The Islamic State arrived in a pre-dawn assault this week, overrunning the Iraqi tribal fighters defending the isolated western village of al-Baghdadi. Sheikh Naeem al-Gaoud, a tribal leader whose fighters played a prominent role on the front lines, was soon faced with reports of steadily mounting casualties.
Sitting in his Baghdad office on the morning of Feb. 12, the day of the attack, Sheikh Gaoud ticked off three reasons for the fall of the town: corruption within the security forces, a lack of support for both the Iraqi Army and tribal fighters, and a simple lack of interest in defending the area. “[The Iraqi government] doesn’t care whether it falls or not,” he concluded.
For the United States, however, the fall of al-Baghdadi brings the Islamic State’s ground troops closer than they’ve ever been since the military campaign was launched last year. The town lies only three miles from the heavily guarded Ain al-Asad air base, where 320 Marines are training Iraqi soldiers to combat the jihadi threat. The Islamic State has already probed the defenses of the massive base, raising questions about the safety of the U.S. soldiers there.
Sheikh Gaoud, who hails from the Albu Nimr tribe, said the struggle in this area was another reason why the United States should provide weapons to Iraqi tribesmen resisting the Islamic State. His tribe suffered a massacre in the nearby city of Hit when the Islamic State overran it in October, killing 930 people. Now, he fears that history will repeat itself: The jihadi group, he says, has issued a fatwa permitting the killing of Albu Nimr tribe members, wherever they are found.
“We got killed because ISIS says, ‘You’re friends of the Americans,”’ he said. “But our friends didn’t come to our aid.”
The Islamic State had in past months launched mortars at Ain al-Asad air base, a sprawling encampment roughly the size of Boulder, Colorado. It now appears to be escalating the conflict: On Feb. 13, jihadi fighters wearing Iraqi military uniforms infiltrated the base, before being gunned down by Iraqi security forces.
In a briefing Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary Adm. John Kirby said that roughly 20 to 25 Islamic State fighters were involved in the attack, led by several fighters wearing suicide vests. Some of the suicide bombers detonated themselves, and were followed by roughly 15 other Islamic State fighters, also wearing Iraqi Army uniforms. Most, if not all, of the jihadi fighters were killed when Iraqi troops returned fire, Kirby said, and he had no indications that there were casualties on the Iraqi military’s side. U.S. troops remained a couple of miles away during the entire incident, he said.
The Obama administration understood the risks of sending American forces back to al-Asad, which was a major outpost after the United States invaded the country in 2003 and until American troops departed in 2011. A U.S. official on Friday said there are no plans to yank U.S. troops from the air base; doing so would not only set back the mission of training Iraqi forces to protect their own country, but would also send a negative signal about the U.S. commitment to defeating the Islamic State to the Sunni tribal fighters whom Washington hopes to enlist against the insurgency.
The 2006 “Anbar Awakening,” where tribal fighters joined forces with American troops against al Qaeda in Iraq, represented a turning point in the U.S. war in the country. Washington now hopes the tribes will similarly oppose the Islamic State, which is a rebranded version of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Last month, Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily, told Foreign Policy that Baghdad has asked the United States to supply light weapons to Iraqi security forces who, in turn, would give their AK-47 rifles to the tribal fighters. Washington repeatedly has said that any supply of weapons must go through the government in Baghdad, rather than directly to the tribal fighters.
So far, only Iraqi troops have fought back against extremists who seek to attack al-Asad, and American forces are at least miles from the skirmishes, the official said. American troops are authorized to protect themselves when under attack, but so far that has not been necessary, the official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the strategy by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Asad is at the center of a debate about which battleground is most urgent in the fight against the Islamic State. With just a limited number of trainers and firepower in Iraq, the U.S. official said the Pentagon is weighing whether security forces should focus first on trying to reclaim the northern city of Mosul, which is a strategic stronghold for the Islamic State, or to try to uproot the extremists from Anbar province, which is next to Baghdad. Protecting the capital — the seat of government power and home to U.S. and other foreign embassies — is a top priority for Iraqi leaders and Washington alike.
For some Iraqi political leaders, the fall of al-Baghdadi and the threat to Ain al-Asad air base does not come as a surprise. Jabir al-Jabiri, a Sunni parliamentarian who was initially proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to be defense minister, said the government simply hasn’t done enough to support those fighting the Islamic State in Anbar Province, an overwhelmingly Sunni region.
“When you ask the government, they say, ‘We don’t have weapons,’” he said. “For the Sunni tribes, there are no weapons. But for the popular mobilization committees, there are weapons.”
The “popular mobilization committees” are Shiite-dominated militias, mostly made up of volunteers who answered the call from the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to combat the Islamic State after the fall of Mosul.
In this way, the war against the Islamic State has become a political football in Iraq’s sectarian struggle. The predominately Shiite government in Baghdad, Jabiri suspects, is leery of arming Sunni tribal fighters opposing the Islamic State, preferring to funnel weapons and resources to sympathetic Shiite groups.
Caught in the middle of this political tug-of-war are the citizens of Anbar province — and now, more than 300 members of the U.S. Marine Corps.
“The people in [the city of] Haditha and Ain al-Asad — they have been resisting ISIS for more than one year. And they have been resisting alone,” said Jabiri. “It is a big shame on the central government, a big shame on the Ministry of Defense, that they don’t support them.”