Sunni tribal fighters secure central Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, 115 kilometres west of Baghdad. Iraqi authorities recently signed up the first batch of 1,000 recruits for a new Sunni militia to help its security forces take back the western Anbar province from Daesh, after years of reluctance to arm and train the tribal fighters. Image Credit: AP

Ameriyat Al Falluja, Iraq: More than 1,000 recruits stood at attention in fatigues, their heads held high, during a ceremony Friday for what Iraqi officials hope marks the formation of a force to push out Daesh militants who control most of Anbar.

The next military offensive against the extremist group is expected to take place in this western province, Iraq’s largest. Under a new agreement between local leaders and key officials in the capital, including the prime minister, it is hoped that the largely tribal recruits will play an important role in that offensive. As many as 6,000 tribesmen could be trained and armed under the plan, which officials and tribal elders in the predominantly Sunni area describe as an important step in repairing fraught relations with the Shiite-dominated authority in Baghdad.

But mistrust festers.

After routing Al Qaida militants nearly a decade ago, US-backed Sunni tribesmen in Anbar and other provinces faced sectarian-driven discrimination from Baghdad. Many of them eventually sided with Daesh, a switch that facilitated the group’s sweeping advances throughout Iraq in June. Also, analysts and diplomats warn about the divisive role of powerful Shiite militias, which Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere accuse of sectarian-driven attacks.

At Friday’s ceremony, however, Anbar’s governor, Soheib Al Rawi, expressed hope that a new leaf has been turned with Baghdad. The first batch of recruits represents a “revolution” against Daesh, he announced at the gathering, which was held at an abandoned industrial complex in Ameriyat Al Falluja, a government-held city in the province.

“Your country has been stolen by a bunch of thieves and thugs, and you have to fight to take it back,” the governor told the newly recruited fighters.

After Daesh advances in the summer, the government pledged arms and training for Sunni tribes. In October, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, issued a similar call amid reports of mass executions of Sunni tribesmen by the extremist group.

Little of the promised aid has been delivered, however, partly because of Shiite suspicion of Sunni loyalties. Two years ago, the Iraqi government rushed weapons to tribesmen for fighting Al Qaida in Iraq, the precursor to Daesh. Many of those arms ended up in the extremist group’s possession.

“There’s distrust because many tribal shaikhs took advantage of this for personal benefits and sold the weapons in the black market,” said Safaa Al Assam, an analyst who lives in Baghdad.

But recent advances in Anbar by Daesh appear to have added urgency to mobilizing Sunni tribesmen.

Sa’ad Al Hadithi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, said the government supports the Anbar training programme. The tribal fighters would fall under the control of the “popular mobilization units,” or PMU, an umbrella group of largely Shiite militias that technically falls under government control.

In a briefing with journalists on Thursday, Al Rawi, Anbar’s governor, said that placing tribal forces in the province under the authority of the PMU would bring important government oversight. Candidates are being carefully vetted and the distribution of weapons would come under serious scrutiny, he said, adding that fighters would receive a monthly salary from Baghdad of roughly $650. Training will be conducted by local police and military forces at a base in Anbar, he said.

Al Rawi hopes the programme will attract tribesmen who have grown disenchanted under Daesh’s brutal rule, saying that it could help to “build a state and expand rule of law.” In a sign of persistent tribal suspicion of Baghdad, however, recruits for the programme have primarily come from just one tribe, called Albu Eisa.

Still, the plan would seem to fall in line with statements by US officials suggesting that arming tribesmen should be managed by Baghdad. The United States is leading an international coalition against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and it has sent military advisers to train Iraqi forces and some tribesmen.

The Anbar plan also seems to fall in line with a proposal backed by the prime minister to form national guard units at the provincial level, a move meant to reduce sectarian tensions. Since replacing the divisive Nouri Al Maliki in September, Al Abadi, a Shiite, has earned respect for cooperating with Sunnis.

But analysts say that his power has been constrained, partly because of the Shiite militias, some of which are backed by Iran. Government forces have drawn heavily on militia for operations to win back territory from Daesh, an issue that dissuades Sunni tribesmen from joining the military operation in large numbers, tribal shaikhs say.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, described this as a symptom of one of many still-unresolved political disputes that will hinder the fight against Daesh.

“The problem isn’t that Daesh has gotten stronger, it’s that Iraqi unity hasn’t gotten better,” he said.

At Friday’s ceremony in Ameriyat Al Falluja, several tribal shaikhs accused Shiite militias in the area of intimidation, including arbitrarily detaining residents and theft. The militias control the road from Baghdad to the city, about 125 miles to the east.

“We fear them more than Daesh, of course,” said Shehad Mishaan, 55, an Albu Eissa tribal elder.

Tribesmen as well as local police officers said clashes broke out last week in the city after a Shiite militia, Kataib Hezbollah, seized a copper mill. Tribal fighters and police officers exchanged fire with the militia, who retreated from the mill, said Nayef Al Sheyad, another leader from Albu Eisa. He added that it was the second time in a week that the militia tried to take the facility, which he described as “full of things for the militia to steal and sell off.”

Three police officers from the city confirmed the clashes at the mill.

“They were dressed in police and military uniforms, so at first we didn’t realize who they were,” Al Sheyad said. “That’s why these militias are so dangerous.”

A spokesman from Kataib Hezbollah described the incident as part of the group’s “security precautions” in the city.

For Ahmad Houran, a 19-year-old recruit in the Anbar force who is a member of the Abu Nimr tribe, fighting is not so much about driving out Daesh as it is revenge. Late last year, the extremist group killed his father and brother during battles near the city of Hit. “I’m here to avenge my family,” he said during the ceremony.