Ramadi is in play again.

Photographer: AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images

Sunni Leader Warns Against Using Shiites to Retake Ramadi

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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As Iraq's Shiite militias gather on the outskirts of Ramadi in preparation for battle, a key Sunni tribal leader and opponent of Islamic State is warning against the militias' participation.  

Sheikh Abdulrazzaq al-Dulaym said of the groups: "We warned of the popular organization entering Anbar and specifically Ramadi. If they enter now, it will cause a civil war." Speaking Monday at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the sheikh said it was for Sunni Arabs in Iraq to take back Ramadi and not for the militias supported by Iran.

Abdulrazzaq is important for Washington. His father was the chief of the Dulaym tribe, the largest tribe that populates the territory seized by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The last time the U.S. defeated jihadists like the Islamic State, the sheikh's assistance was valuable. He turned on the group's predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq. This time around, he's offering to fight again even though many other Dulaym sheikhs today are allied with the terrorists. 

The sheikh's warning about Iranian-backed Shiite militias is not the view of all Anbaris. A statement released Monday from Anbar's provincial council welcomed the campaign from the militias to uproot the Islamic State.

But Abdulrazzaq said the council members had no choice but to welcome the militias; that decision was made by the government in Baghdad. The recent experience in areas "liberated" by these Shiite militias was not encouraging. Many Sunni residents were robbed and murdered by the militias, he said.

The Islamic State has sought to play up the atrocities of the Shiite militias. Abdulrazzaq might agree, but he is hardly an ally. He said he lost family members to the Islamic State recently when they tried to enter Ramadi after the Islamic State took over the city. He referred to the Islamic State in his discussion Monday as a "cancer" that must be uprooted.

This week Abdulrazzaq is in Washington asking the Obama administration to train and equip Sunni tribal fighters much the way the U.S. military did after 2007 during the counter-insurgency strategy known as the surge, when the sheikh was an adviser to the U.S. military. But while the U.S. has said it is beginning to train and equip these tribal groups, the sheikh said so far these efforts haven't amounted to much.

"We have not seen anyone training the Sunnis," he said. "There are some advisers there, yes, but this effort is not up to the standard." Pointing out that the Islamic State just took over Ramadi, he warned, "We don't know what they will take over next."

The U.S. has yet to unify the Sunni Arab foes of the Islamic State. "There is no overarching command for the Sunni fighters," Sterling Jensen, a former translator for the U.S. Army in Anbar, told us. Jensen said he is in touch with many of the divisions, police forces and militias fighting Islamic State, but none of these forces are working together. "They are not coordinating efforts, this has been one of the reasons they are weak." 

U.S. government officials spent the day Monday downplaying the impact of the Islamic State takeover of Ramadi and pledged to support Iraqi forces, including Shia militias, in the coming battle to retake the city. There’s no stated timeline for that mission.

 “I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at a news conference in Seoul.

 State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke emphasized that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Shia militias to lead the charge to recapture Ramadi from Islamic State. He said the U.S.-led coalition has conducted 35 airstrikes in Ramadi in May, including 9 in the last 24 hours.

“There’s no denying that this is a setback, but there’s also no denying that the United States will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi,” he said. “Our aircraft are in the air searching for ISIL targets, and they will continue to do so until Ramadi is retaken.”

But Abdulrazzaq said these strikes were "the air force of the popular militias." The sheikh said he was particularly worried because these militias are so close to Iran. "The Iraqi government is trying to give legitimacy to this popular mobilization," he said, using a term for the Shiite militias. "It's not a secret; everyone knows it. Iranian officials and generals are leading this popular mobilization."

In February, we reported from Iraq on how  much power these militias exercised even over Iraq's military and the close ties between the militias and  Iran.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters Monday that there’s no other option than to rely on the Shia militias if Islamic State is to be defeated in Ramadi. "The militias have a part to play in this. As long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government, then they will participate," Warren said. 

 But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers warned that the Iranian-backed militias' entry into Ramadi would do more harm than good. “Whatever operational success Shia militias may have in Anbar would be far exceeded by the strategic damage caused by their violent sectarianism and the fear and suspicion it breeds among Iraqi Sunnis,” Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement.

The U.S. dedication to fighting the Islamic State in Ramadi has been called into question ever since General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last month that Ramadi was “not symbolic in any way.” He later apologized to family members of U.S. service members who died in Ramadi.

Dempsey last month was arguing that other key areas under threat, such as the oil-rich region of Baiji, were more strategically important in the overall mission to fight the Islamic State. This week, the terrorist group also made gains near the Baiji refinery; the battle there is at a stalemate.

Sheikhs like Abdulrazzaq worry now about how to defeat the Islamic State in places like Baiji and Ramadi without empowering Iran's Islamic Republic. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net