When the US military removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, decades of simmering hostility between Iraq's Sunni and Shia Muslims boiled over into a sectarian insurgency that devastated the country, destabilized the region, and left hundreds of thousands dead. But with the Islamic State (IS) back on the offensive after capturing Ramadi, Sunnis and Shias are trying to put aside their history of bloodletting and find ways to support each other.
The specter of IS — also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daash — looms large over everything in Iraq. The group's June 2014 takeover of Mosul and other territories was followed by a murderous rampage that targeted Shias and Sunnis alike. The extreme brutality has provided a common enemy for these once adversarial groups — an elaborate mix of militias, tribal families, nationalist parties, and proxy networks — who have now tentatively started working together.
Shia militias have organized under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), while Sunni tribes opposing the Islamic State remain disorganized but continue to fight in loosely affiliated groups in provinces such as Anbar, where Ramadi is located.
Paul Stanley, business director of a private security company in Iraq, told VICE News the Sunni-Shia cooperation began only recently. "The PMU leadership intimated their willingness to work with the Sunni tribal fighters in press statements in late April," he said. "The tone was that of an offer of assistance."
The development came not long after the PMU spearheaded the battle to recapture Tikrit, taking precedence over the beleaguered Iraqi army. The campaign for Tikrit not only underscored the brutality of fighting in dense urban terrain, but also showed how political conditions shaped by the US have proved challenging in a conflict permeated by cultural and sectarian antagonism.
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Asked about US support for the PMU, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told VICE News, "It is important to distinguish between the Popular Mobilization Forces, many of which are composed of Iraqi nationalists who have volunteered to defend their country, and some elements within the PMF such as some of the Iranian-backed Shia militias, which are more problematic because they may not answer to an Iraqi chain of command."
But while the US is wary, some Sunni tribes have had no choice but to accept the Iranian support through the PMU. In an interview with NPR during the campaign for Tikrit, Ali Dodah Khalaf Jabouri, the mayor of Al-Shargat, a town just north of Tikrit, said, "No one helped us when ISIS came — not America, not Turkey. But Iran helped us, with guns, tanks, and rockets."
'No one helped us when ISIS came — not America, not Turkey. But Iran helped us, with guns, tanks, and rockets.'
There is also a desire by young Sunni men to fight with groups that can actually win battles against IS — especially after the mass displacement and murder of their fellow tribesmen.
"The non-regular armed forces [PMU] in Iraq not only bring essential manpower, but they bring a force structure and tactics ideally suited to fight the Islamic State," Stanley said.
According to Iraqi news reports, at least 205 Sunni men from al Alam, a strategic town north of Tikrit, have joined the League of the Righteous, a Shia militia responsible for some of the worse sectarian violence during the darkest days of the US occupation.
"They claim that the Shia-led Baghdad government does not want to arm them on sectarian grounds and Iraqi Shias remain nervous about the prospect of an armed tribal militia which they fear could turn against them once ISIS is defeated," Joseph Motley, an Iraq intelligence analyst for private corporations, told VICE News.
Though there is no real unified structure to the Sunni tribes, forging alliances with them advances the political and security interests of both the PMU and Iran. It also undermines the US policy of trying to support the tribes directly.
In late April, the Iraqi government and the PMU emphatically rejected US legislation aimed at arming the Sunni tribes independent of the central government. Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia leader whose militia is known affectionately as the Peace Brigades, indicated that he would attack US interests if the legislation were passed.
State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee told VICE News the US supports "the Iraqi government's commitment to enlist and arm tribal fighters," but added that "the decision to involve Shia elements of the PMF in the fight for Anbar would be for the government of Iraq to make" in conjunction with local leaders.
In Anbar, Sunnis from the Council of Tribal Leaders issued a press release on May 17 demanding that that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi involve the PMU in Ramadi. Sources have told VICE News that the Badr Organization is in the process of dispatching close to 3,000 fighters to the troubled city.
In some cases, however, it seems the alliances have come under terms that are less than agreeable. A senior advisor to a tribal sheik in Anbar who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity said, "Sunni Iraqis who have fled from areas under ISIS control are being given a choice, particularly in the south: Join the militias or leave the safe areas along with your families."
There are hopes that both the Shia PMU and Sunni tribal forces will eventually be part of a federalized security force resembling something along the lines of a National Guard. But Motley and other Iraq observers are skeptical about the prospect of long-term reconciliation.
"That the tribes would be driven to work with the militias for lack of any other alternative is evidence of their desperation at a government that has failed to give them the means of defend their homes and lands from a vicious invader," Motley said.
Perhaps the more likely outcome is the conflict ending exactly where it began more than a decade ago, with factional opportunism and sectarian politics.
Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder