Sectarianism and Tribalism Weakens Iraqi Resolve

June 30, 2015

When the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell last month to the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State, it was a big defeat. Ramadi is a provincial capital just 60 miles west of Baghdad, and its capture is not just seen as a strategic loss, but also a symbolic one.

Iraqi forces, on numerous occasions, have fled from the Islamic State. Iraq’s military abruptly absconded from Mosul last year. In Tikrit, Iraq’s security forces were failing to turn the tide of battle, so Shi’ite militias had to be brought in to liberate the city. And in Ramadi, Iraqi troops turned tail and ran.ISIS in Ramadi

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi sought to deflect blame over the weekend with a televised appearance. He said troops had never been authorized to withdraw from Ramadi, and insisted his orders, “were the opposite.” Mr. al Abadi asserted that if troops had followed orders and stayed, Ramadi would still be under government control.

Iraq’s Prime Minister came to power vowing to mend sectarian fractures that were exasperated under his predecessor, Nouri al Maliki. Sectarianism has been cited as one of the main contributing factors for why the Islamic State has so easily conquered large cities in Sunni areas of the country. To put it simply, Iraq’s Shi’ite government has been unable to galvanize alienated Sunni soldiers to fight on its behalf.

The changes that have occurred in Iraq’s political process since Saddam Hussein’s fall from power have upset the established and seemingly stable relationships that existed before the Iraq War. Shi’ite forces taking over the central government hint at far-reaching shifts in regional distributions of power, an unleashing of renewed religio-political forces, and a realignment of tribal relations.

The city of Ramadi is the provincial capital of Anbar Province which is, geographically, the largest governorate in Iraq. Encompassing much of Iraq’s western territory, Anbar Province shares a border with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Anbar’s provincial council has requested assistance from Shi’a militias to free Ramadi from Islamic State control. Since Anbar Province has a mostly Sunni population, there are risks to Shi’ite militias engaging the Islamic State there.

Many fear that Shi’ite militias would further fuel the sectarian conflict that underlies everything that’s going on in Iraq. There are concerns that there will be reprisals from Shi’ite militias against Sunnis in the area; however, the fact that Anbar’s Sunni leadership has called for Shi’a assistance is a sign of how desperate the situation has become. Anbar’s provincial council has lost faith in Iraq’s military.

Sectarianism isn’t the only thing that hinders Iraq’s armed forces. US troops training and advising the Iraqi military on combating the Islamic State have found that Iraq’s military leadership is plagued by tribalism and cronyism. The US Army’s No. 2 general, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn, has found that tribal factions have degraded the training and readiness of Iraq’s security forces. This is a huge problem, because Sunnis who do not feel a particular loyalty or allegiance to the Islamic State have lost confidence that the government is going to protect them. This makes it that much harder for these Sunnis to trust the government’s promises, and to agree to work with government forces to organize themselves.

Capitalizing on Iraq’s sectarianism, the Islamic State has developed a narrative that it defends Sunnis against Baghdad.

Some in Iraq have sought to combat the Islamic State by using the theme of reconciliation as a competing narrative. This involves careful cooperation between Shi’ite militias and Baghdad-allied Sunni tribes, and there is evidence it is working.

Representatives from a Shi’ite militia in Najaf, Iraq recently held a meeting on reconciliation with Sunni tribal leaders in the area. After the meeting, all of the Sunni tribes agreed to hand over the Islamic State collaborators from within their ranks.

Iraqi forces will need a wide array of tools to defeat the Islamic State. Along with Ramadi, the Iraqi government has lost control of about 90% of Anbar Province and most of the “Sunni Triangle.” The security forces that have proven effective, the Shi’ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga, will likely be a source of future conflict if the fight with the Islamic State is ever brought to a successful close.

Since the Islamic State has taken over Ramadi, it has established two Islamic courts and a police force to keep order and maximize its control over the population. It has seized pension payments from former Iraqi civil servants and retired military. Most concerning, however, are the stories of Islamic State soldiers going door to door with a list of names, and that they are killing people who they believe to be supporters of the Iraqi government. The Islamic State is trying to observe Ramadi’s population twenty-four hours a day to see who might be secretly sending information to Baghdad and to the Americans.

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