As President Barack Obama wades deeper into the war in Iraq, Sheik Wissam al-Hardan would appear to be just the kind of man America needs. He is a Sunni Muslim. He is from Anbar Province, the western area of Iraq where a self-declared caliphate has already won over many tribes. Most important, he was one of the founders of the Awakening, a group of Sunni tribal leaders who in 2006-07 fought alongside American troops to take back their towns and villages from al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor.
But Sheik Wissam made a major mistake. He trusted the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister who stepped down last summer under heavy international pressure. In 2012 and 2013, when Maliki waged a political and military crackdown on Iraqi Sunnis, Sheik Wissam remained a public ally and accepted money from the government, ostensibly to keep the terrorists at bay.
Today Wissam is a sheik without a tribe. Earlier this month, over lunch at his suite in the Cristal Grand Ishtar Hotel in Baghdad where he spends most of his time, he told me he has carried a gun since he was nearly killed by suicide bombers at his family home last year. He said 6,000 fighters that used to be under his command have not been paid in 10 months.
“I feel sorry and ashamed the Iraqi government deals with the Sunnis as if they were all the Islamic State,” he said. “The government is afraid to arm the tribes and the Awakening … so the Sunnis and the Awakening are in the middle, between the hammers of both sides. The Islamic State is killing our people and the government is not supporting the tribes and the Awakening.”
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As the U.S. tries to stoke a new rebellion against the Islamic State in western Iraq, Wissam’s tale is a cautionary one. The Sunni tribes are not only vital to beating the Islamic State forces, but their buy-in will be necessary to avoid more sectarian conflict down the road. Yet the Obama administration is still insisting that the Sunni sheiks brave enough to side with the U.S. make the same mistake Wissam made in 2012 and formally align with Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, now led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
John Allen, the retired general who is Obama’s special envoy to the global coalition against the Islamic State, made this point explicitly at a January press conference in Baghdad. “We are working very closely with the Iraqi government, the minister of defense and the Iraqi Security Forces,” he said, “for them to work with tribal fighters, not just to arm them, but to train them, so that they can provide important functions in Iraq, as individual tribal elements, but also, very importantly, in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Forces, as they continue to move into the attack more aggressively.”
Last month, a delegation of Awakening leaders led by Sheik Ahmed Abu-Risha came to Washington to ask the White House to reverse that policy. They pleaded for the U.S. to begin arming and training them independent of Baghdad. While they garnered the public support of former President George W. Bush, there has been no signal of change from the Obama administration.
Sunni leaders I talked to in Iraq also made a central point of independence from Baghdad. However well-intentioned Abadi may be, most Sunni leaders will never trust a Shiite central government again.
It puts the U.S. in a tough spot. Obama is committed to the territorial integrity of the country and to eventually having Iraq’s military absorb the sectarian Shiite militias that have taken up much of the fight against the Islamic State. If Obama were now to arm Sunni militias directly, he would not only undermine his plan to rebuild Iraq’s military but he would be giving these tribes guns they could use eventually to break away from Baghdad altogether.
Nonetheless, many of the Sunni-dominated nations in the region say it’s worth that risk, and are pushing the White House to arm the Anbar tribes directly. One senior Arab diplomat in Washington this week for the president’s conference on countering violent extremism told a small group of journalists and policy makers that the White House had promised many of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors that support for the tribes, including arms and training, would be coming. “This has not taken place also and this has worried us,” he said.
This diplomat expressed concern that areas of Iraq he felt could and should be liberated from the Islamic State by Sunni tribes will end up falling instead to a mix of the Iraqi army, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and U.S. air support. “If Mosul is liberated with a Shiite militia on the ground and the American Air Force, it will give ISIS the biggest propaganda coup they would ever want,” he said.
His concerns about Shiite domination are not just hypothetical. Shiite militia leaders in some cases are exercising direct command over uniformed Iraqi troops. Just this week, a popular Sunni sheik, Qasim al-Janabi, was kidnapped and murdered. His family blamed Shiite militias for the crime.
Sterling Jensen, who was the U.S. Army’s translator with the Iraqi tribal fighters during the surge in 2007 and 2008, said Janabi’s tribe was crucial to any U.S. efforts to rebuild an awakening movement in Iraq. “If you want a tribe that will mobilize Sunni Iraqis in areas around Baghdad against the Islamic State, the Janabi tribe are the ones to do it because of their history with … al-Qaida in Iraq,” he said.
Jensen explained that unlike other groups who publicly aligned with Maliki after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, the Janabi tribe “is not seen as traitors who have jumped in with the government.”
Waleed al-Rawi, a former Iraqi general now living in Florida who has advised the U.S. government on working with tribal groups, said he has heard a similar message from Iraqi tribal leaders. He said a meeting of 22 Sunni groups – including some anti-government insurgents who were not affiliated with the Islamic State – issued an important communique last weekend. “They said the population does not trust the Iraqi government, but they do trust the Americans,” Rawi told me. “They want to destroy the Islamic State and they want to destroy the Shiite militias, but they need the Americans to help them.”
He continued: “President Obama’s strategy to train the Iraqi Sunni tribes into a national guard, if this is going to be directed, guided and organized by the United States, will work. But if he will make the Iraqi government in charge of this, it will never happen.”
One thing is certain. Sheiks such as Wissam al-Hardan feel burned by their experience of trusting Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. From his suite at the Ishtar in Baghdad, he seethes as he watches the U.S. and Iraqi government neglect the men he believes can save his country from the caliphate.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs.