Tribal fighters have been helping the Iraqi government battle militants for control of Iraq’s largest province. Iraqi military officials have been handing out guns and cash to local Sunni tribal fighters at a command center in western Anbar Province. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has struggled to suppress an insurgency led by militants affiliated with Al Qaeda in the region. A proposed military assault on Anbar has been put on the back burner by Mr. Maliki after intense lobbying by American officials, Sunni leaders and moderates in his government.
Last summer, Mr. Maliki increased his support for the Sunni tribes after the militants made numerous tactical gains. The Iraqi government recently received shipments of small arms and ammunition from the United States to help them in the fight. Many of these weapons have ended up in the hands of the tribes at the urging of the United States.
Paying and arming tribal militias to fight as proxies is the same strategy the Americans used in 2007. When the Americans did it, the action was known as the Sunni Awakening, which helped turn the tide of the Iraq war in the United States’ favor. Unfortunately, it did not result in a lasting reconciliation, as recent events have shown.
The fighting in the area continues to rage daily. Recently, the militants seized the city of Falluja and parts of Ramadi. Iraqi special forces are deeply involved in the fight to regain control of these areas and are said to be taking heavy casualties. The militants are armed with sniper rifles and heavy, truck-mounted machine guns.
The Prime Minister has promised permanent jobs, pensions and death benefits for their families if the tribesmen die on the battlefield in the hopes of recruiting more of the tribesmen to his cause. A suggestion was also made that any tribal fighters with a history of armed resistance against the government would receive amnesty if they fought on the government’s side now.
However, mistrust of the government and fear of Al Qaeda revenge have continued to hamper efforts to recruit the Sunni tribal fighters. They say they were abandoned by the Iraqi government after the Americans left. Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of Parliament, said, “From 2006 to 2008, tribesmen were able to beat Al Qaeda with the cooperation of American forces and the support of the Iraqi government. After gaining victory over Al Qaeda, those tribesmen were rewarded with the cutting of their salaries, with assassination and displacement.” He continued on to say that the Sunni fighters “were left alone in the street facing revenge from Al Qaeda and neglect by the government.”