The Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Guard, promoted by the US to fight IS forces, may not in fact get off the ground, writes Salah Nasrawi
When Iraq’s speaker of parliament Salim Al-Joubouri invited Sunni dignitaries for discussions on proposed US plans to forge a local National Guard to fight the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group last week, the meeting soon descended into chaos after a spat broke out between rival politicians over who should be included in the new force.
Many Sunni tribal leaders stormed out of the meeting which was held at Al-Joubouri’s residence in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone in protest over the presence of several delegates whom the clan leaders accused of either being supportive or of having ties with the terrorist group.
“We walked out when we saw IS faces were sitting in the front seats. That was a provocation,” Wissam Al-Hardan, a leader of a pro-government Sunni group known as the Sahwas, or Awakening, and a tribal chieftain in the rebellious Anbar province, told reporters.
The row underscores the sharp divisions among Sunni tribes and political groups over the US project to integrate mainly Iraqi Sunni tribal militias into a local force to counter the growing IS threat.
It also highlights the contradictory approaches of the United States in dealing with the IS crisis as the terror group makes further advances threatening Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi, the Iraqi Sunnis’ second-largest city, and edging closer to Baghdad.
Contrary to their enthusiasm to support and arm the Sunni armed groups fighting President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the US’s Arab allies and Iraq’s neighbours have been reluctant to show similar support to the National Guard project in Iraq.
The Obama administration has floated the idea as one of various steps to push the Iraqis to unite to better confront the threat of the extremist group. In his rhetoric to sell his new Iraq strategy, US President Barack Obama has declared that the National Guard units would help Iraq’s Sunni communities to “secure their own freedom”.
The efforts come as US-led coalition warplanes have intensified bombing raids intended to push back the terrorist group, which is intent on seizing more land in Iraq after its major onslaught in June when it seized several key Sunni cities.
Washington, which has rejected the idea of sending combat troops to Iraq to fight IS, hopes that the National Guard will be a way of involving Iraqi Sunnis to provide troops to fight the IS extremists and to secure land and ensure security and stability later on.
Iraq’s new Shia Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who has vehemently opposed plans to send foreign troops to Iraq, has reluctantly accepted the idea of the National Guard, but remains at loggerheads with the Obama administration over the details of its composition and its tasks and affiliation.
A law has yet to be drafted on the formation of the new force. But Al-Abadi’s government has so far been reluctant to table a bill for debate in the Iraqi parliament, or to allocate a budget and work out logistics, apparently because of sharp disagreements inside the coalition government.
Iraqi Shia leaders, meanwhile, have warned that if the Sunni force was established outside the Baghdad government’s control, any chances for peace would be derailed. They have demanded the Shia-led government’s strict supervision over the new force and the integration of their own militias into the National Guard.
The Kurds, who maintain their own Peshmerga forces, are also openly hostile to any plan to allow Arab troops to share the policing of provinces under their control, especially the oil-rich Kirkuk province and other disputed areas captured amidst the IS-triggered chaos.
For the Guard project to be a success, Washington will need to enlist the support of various Sunni groups. The Obama administration has named retired general John Allen to coordinate the international effort against IS and tasked him with efforts to help set up the Guard.
A vital piece of Allen’s strategy includes a plan to bolster the guard units under the authority of the provincial governors.
Allen, who served in Iraq during the 2003-2010 occupation and is said to have built relationships with the Sunni tribes who joined the “Awakening” movement in Anbar, has been tasked with helping to get a working deal with the Sunni tribes to institutionalise a version of the force.
Launching his efforts last week, Allen has met with a number of Sunni politicians and tribal chieftains in the Kurdish provincial capital of Erbil and neighbouring Jordan to tell them that fighting IS is the Sunnis’ duty. US diplomats have also worked hard to convince the leaders of the Sunni insurgency to abandon IS and join the new force.
Yet, too many Sunnis seem to be unconvinced, echoing the deep distrust in both the Americans and the Shia-led government. Some even seem to prefer to lend their support to IS, which they eye as vital in countering what they perceive as Shia domination.
The Sunni divide over the guard proposal is deep-rooted and could prove to be hard to fix. Some Sunni tribal leaders such as Al-Hardan, the Anbar Sahwa leader, dismiss the US-backed plan as an invitation to separatism. They prefer to work jointly with the government to deal with IS, but they demand weapons and funding.
Others support the US idea but suggest that priority in recruiting should be given to officers of the army of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and the force should be disassociated from Iraq’s army or federal police. They also suggest that Shia militias should not be included in the National Guard and have even pressed to dismantle them entirely.
There are still Sunni leaders who are pushing for foreign intervention by boots on the ground instead of creating the guard. They also want the US to help equip and train any Sunni force and sustain it.
On the other side of the divide, there are also Sunni extremists who are part of the insurgency and support IS and want to restore Sunni supremacy in Iraq. These Sunnis consider IS to be a lesser evil and an ally in the drive to topple the Baghdad Shia-led government.
It is quite evident, therefore, that the Iraqi Sunnis have divergent views and interests that could make the American plan unworkable.
Meanwhile, the country’s Shias have been resisting the purely Sunni National Guard as envisioned by the US plan. Shia leaders, including the cleric grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, have warned that such a force would be sectarian and would include Saddam-era army and security officers whom the Shias’ fear want to reverse post-Saddam Shia empowerment.
In general, most Shias, including those in the government, have strong doubts about the possibility that the American plan will defeat IS, and they are not certain that the strategy will allow Sunni moderates to triumph in the war. Moreover, the Shias fear that the new force will embolden Sunnis and weaken their own hard-won role in Iraqi politics.
Given these conundrums, the plans for creating the National Guard force remain a long shot, and creating a purely Sunni security architecture will be far from easy as it adds further complications to an already messy situation in Iraq.
Indeed, together with the coalition air strikes, this approach seems to have reduced Obama’s “degrade and destroy” IS strategy to tatters.
It is generally agreed, even by top US generals, that strikes by jets and drones alone cannot effectively address the problem. Only combat troops on the ground in Iraq can stop the advances of the IS terrorist organisation and ensure its defeat, observers say.
For Washington, which seems unwilling to shoulder its full security, political and moral responsibility in the war-devastated country, the proposal seems to be an attempt to seek a way out of its dilemmas and leave it to the Iraqis to pick up the pieces.
In addition to Iraqi Shia and Sunni scepticism, there are also regional problems which make the US plan unlikely to succeed. Among the fundamental flaws in the US approach is the fact that the Obama administration does not see eye-to-eye with key regional powers about who in fact is the enemy in Iraq.
With their conflicting agendas and endless disputes, Iraq’s neighbours and members of the US-led international coalition in Iraq have had difficulties in defining the enemy. Their disagreements will likely further complicate the US efforts and discredit the process of fighting IS.
While Iran will resist any arrangements in Iraq that will come at the expense of its Iraqi Shia allies, key Middle Eastern Sunni powerhouses, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will try to scuttle the war against IS if they feel it will grant Iran and its Iraqi Shia allies an opportunity to consolidate their regional gains.
On Monday, Iranian-Saudi disputes came into focus once again, underscoring the fact that regional understanding on Iraq and the IS crisis is unlikely to be possible.
While Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the United States and its allies in the international coalition for creating the Islamic State terror group, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal has charged Shia-dominated Iran with being “part of the problem, not the solution”.
“If Iran wants to be part of the solution, it has to pull its forces out from Syria. The same applies elsewhere, whether in Yemen or Iraq,” the Saudi minister said.
In this case, the US effort, which has been trumpeted as akin to the US-sponsored “Awakening” councils that together with the “surge” myth was accredited with degrading Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-2007, may turn out to fuel the on-going civil war and thus eventually contribute to the breaking up of Iraq.