More than a year after the U.S. led the formation of an anti-ISIS coalition, the extremists still hold large parts of western and northern Iraq.
In the west, ISIS took the desert provincial capital, Ramadi, four months ago. A much-anticipated counteroffensive never materialized.
In a small area of Anbar Province that ISIS doesn’t control, five Iraqi flags on bent brass poles mark out a parade ground bordered by a junkyard and dilapidated warehouse.
“We want to hear your voice!” yells an Iraqi army officer drilling about 200 recruits from local tribes who have pledged to fight ISIS.
Over the course of 15 to 20 days, the recruits receive physical and weapons training. “Then,” says Maj. Laafi Abbas, “we send them to the front line.”
Their preparation is minimal. Many of the sweating volunteers are in dress shoes or sneakers rather than boots. Few have guns. An instructor shows them how to dismantle a weapon while the men watch. Abbas says he’d like to train for longer, with more weapons, but he hasn’t been assigned the money.
The Pentagon calls these tribal fighters crucial to the long-term defeat of ISIS. The thinking goes that in a place like Anbar, where ISIS enjoys considerable support, you have to encourage any local guys who may be prepared and willing to take on the extremists.
But the tribes say they’re under-resourced and there’s no way they can mount an offensive without more help either from the coalition or their own government.
“All the tribes here are ready to fight,” says tribal leader Sheikh Hayel al-Humeidi, sitting in an office on the base. His men sided with the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaida almost a decade ago.
Now, he says, “we are under a lot of pressure from ISIS.” The extremists are 350 yards away from the base. “Daily, they shoot rockets and mortars at our houses.”
Outnumbered And Hoping For More Help
The tribal fighters work with the army and a small contingent of pro-government militias. But, says Army Col. Lawrence al-Issawi, they’re overstretched and ISIS has better weapons and more men. “We’re just holding the front line right now,” he says.
Iraq’s broken politics and economy offer plenty of reasons to explain the stalled fight.
Tumbling oil prices have left the country broke, and a proposed law to give more power to local fighters in Sunni areas like Anbar hasn’t been passed. The legislation was treated with intense suspicion by lawmakers from the Shiite majority, including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He said last month the proposed law was designed to divide the nation. Recent government reports have also detailed massive military corruption.
But tribal sheikhs, soldiers, lawmakers and senior officials lay the ultimate responsibility for Iraq’s fight against ISIS squarely at the feet of the U.S.-led coalition.
“When the serious will is there, then the fight can start,” says Hamed al-Mutlaq, deputy head of the government’s defense and security committee. He wants the international coalition to train and equip members of the police, army and tribes, and provide air cover.
In an interview last week with France 24, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, “We were expecting the international coalition, Americans, to bring massive air power to protect our forces,” he said. “We haven’t received that. At the moment we are getting support, but it’s not major — it’s limited.”
He even raised the possibility of inviting Russia to bomb ISIS in Iraq.
The U.S. defends its efforts, pointing to more than 6,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August of last year — which it says have killed thousands of ISIS fighters, including senior leaders — and advances by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Coalition trainers are also working with the army and tribal fighters on two bases in Anbar.
But the limited progress has drawn stinging criticism from American lawmakers as well. “There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve the president’s stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL,” Sen. John McCain said during a hearing in July.
‘I Don’t Think We Will Achieve Any Progress’
One Iraqi soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity because he’s afraid of his commanders, says the coalition, while taking some action, is not doing enough, given how weak Iraq’s forces are.
He says he’s received U.S. weapons and “very good” training from American and other instructors. He saved a man’s life with the first aid he was taught. When he was deployed just south of Ramadi last month, other soldiers were able to call in airstrikes, allowing his unit to take and hold land on the outskirts of the city.
“We surrounded ISIS in Ramadi,” he says. “But I don’t think we will achieve any progress in future.” He gestures to a TV tuned to the state channel, proclaiming victories, and calls it lies and propaganda.
He says that his commanders are corrupt, taking bribes to let people go on leave, and that they abandon troops when the battle heats up — and that there’s scarce food and water. ISIS is better armed, more numerous and uses car bombs and similar tactics.
It will take “seven or eight years” to retake Ramadi, he guesses, unless the American forces leave the training camps on the two bases and join Iraqi soldiers on the ground. “Then we can liberate it,” he says.
Meanwhile, more than 3 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq, most fleeing ISIS-held areas. Tens of thousands have piled into Anbar’s government-held town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah.
Some of those displaced have built a little souk selling clothes and household items.
“The most important thing is that we go back to our city,” says Mohammad Ahmad, a stallholder from Fallujah, which is controlled by ISIS. “But we haven’t seen anything from the government or the army that can help us.”