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Sunni Sheikhs May Have Been Coerced Into Pledging Allegiance to the Islamic State

Doubts have been raised over oaths made by Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province. But either way it was a public relations coup for the Islamic State.
June 5, 2015, 10:15am
Photo via AP

A group of sheikhs representing Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar province apparently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on Wednesday during a ceremony in militant-controlled Fallujah. A similar ceremony was held days earlier in Anbar's capital Ramadi, but the degree of coercion involved in the dual proclamations remains unclear.

The Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daash, captured Ramadi in May, setting off a wave of displacement that has seen an estimated 100,000 people flee from areas inside Anbar. With Iraqi forces and Shia militias attempting to recapture the city, the oaths of loyalty represent, at the very least, a public relations coup for IS as the militants attempt to bring the province's tribes under control and recruit new members.

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The statement in Anbar was read aloud by Ahmed Dar al-Jumaila, a sheikh from the Jumaili tribe, one of Anbar's more powerful communities. Iraq's Sunni tribes in Anbar have been divided since the start of IS' widespread offensives in Iraq last year. Similar divisions existed during the American occupation, with many tribes vacillating between a Sunni insurgency that included IS' former incarnation, al Qaeda in Iraq, and the US efforts against the group.

Related: Airstrike Hits Islamic State Car Bomb Factory in Iraq

Sunni tribes were instrumental in a 2007 American surge in Anbar that eventually help clamp down on violence, but after the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 they began to complain of increasing neglect and marginalization by Iraq's Shia-led government in Baghdad.

IS has subsequently preyed on Sunni distrust of Baghdad in Anbar. Tribal fighters attempting to stymie IS have complained they were not sufficiently armed by the government during the militant group's expansion. While the Fallujah proclamation may result in more fighters joining the extremists' ranks, it also served as a message to members of tribes like the Jumaili who have fought alongside the government against IS. At the meeting in Fallujah, where the sheikhs said they were joining with IS to "fight the infidels, apostates, and Shia," militants executed at least one Iraqi government soldier in front of the sheikhs — a not-so-subtle message to those who would turn against the group.

'Obviously these are kind of coerced — it was mostly a show.'

"Obviously these are kind of coerced — it was mostly a show," Hassan Hassan, a fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Program, told VICE News in reference to the Ramadi proclamation, which reportedly took place on May 30. "They were made to sit and issue a statement and pretend they are supporters of the group. But it's significant regardless of whether they were coerced or not."

Referring to the pledge made in Ramadi, Hassan said "the short term goal is tactical because the Iraqi government is planning to stage an offensive. They want to make sure that tribes don't rebel against them, and that there are no collaborators from within these areas."

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Hassan believes IS' long-term goal is more strategic, and that the aim of the public pledge of allegiance was to serve as propaganda for recruiting purposes. "They basically want to win them over, and to start recruiting from within their ranks and build long-term alliances with some of them, which they have succeeded in doing in areas where they have established control, like Mosul and Fallujah," he said.

Related: Islamic State's Capture of Ramadi May Signal Larger Role for Iraq's Militias as Conflict Continues

IS has repeatedly massacred Sunni tribal members in Anbar, last year executing more than 300 people, including women and children from the Albu Nimr tribe, according Iraq's government.

"These tribes feel deeply threatened by ISIS," Hassan said. "There has always been mutual suspicion between tribes and ISIS, and ISIS realized they cannot fight the tribes, but at the same time they don't trust them."

On Tuesday, the speaker of Iraq's parliament, Salim al-Jubouri called for the involvement of Sunni tribal fighters in operations in Anbar. But since the capture of Ramadi, Iranian-backed Shia militias has assumed the leading role in the fight against IS. The groups have proven to be more effective than Iraqi security forces, including during the recapture of Tikrit earlier this year. But the militias are also known in Sunni communities for their brutality and sectarian nature, and Iraqis worry that their involvement in Anbar will only further divisions.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, told VICE News the dual proclamations had a clear intention coming from a group as propaganda-oriented as IS. However, he added that it was difficult to read far into their immediate repercussions, especially in Fallujah, which has been held by IS since early 2014.

"It cannot be surprising that Sheikhs inside a city that has been controlled by ISIS for 18 months would read out a pro-ISIS statement," Knights said.

Haider Kata contributed to this report.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford