BAGHDAD/AMMAN (Reuters) - Unwilling to send U.S. troops back to Iraq, Washington is trying to persuade armed Sunni factions and tribal figures to fight Islamic State militants in an echo of the “Awakening” movement that drove al Qaeda from the country six years ago.
“There is a lot of traffic right now,” James Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010-2012 and maintains close ties to the government in Baghdad.
“There were meetings in Arbil. There were meetings in Amman,” he said, referring to talks between tribal groups and U.S. officials in the capitals of the relatively neutral Iraqi province of Kurdistan and neighboring Jordan.
The plan is far from easy, since many Sunnis regard the Awakening as a failure and a betrayal and see the Sunni Islamic State’s sweep into predominantly Sunni northern and western Iraq as the lesser of two evils, despite its mass killings.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say it is not a rehash of the Awakening but will incorporate Sunnis into a “National Guard”, a security force intended to decentralize power from Baghdad, addressing Sunni demands to stop oppression from the majority Shi’ite security forces.
Past promises by the Americans and Iraqi officials to integrate the minority into the Iraqi state in return for its help were never realized. Instead, the movement’s leaders found themselves hunted by both jihadists and the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government.
Recent U.S. and Iraqi air strikes on Islamic State targets have not helped since they are hard to distinguish between and local leaders say the latter have hit residential areas, even after a recent government call to avoid civilians.
Yet a host of talks are going on between U.S. and Iraqi officials and Iraqi Sunni groups, security officials from Iraq and the U.S. say.
“Americans of all provenances are talking to all kinds of Iraq Sunnis as we speak,” a western diplomat in the region said on condition of anonymity. “Amman is full of these guys.”
Sunni militants who fought U.S. troops and the Shi’ite led government after Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown are also being approached.
Talking to insurgent groups who killed U.S. troops will be contentious in the United States as well as in Iraq, where some of the Shi’ite majority are concerned about Washington supporting Sunni militants.
One key Sunni intermediary for the Americans is Ahmed Abu Risha, a leader of forces which fought al Qaeda in Iraq. He said there are more than 20 tribal leaders from Iraq’s western Anbar province who are speaking to U.S. representatives.
“These leaders are willing to assist the U.S. forces in fighting (Islamic State) and they have been reorganizing the Awakening forces, which currently has 22,000 members still fighting against (Islamic State).”
He said 32,000 fighters from the Awakening were ready to fight alongside the U.S and an Iraqi security official said the main forces being spoken to are a mixture of tribal groups and Sunni militants amounting to around 60,000 fighters.
Obama has promised to destroy Islamic State (IS) using “a systematic campaign of air strikes”, and said NATO allies were prepared to join military action against a movement that he labeled a major threat to the West.
Unlike the Awakening, the U.S. will not have ground troops working with Sunni militants, making the operation much harder to control, and more difficult to defuse confrontations between the fighters and Baghdad.
Abu Risha is himself a polarizing figure, whose support of the last prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, in attacking militants in Anbar this year has alienated many in his province, where hundreds of thousands were displaced under aerial bombardment.
The danger remains that a new force under Abu Risha’s command will push other Sunni tribal figures to fight him and side with Islamic State.
A U.S. diplomat said that there are a number of Iraqi Sunni “moderate” tribal leaders who have been traveling to Sunni states and U.S. allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks and asking for support from the Gulf to kick IS out.
A senior Iraqi government official said Iraqi Sunni groups have been talking with Baghdad since June and offered to fight Islamic State in return for greater devolution of power and amnesties for those who fought the government.
“All these groups meet with government officials for deals. They say they will give us control of the areas provided they get what they want,” he said on condition of anonymity, adding that the government wanted to see what the groups could deliver.
A tribal leader from Anbar who is being courted said he was approached indirectly by the Americans to get his supporters on board. He listed others, from former members of Saddam’s secular Baath party to Islamists who had been committed to the violent overthrow of the Baghdad government.
He told Reuters the Americans met with the Sunni Islamist-led Islamic Army and the Baathist Naqshabandi. “Some elements within the Iraqi government have also started dialogue with these groups to get them on their side to fight IS,” he said.
Another insurgent source involved in the matter said more formal talks were being prepared between the Islamic Army and United States.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formed a government last week despite divisions, but the sensitive interior and defense posts are still vacant and while many Sunnis voted for him, tribal sheikhs and former Baathist commanders.
A high-level Iraqi security official also confirmed that talks had occurred between the Americans and armed groups opposed to both the previous and present Iraqi government.
A U.S. State Department official denied State had reached out to such groups, but did not rule out the possibility another government branch — which could refer to the CIA — had put out feelers to the factions.
Many Sunnis resent the U.S. support for Baghdad, which cracked down on Sunni protests over the past two years and uses barrel bombs to hit Islamic State fighters who hide among civilians and has yet to meet their demands for greater rights.
“Unfortunately the Americans are not changing their strategy only their tactics ... They are seeing their interests in Iraq more and more with the Shi’ites. They are seeing a common interest with Iran,” the same tribal sheikh said.
Sheikh Lawrence Hardan, a tribal leader from Hardan tribe in Garma, a frontline in the war for Anbar, cautioned that even now ordinary Sunnis in his province had a hellish existence.
“In our opinion there need to be certain steps taken first like stopping the bombing of the cities so displaced people can return to their houses. There are sieges in some cities, no electricity and no public services,” he said by telephone.
Only about five percent of recent Iraqi air attacks hit Islamic State and the rest hit civilians, he said on Friday.
On Saturday Abadi announced he had ordered a freeze on air strikes in civilian areas two days before. But reports of strikes around Fallujah and Ramadi have continued since his decree, suggesting the difficulty of executing a ban.
On Thursday, 14 barrel bombs were dropped on Falluja city, killing 22 civilians, a source at a hospital in the city said, while an air strike killed three people in Ramadi on Friday.
An Iraqi Police Intelligence Officer in Anbar warned that many Sunnis assumed any air strike in Anbar was American, whether or not it was. “It’s not helping,” he said. “Islamic State is using it as propaganda.”
He also said U.S. intermediary Abu Risha, one of the leaders who fought al Qaeda, had since lost his influence. “He is not respected anymore. We are talking about a new leadership of tribes all over the Anbar.”
Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, one of the leaders of the Sunni revolt against the Shi’ite-led government, is also reported to be being courted by the U.S. to turn against the Islamic State.
His brother, AbdulRazaq, told Reuters that Suleiman, who left Anbar at the end of April, met with U.S. representatives to discuss the formation of the next government. It was not possible to confirm the talks or find out how they went.
Washington is also speaking to Gulf Arab allies with the aim of expanding training and arming of anti-IS Syrian rebels, to hit Islamic State on both sides.
But in Syria, weapons delivered to the western-backed Free Syrian Army have been stolen and sometimes sold to Islamic State, highlighting issues with funding Sunni militants there.
To avoid this in Iraq, a senior State Department official said the U.S. Government is working closely with Abadi to build a “National Guard”, a government-run body that will incorporate the Sunni militants and go a long way towards meeting their key demand for the military to withdraw from their provinces.
The National Guard proposal has also been touted by Abadi as a way to absorb Shi’ite militias or volunteers, who have been fighting for their sect, under a nominal state chain of command, since the fall of Mosul in June.
An assessment is now being carried out to determine how big it needs to be, where the soldiers should be deployed and what screening and training would need to be done.
Iraq’s parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri told Reuters in an interview this week that the National Guard would allow provinces to be responsible for their own safety.
But the second insurgent source worried the National Guard’s dual track - integrating Shi’ite militias as well - would allow the Shi’ites to get close to Sunni areas, although he said the Islamic Army and others had told officials they backed the freeze on air strikes on residential areas.
“I told them this is a good step but that the government has to get going on the amnesty law ... and differentiate between Daesh (IS) and the resistance groups that fought the occupier,” the source said, referring to U.S. troops.
“Give me a justification — I can go to my base and followers and inform them these people are serious in finding solutions. This is what we are waiting for.”
Additonal reporting by Warren Strobel in Washington, Amena Bakr in Doha and William Maclean in Dubai; editing by Philippa Fletcher