Sunni Muslim tribesmen, Shiite militia fighters and Iraqi security forces set out Saturday to recapture a key city in Anbar province and stop Islamic State atrocities against a local tribe in an extraordinary coalition that could stir sectarian tensions or serve as a model for future cooperation against the militants.
The operation to liberate Hit, about 90 miles west of Baghdad, could reshape the situation in Anbar in a way that would affect the mission of U.S. troops who are being deployed to the province from among the additional 1,500 U.S. military advisers the Pentagon said it is sending to Iraq at year-end.
“This is a dramatic change,” said Hisham al Hashimi, an Iraqi defense analyst. “We have the Sunni Arab tribes fighting hand in hand with the Shiites.”
Earlier, U.S. warplanes attacked Islamic State positions on the route of the advance, which was moving slowly because of numerous roadside bombs, according to two tribal leaders reached by telephone.
The airstrikes “had a good impact on Daash positions. They’ve had a lot of casualties,” said heikh Bilal al Goud, who was with the attacking force, using the disparaging Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Sounds of fighting could be heard in the background.
Accepting offers of assistance from the Shiite militias, notorious for anti-Sunni atrocities, is a measure of the Albu Nimr leaders’ desperation to stop the slaughter of their people by the Islamic State in retribution for the tribe’s stiff, months-long defense of Hit, which capitulated in October.
The Islamic State, thousands of whose fighters come from across the Muslim world, Europe and North America, has killed at least 522 Albu Nimr members since Hit fell, al-Gould said. Between 600 and 700 others are missing.
“I welcome them,” he said of the militias. “Why? Because they will help us get rid of Daash.”
Albu Nimr leaders have been outspoken in their anger at the army for failing to prevent the fall of Hit and the atrocities against their people, and demanded arms for their tribesman to fight the Islamic State. The Shiite-dominated government resisted, but Washington made clear that it wouldn’t send military advisers to Anbar unless the government armed the tribes.
On Friday, the commander of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division agreed at a meeting with tribal leaders to arm about 600 tribesmen, mostly Albu Nimr, to reduce the potential for sectarian tensions in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar, according to al Goud and Sheikh Mal Allah Berzam Hamden, whose al Obeid tribe also is involved.
“We shouldn’t be protecting just the Albu Nimr, we should be protecting Iraq,” al Goud said.
The province’s Sunnis are deeply alienated from Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government.
Many Anbar tribes joined the militants, while others are backing allied groups led by former senior Iraqi army officers who were ousted from their posts after the fall of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Should the effort to retake Hit succeed without a falling out between the Sunni tribesmen and the Shiite militias, the offensive could set the stage for further cooperation, bringing a measure of stability to Iraq.