Few Sunni tribesmen in Iraq sign up for training to fight Islamic State

In response to mounting criticism that sectarian Shiite Muslim militias are committing crimes against the mostly Sunni Muslim residents of embattled Anbar province, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has authorized training and arming Sunni militiamen to combat the Islamic State.

But as the first class of local Sunnis began training this week, analysts, security experts and government officials expressed concerns that the program is too small and poorly coordinated to make a difference, while others are concerned that arming the Sunnis will alienate Abadi’s Shiite militia allies, who’ve already complained about the government’s cooperation with the American-led coalition.

Government officials have pledged that at least 6,000 Sunni tribesmen will be trained, but by Tuesday fewer than 1,000 people had signed up at a base in Habbaniyah, a government-controlled area in eastern Anbar.

A Western military trainer who’s consulting with the Iraqi government said that meant far fewer were likely to complete the training.

“These programs tend to have about a 40 to 50 percent attrition rate,” he said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to risk his employment by being publicly pessimistic. “So even if they get 1,000 guys vetted from reasonably pro-government tribes – and let’s be honest, every Sunni tribe hates the government – these are paltry numbers that are likely to fall even further.”

“The numbers at present are still too small to break the overall stalemate,” said Aymenn Tamimi, an analyst on Iraq for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, who also noted that the recruiting for the program was taking place in an area of Anbar that’s been a government stronghold. “Much more work needs to be done.”

The notion of arming the Shiite government’s longtime rivals in Anbar’s deeply conservative Sunni heartland – a place that’s been dominated by the Islamic State and anti-government tribes since January 2014 – also doesn’t sit well with the Shiite militias that sprang into action last summer after the Islamic State swept though much of northern and central Iraq as the army essentially disintegrated.

Formed from a collection of mostly Iranian-backed militant groups that opposed the 2003 to 2010 American-led occupation, the militias, with better equipment and manpower than the rebuilding Iraqi army, have been crucial to protecting key areas from the Islamic State. But their overt loyalty to Iran has triggered a power struggle of sorts with the government.

“Abadi has held us back,” said a spokesman for one of the largest Shiite militias, the Badr Organization, who asserted that the militias were ready to liberate Anbar. “His giving training and weapons to Sunni tribes, many who likely support the Islamic State, is a dangerous move.”

The spokesman, who asked not to identified because he didn’t want to upstage the Badr Organization’s leader, Hadr al Amiri, blamed Abadi’s arming of the tribesmen on the United States, whose officials have insisted that the prime minister take steps to bring Iraq’s Sunnis into his Shiite-dominated government.

“He’s being pressured by the Americans, who have an agenda for Iraq different from our Iranian friends, who fight alongside us on the ground,” the spokesman said.

The government’s move to draw the support of Sunni tribesmen goes beyond the training program. On Tuesday, the government announced that it was trying to restore services in areas it controls that have been neglected since the Islamic State gained influence in the province more than a year ago.

A local judge and respected tribal figure, Mohammed Jassim al Janabi, said he was leading the opening of a local police station, staffed by residents, in the often-besieged city of Kharma on the outskirts of Fallujah and that other services would follow, including garbage pickup, electricity and water.

He said in an interview that his hope was that families who’d fled the area would return as services were restored.

McClatchy special correspondents in Irbil and Fallujah whose identities are being withheld for security reasons contributed to this report.