BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric called on the government on Friday to rush to the aid of Sunni tribes battling Islamic State, after the militant group executed at least 220 tribesmen west of Baghdad this week.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments show how the threat posed by Islamic State, which follows an ultra-hardline version of Sunni Islam, has pushed some Shi’ites and Sunnis to overcome their sectarian differences and face a common enemy.
Some Sunnis, who feel marginalized or oppressed since the fall of Saddam Hussein, have sided with Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group that took swathes of Iraqi territory in a rapid offensive in June.
Others have fought back, but the discovery on Thursday of two mass graves in Anbar province showed the fate of those that do. At least 220 bodies of men from the Albu Nimr tribe, who had been seized by Islamic State days earlier, were found. They had been shot at close range.
“What is required from the Iraqi government ... is to offer quick support to the sons of this tribe and other tribes that are fighting Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists,” Sistani said, in an address read out by an aide in the holy city of Kerbala after Friday prayers.
“This will offer the opportunity to the other tribes to join the fighters against Daesh,” he said. Sistani, 84, is a reclusive figure and always delivers his public messages via a proxy.
Most of the dead in the mass graves were either police officers or members of a militia called Sahwa (Awakening) that was set up, with the backing of the United States during the its “surge” offensive of 2006-2007, to fight al Qaeda.
Washington hopes Iraq’s Shi’te-dominated government can rebuild a shaky alliance with Sunni tribes, particularly in Anbar.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States was prepared to expand its limited mission in Iraq into Anbar province, but only if the government armed the Sunni tribesmen.
Asked by journalists about this week’s killings there, he said: “That’s why we need to expand the train, advise and assist mission into ... Anbar province.
“But the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes.”
The United States no longer is waging a ground war in Iraq but has about 1,400 troops there, with about 600 of them acting in advisory roles to the Iraqis, mostly from joint operations centers in Baghdad and Arbil. None are in Anbar.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robin Pomeroy