Sunni Muslim tribesmen, Shiite militia fighters and Iraqi security forces set out Saturday to recapture a key city in Anbar province and stop Islamic State atrocities against a local tribe in an extraordinary coalition that could stir sectarian tensions or potentially serve as a model for future cooperation against the militants.
The operation to liberate Hit, about 90 miles west of Baghdad, could reshape the situation in Anbar in a way that would impact the mission of U.S. troops who are being deployed to the province from among the additional 1,500 U.S. military advisers the Pentagon said it is sending to Iraq at the end of the year.
“This is a dramatic change,” said Hisham al Hashimi, a prominent Iraqi defense analyst. “We have the Sunni Arab tribes fighting hand in hand with the Shiites.”
The move was preceded by U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State positions on the route of the advance, which was moving slowly because of numerous roadside bombs, according to two tribal leaders reached by telephone.
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The airstrikes “had a good impact on Daash positions. They’ve had a lot of casualties,” Sheikh Bilal al Goud, who was with the attacking force, told McClatchy, using the disparaging Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Sounds of fighting could be heard in the background.
The need to call in some 3,000 Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen underscored the shambolic state of the Iraqi army, which all but imploded when the Islamic State swept out of its sanctuary in Syria in mid-June, conquered Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, and charged to the doorstep of Baghdad.
Accepting offers of assistance from the Shiite militias, notorious for anti-Sunni atrocities, is a measure of the Albu Nimr leaders’ desperation to stop the slaughter of their people by the Islamic State in retribution for the tribe’s stiff, months-long defense of Hit, which capitulated in October.
The Islamic State, thousands of whose fighters come from across the Muslim world, Europe and North America, has murdered at least 522 Albu Nimr members since Hit fell, al-Gould said. Between 600 and 700 others are missing.
“I welcome them,” he said of the militias. “Why? Because they will help us get rid of Daash.”
Albu Nimr leaders have been outspoken in their anger at the army for failing to prevent the fall of Hit and the atrocities against their people and demanded arms for their tribesman to fight the Islamic State. The Shiite-dominated government had resisted, but Washington made clear that it wouldn’t send military advisers to Anbar unless the government armed the tribes.
On Friday, the commander of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division agreed at a meeting with tribal leaders to arm some 600 tribesmen, mostly Albu Nimr, to reduce the potential for sectarian tensions in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar, according to al Goud and Sheikh Mal Allah Berzam Hamden, whose al Obeid tribe also is involved.
“We shouldn’t be protecting just the Albu Nimr, we should be protecting Iraq,” said al Goud.
The province’s Sunnis are deeply alienated from Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government.
Former Shiite former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who resigned under U.S. pressure this August to make way for the current prime minister, Haidar al Abadi, reneged on a pledge to incorporate into the security forces Sunni fighters who’d joined forces with U.S. occupation troops against the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaida in Iraqi, in 2006 and 2007.
Maliki also used force to break up protests by Sunni Anbaris over policies that they decried as discriminatory, igniting a rebellion that the Islamic State hijacked late last year.
Many Anbar tribes joined the militants, while others are backing allied groups led by former senior Iraqi army officers who were ousted from their posts after the fall of the late dictator, Saddam Hussein, in the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Should the effort to retake Hit succeed without a falling out between the Sunni tribesmen and the Shiite militias, the offensive could set the stage for further cooperation, bringing a measure of badly needed stability to Iraq.
“Building a Sunni tribal-Shiite fighter cooperative relationship would potentially be very useful, providing both more combat power to tribal forces operating in Sunni areas and an acceptable way for Shiite-dominated government forces to operate there,” said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who is now a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But, given the depth of sectarian hatreds roiling Iraq, it could prove difficult to manage tensions between the tribesmen and the militias.
“Keeping Sunni-Shia cooperation working will be a challenge,” said White. “There will inevitably be strains _ incidents, disputes over resources, perhaps clashes _ and managing those will be critical.”
Enlisting Sunni tribes to drive the Islamic State out of Anbar is a critical facet of President Barack Obama’s strategy for “degrading and eventually defeating” the Islamic State.
Mostly sparsely populated desert, the province comprises about one-quarter of Iraq. It borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, five other Iraqi provinces and Baghdad, giving the militants a hard-to-monitor space in which to shift men and materiel.
The offensive began at dawn on Saturday from al Asab Air Base, about 40 miles northwest of Hit, and advanced about 19 miles to the village of al Dolab, where U.S. airstrikes had targeted Islamic State positions a day earlier, said Hamden.
“It was easy because yesterday the American strikes hit Daesh in this area,” he said. “Daesh lost at least 60 fighters and suffered huge damage to their weapons and vehicles.
“The entire pressure is on the engineering units because all of the roads are filled with roadside bombs,” said al Goud. “So the movement is slow. But we are making slow progress.”
He and al Goud said they’d welcome the deployment of the U.S. military advisers, whose deployment to al Asad Air Base was announced on Friday.
The advisers would help coordinate air strikes and Iraqi military operations, which effectively stalled out as troops retreated from Anbar’s cities and towns into their bases, leaving most of the fighting to the police and tribes.