Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- As a U.S. offensive against Islamic State in Syria gets under way, six weeks of American strikes across the border in Iraq show the limits of air power.
Over 190 U.S. strikes in Iraq have contributed to militants abandoning some territory they have seized since June, according to figures released by the Pentagon. Yet Iraq’s government is struggling to win over enough Sunni tribal leaders to support the air campaign and deliver the militants a major defeat, said Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The Americans need Sunni fighters to come over to the side of the Iraqi government, but those who fought against al- Qaeda in Iraq in the past don’t necessarily trust the government to back them,” Knights said by e-mail.
Seven years ago the U.S. military teamed up with Sunni tribal leaders to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. After their victory, the U.S. withdrew without their Sunni allies being incorporated into the Iraqi security forces, creating a lingering sense of anger among tribal leaders, according to Abu Risha, who headed one of the U.S.-backed Awakening Councils in Anbar province, western Iraq, in 2007.
Also known as the Sahwa or the Sons of Iraq, the councils were organized by the U.S. to fight al-Qaeda.
The Shiite-led Iraqi government “has to address these concerns so that other Sunni tribes can trust it again,” Abu Risha said by phone from Ramadi in western Iraq. His own fighters were already battling Islamic State, he said.
Ahmed al-Dulamy, another former Awakening Council head, said he felt burned by the government and was reluctant to help. “When we fought against the terrorists last time we were promised jobs with the government, but instead we were persecuted,” he said by phone from Ramadi.
An alliance of Kurdish forces, Sunni militias and Iraqi government forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes were able to wrest control of a strategic dam outside Mosul from Islamic State in August.
Iraq Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi assumed power earlier this month promising to build an inclusive government, and has promoted the idea of a national guard that could incorporate Sunni militias. So far, Shiite lawmakers have rebuffed Abadi’s proposed Sunni candidate for defense minister. The national guard plan has also yet to materialize.
“Significant doubts linger over whether Abadi has the political wherewithal to achieve genuine unity,” Jordan Perry, an analyst at U.K.-based risk forecasting company Maplecroft, said by e-mail.
“Maintaining the support of key Shiite political partners, such as the Iranian-backed Sadrists, will diminish his ability to grant concessions to the Sunnis,” he said.
The U.S. is pushing the Iraqi government to move quickly to establish the national guard, which President Barack Obama says will “help Sunni communities secure their own freedom.” The U.S. military has reached out to its former allies among Sunni leaders, U.S. officials said.
Abu Risha said he has been in contact with General John Allen, who is leading the U.S.-led coalition against the Sunni militants. He said that, via e-mail, they had “promised each other to repeat our victories that took place between 2006 and 2008,” a reference to the earlier alliance between the U.S military and Sunni militias.
Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith referred questions about contact between Allen and Abu Risha to the State Department press office, which said in an e-mailed response that there were “no specific meetings to confirm/announce at this time.”
While some Sunni militia leaders are already working with the Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, “big defections” from groups aligned with Islamic State will take time, said Knights.
On Sept. 10, Obama announced plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State. Obama has repeatedly stated that U.S. ground forces will not be deployed in the fight.
Suhil Al-Sammarrai, a militia leader in Samarra, 80 miles north of Baghdad, said many of his members had gone to fight for Islamic State, and expressed hostility to the Baghdad armed forces.
“Our main problems are with the Iraqi army and Iraqi intelligence, they are kidnapping our sons, especially wealthy families, without any reason and then asking for bribes to set them free,” he said.
Faleh al-Issawi, the deputy head of the provincial council in the mostly Sunni Anbar province where Islamic State made early gains, said there is no clear plan for forming the national guard.
“It will cost a lot of money,” al-Issawi said. “The U.S. and other countries will need to pay for it.”
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