Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi does not want foreign troops to help his country's army defeat the Islamic State group, but is willing to enlist tribal militias with a history of infighting and tenuous loyalties.
Al Abadi met with the governor and security officials from Dhi Qar province on Thursday. He said his administration would not request foreign troops to intervene directly on the ground, because the liberation of Iraq was “in the hands of its security forces.” But, he said, Iraq could not beat the Sunni militant group, also known as ISIS, without the help of tribes in Dhi Qar.
Dhi Qar, a region south of the capital, is ethnically and religiously mixed, though Shiites are said to outnumber Sunnis. In June, Sunnis there reportedly volunteered to help fight ISIS, which they feared despite sharing an allegiance to Sunni Islam with it. Abadi asked officials in Dhi Qar to put aside their differences and come together to fight the Sunni militant group. In return, he said, he would offer as much support as he could to the governorate.
Abadi’s request for help to fight ISIS from tribes in Dhi Qar is another example of how the Iraqi government is increasingly relying on militias and armed tribesman to fight ISIS, which in recent weeks has claimed responsibility for several suicide and car bomb attacks that have killed hundreds in Iraq.
At least 760 civilians have been killed since Oct. 1 in Iraq, many of them from suicide bomb and car bomb attacks, according to Iraq Body Count, a monitoring group that counts civilian deaths in the country. On Thursday alone, 38 people died in Baghdad in suicide bomb attacks.
With ISIS encroaching on the capital, the Iraqi government is having to rely more and more on militias to protect Baghdad. According to local media reports, the Iraqi army abandoned a base in Hit near Anbar province this week, which calls into question the ability of the Iraqi military to stop ISIS from reaching the heart of Iraq.
Shiite militias supported by the Iraqi government have circled Baghdad in an attempt to keep ISIS from entering the city limits, but the Sunni militant group’s new urban warfare strategy, based on suicide and car-bomb attacks, is becoming more common and harder to stop.
According to a report recently released by the Institute For the Study of War, Iraqi security forces and the government-backed Shiite militias are currently fighting ISIS in northern Baghdad, Diyala and in Anbar province. In Baghdad, security forces are working to prevent ISIS from taking over Dhuluiya, an area that has in recent weeks risen up against the militant group, led by the Juburi tribe. The study said ISIS is closer to completely taking over the al Asad airbase in Anbar and is seeking to take control of the town of Amiriyah al-Fallujah.
Hundreds of U.S. troops are in Iraq helping its military strategize and plan the fight against ISIS. It is unclear if the government-backed Shiite militias are also receiving support from the coalition.
Before intervening militarily in Iraq, President Obama said that the fight in Iraq would only be won if the government built up an administration that included ethnic and religious minorities. Pentagon officials reiterated that idea Friday.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin told reporters in a briefing Friday that the fight against ISIS would depend on how willing the "indigenous" troops in Iraq were to help. Austin said the U.S. is encouraging the current Iraqi government to reach out to Sunnis and include them in conversations about the fight against ISIS.
"The campaign to destroy ISIL will take time, and there will be occasional setbacks along the way particularly in these early stages of the campaign as we coach and mentor a force (in Iraq) that is actively working to regenerate capability after years of neglect and poor leadership," Austin said.