Barbarians at the Gates of Baghdad

How long can Iraq’s besieged forces hold out against the Islamic State?


BAGHDAD Speaking from a base besieged by Islamic State fighters, a police lieutenant in Anbar province painted a grim picture of the Iraqi government’s faltering hold on this restive western region. Surrounded on all sides, he expects the jihadi group to be within firing range any day now.

Sitting just to the west of Hit, a small town along a key highway connecting the city of Haditha to Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi, al-Asad is the largest military base in Anbar and one of just two that remain in government control. Last week, after first attacking the eastern edge of Hit with suicide bombers, Islamic State militants overran the town. The United Nations says the ensuing clashes displaced more than 180,000 people.

"Unfortunately, after we lost Hit, [the Islamic State] has been advancing dramatically," the lieutenant explained over the phone. "They’re coming specifically for us."

Sounding exasperated over the poor cell-phone connection, the lieutenant explained that soldiers poured into al-Asad air base after the fall of Hit, temporarily making the men confident in their defenses. But, he said, that quickly turned to despair as they realized that they were now left cut off and outgunned.

"We have some tanks, artillery, machine guns, and light weapons," he explained, but feared that it was not enough to withstand a prolonged attack. "What does [the Islamic State] have? American anti-aircraft weapons!"

Iraqi troops are not only frustrated with Baghdad, which they say has not given them enough weapons to fight the jihadists — but they’re disappointed with the U.S.-led air campaign meant to support them. Over the past two weeks, about a dozen airstrikes have targeted Anbar out of the nearly 50 airstrikes carried out by U.S.-led forces in Iraq. In the first week of October, meanwhile, there were more than 15 airstrikes in Anbar, according to information released by U.S. Central Command. U.S. officials have said that the recent decrease in airstrikes in Anbar is due in part to bad weather conditions, a claim dismissed by those on the ground in Anbar.

"It’s like Iraq has become secondary," said the lieutenant. "Recently, American forces in the air have not played any real role.… The coalition aircraft just patrols, but doesn’t bombard."

The encirclement of al-Asad base is just the latest in a string of dramatic Iraqi military failures in Anbar. The Islamic State first took control of significant portions of Fallujah back in January, and over the past nine months it has steadily built up its presence in the province, capturing critical infrastructure and fortifying its presence in urban areas. Local officials are warning that the situation is dire and that the province is on the verge of falling entirely out of government control.

"[Our fighters] are exhausted," said Faleh al-Issawi, a councilman in Anbar. "The government doesn’t pay attention to them.… They are fighting with simple weapons compared with what the enemy handles."

The councilman says he is trying to pressure Baghdad to send more weapons to Anbar, warning that Ramadi will fall without government support. But analysts and former U.S. officials who helped lead the fight against an earlier incarnation of the Islamic State, al Qaeda in Iraq, say more weapons and airstrikes are not necessarily what is needed in Anbar this time around.

After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, the largely Sunni province was heavily oppressed by Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government. Ignored in terms of funding and denied political power, Anbaris were also subjected to widespread arbitrary arrests during which detainees were regularly tortured, some in secret prisons. Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s brutal crackdown on the province this year only further alienated Iraq’s Sunni heartland, creating room for Islamic State militants to move back in.

Some leaders in Anbar have become such vociferous opponents of the Iraqi government that they have been willing to support the Islamic State in its war against Baghdad. Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a prominent sheikh and head of the Dulaim tribe, told local media after the fall of Mosul that the Anbar tribes "consider Maliki to be more dangerous than ISIS." But not all the province’s leaders followed suit: Issawi, the local councilman, has denounced the Islamic State and says he still holds out hope that Iraq’s central government will come to Anbar’s aid.

Since Haider al-Abadi became prime minister, he has formed a so-called unity government. But for many residents of Anbar, little appears to have changed: Abadi hails from the same political party as Maliki and has done little to rein in powerful Shiite militias accused of committing abuses against Iraq’s Sunnis. He even appointed a member of the notoriously brutal Badr Organization, a Shiite militia linked to Iran, to head the Interior Ministry.

These sectarian conflicts are why it will be so hard for the U.S.-led coalition to beat back the Islamic State. At the height of Iraq’s civil war, the United States defeated a jihadi insurgency in Anbar by capitalizing on tribal leaders’ enmity toward al Qaeda in Iraq — implementing an "Awakening" program that funneled resources to them in exchange for their help in defeating the insurgents. When the United States pulled out of Iraq, however, the Awakening program was handed over to Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Payments to leaders quickly dried up, and Anbar’s tribes fractured.

"The tribes right now, they’re very weak," admitted Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes, a former Awakening member who helped U.S. forces fight al Qaeda in Anbar. Living in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour neighborhood, he’s no longer the power player he once was and blames the central government for Anbar’s current state of affairs.

"The government doesn’t give the people of Anbar the support," he said, referring to money and weapons. "All they do is create clashes and conflict [among the tribes]."

Years of mistreatment under Maliki have fostered deep resentment and distrust of the government in Baghdad, Hayes says, and it will take time to unite the tribes against the Islamic State.

"Right now, there is no justice in Anbar," he said. "If the Iraqi government does justice with everybody, yes, the tribes will unite."

"The key to taking back Anbar at this stage," one former U.S. Defense Department official who worked closely with Iraq’s tribal leaders in Anbar following the implementation of the Awakening program told Foreign Policy, "is getting Fallujans in Fallujah to take up arms against [the Islamic State]."

However, he’s not sure that it is even possible to re-create the conditions that led to the defeat of the jihadists the last time around.

"I suspect most civilians left in Fallujah at this stage either harbor ideological sympathies [toward the Islamic State] or are too old and weak to fight," he said, "Our most viable local partners to lead an anti-Islamic State campaign, they’re either dead or fled a long time ago."

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