The United States has led an offensive against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) in Iraq since August. It has been backed on the ground by the Iraqi military with the support of US-led coalition forces and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units that has forced IS to retreat from some of its territory in Iraq, such as Tikrit and regions around the capital, Baghdad, killing thousands of its militants in the process, with a death toll that amounted to over 6,000 as of January.
Iraq’s security forces are now battling in the region of Anbar, a stronghold of Iraqi Sunnis, spearheaded by this unlikely alliance. However, to succeed in this particular region, it needs to gain the trust of the Arab Sunni tribes.
The Sunni tribes played a key role in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which rose after the US invasion in 2003. IS, an offshoot of AQI, has taken over large swaths of the country since June, playing on the distrust of local populations with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Iraqi security forces have since reversed IS successes, most recently by taking over the city of Tikrit, which was the hometown of Saddam Hussein. The fact that militias now patrol the city has not eased the distrust of powerful Sunni tribes, whose support is key in securing the territory seized from IS.
According to Niqash, an Iraqi wire service, pro-government forces in that region include Sunni fighters, who do not number more than an estimated 5,000. While there have been reports of some Anbar leaders, namely Shalan al-Nimrawi, calling to deploy the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd Shabi), this stance may not “represent the collective stance of Anbar leaders,” a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War said.