Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq questioned the Iraqi government’s decision to send Shiite paramilitary groups to the region after the provincial capital Ramadi was overtaken by the Islamic State militant group Sunday. Although the Shiite militias were ostensibly sent to help retake the province, local leaders expressed concern that they would instead be used to combat the province’s Sunni presence.
The Shiite militias were “not very welcome,” Tarik al-Abdullah, secretary-general of a council of provincial leaders in Anbar, told Al Jazeera Monday. Rather than deploying the Shiite militias, known as Hashid Shaabi, to Anbar, the Iraqi government should train and give weapons to locals in the province, he said.
Sheikh Ali Hamad, another Sunni tribal leader from Anbar who was living in exile in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, said that the Iraqi government was aiming to defeat Sunnis in Anbar. “They wanted to destroy this citadel and break its walls so that the Hashid [Shiite militia] could enter in order to spread Shi’ism,” Reuters reported.
For nearly a year, Ramadi had been fending off attacks by fighters from the Islamic State, which had consolidated its control in areas surrounding Ramadi and throughout much of Anbar province, which covers a wide swath of western Iraq, bordering Jordan to the west, Syria to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south and whose inhabitants are majority Sunni. Iraqi security forces recently sent to retake Ramadi finally abandoned the city and fled Sunday, the news agency McClatchy reported.
Officials warned in April that Ramadi was close to falling to the militant group, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had held off sending Shiite militias until now, given concerns about sectarianism. In northern Iraq, government troops aided by Shiite militias from Iran succeeded in March in pushing Islamic State militants out of the city of Tikrit.
The United States-led coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria conducted 19 such strikes around Ramadi over the weekend, Reuters reported.