Skip to main content

Iraq's Sunni tribes feel deserted after Ramadi fall

Iraq's tribal leaders in Anbar province complain of the lack of government backing in the fight against IS militants in their region
Iraqi Sunni fighters from the Jubur tribe rest after defeating Islamic State group (IS) in the village of Sharween in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, on 27 January, 2015 (AFP)

They were always seen as the key to defeating the militants in their bastions but the fall of Ramadi has deepened the distrust that Iraq's Sunni tribes feel towards the government.

Many tribal leaders in Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, said they would continue to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, not for the sake of a government they say never offered them adequate support, but because they have no other choice.

"The fall of Ramadi is a disaster," said Salah Hassan al-Nada, a tribal leader from Awja, near the northern city of Tikrit, who moved to Kurdistan when IS established its grip on Sunni areas last year.

"Ramadi truly was a model," he said, in reference to the force of tribal fighters called "Sahwat" (Awakening) that emerged a decade ago to battle previous incarnations of IS.

"They are the ones who fought them and kicked them out of Ramadi and brought normal life back to the city," he said.

The force spread to several parts of Iraq to reach a strength of around 50,000 men initially paid directly by the United States.

Responsibility was transferred to the Iraqi government in 2008 and the outfit was eventually disbanded after relations soured over former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's failure to deliver on promises to integrate the Sahwat in the army.

His successor Haider al-Abadi has only just begun to rekindle the Sahwat under a different and more controlled format, by incorporating them into the Shiite-dominated Hashed al-Shaabi organisation that serves as an umbrella for volunteers and militias.

In 2014, the remnants of the militant groups the tribes had successfully fought returned as the most violent organisation in modern militancy, and this time with more ambitious goals than insurgency warfare.

As IS seized territory and proclaimed a "caliphate" that has drawn thousands of foreigners but also been seen by some Iraqis as a lesser evil than sectarian Shiite rule, the tribes that did oppose the militants felt they were not getting nearly enough backing.

"The tribes of Anbar did not fail facing Daesh, it's the government that failed because it fears that arming the tribes will turn against it," Anbar tribal sheikh Omar al-Alwani said, using an Arab acronym for IS.

He argued that the tribes could have defeated IS without the Hashed had they been provided heavier weaponry.

Political solution

Victoria Fontan, a professor at American University Duhok Kurdistan, said trust will be difficult to rebuild without a political solution.

"Morale is now very low among the Sunnis after what happened in Ramadi," she said.

The Shiite-dominated government is blaming Anbaris for not mobilising en masse against IS.

"However, it is difficult for Sunnis to actually support the government against IS, since the government has been dropping barrel bombs on them," Fontan said.

The previous government carried out air raids, mainly in the Fallujah area of Anbar, using barrel bombs -- improvised, unguided devices packed with explosives and scrap metal known for causing indiscriminate damage.

"If Baghdad promises autonomy to Sunni regions in exchange for their support against IS, that will be a game changer. A political solution is the only way to actually derail IS for good in Iraq," she argued.

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute was more hopeful that Baghdad and the Sunni tribes could work together effectively.

"Sunni tribal groups simply will not be able to operate independently against armoured IS suicide truck bombs without anti-tank capabilities," he wrote in analysis for the think tank, which focuses on US Middle East policy.

"The quickest and least controversial way to protect them is by embedding them in existing units," he said.

For Ashour al-Mihlawi, a tribal leader from Ramadi's Albu Mihl tribe, Anbaris can only count on themselves.

"If the government responds to the tribes' requests, especially those who fought Daesh and Al-Qaeda, our relations will be good... If it doesn't, we will never trust it," he said.

"We will not join Daesh, we will fight it by ourselves with the means that we have."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.