingly saw the Sunnis of Anbar as a fifth column – a view that has led some Sunni communities to join the revitalised insurgency.
Isis insiders say the group retains strategic control over the Euphrates valley area, which stretches north-west from Anbar to the Syrian border. In this area, many of the weapons it looted from abandoned Iraqi Army depots last June and from Syrian bases it has also over-run, are stored in small towns and villages.
It has less success, however, in the far north of the country, where Irbil was briefly threatened last summer and where more than 300 of the 900 or more strikes to have been launched inside Iraq have hit.
Across the border in Syria, the Kurdish town of Kobani near the Turkish border has been struck by jets close to 600 times – accounting for the vast majority of attacks in the country. Kobani, however, remains contested between Kurdish militias and Isis, who have lost an estimated 400 fighters trying to seize the town.
“The horror which will come up after liberating areas from Isis is too enormous if we don’t care about what happens next,” said Allawi. “We have to find jobs for these people, by reconstructing the areas, by giving people rights to go back and support their provinces. We shouldn’t create new armed people in the streets.”
Martin Chulov in Beirut
Sunday 18 January 2015 18.06 GMT Last modified on Monday 19 January 2015 00.02 GMT
Additional reporting by Mais al-Baya’a
© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited