Leaders of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim tribes threatened Friday to rebel against the Islamic State, the first indication that a change of government in Baghdad might allow a new prime minister to rally the country’s divided ethnic and religious groups against the Islamist extremists.
But the offer to battle the Sunni militants came with strings — possible autonomy and the withdrawal of Iraqi military forces from Sunni areas — that would be difficult for the Shiite-led government to grant, and Shiite politicians showed little enthusiasm. One, Dhiaa al Asadi, a member of Parliament loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, called the Sunni proposal “very exaggerated and unrealistic.”
U.S. officials have predicted since the Islamic State began its sweep through Iraq, often with the collaboration of Sunni tribes, that a more conciliatory government in Baghdad, coupled with harsh rule imposed by the Islamists, would move disaffected Sunnis to rebel. That’s one reason the U.S. pushed so hard for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign in favor of a replacement who would be more disposed to offer concessions to Sunnis and Kurds.
That happened Thursday, with al-Maliki endorsing a fellow member of the Dawa party, Haider al-Abadi, to succeed him.
Then on Friday came the first suggestion that the U.S. theory might prove accurate: an impromptu televised speech by one of the leading Sunni tribal leaders, Ali Hatem, who is wanted on a charge of treason by the Baghdad government.
Hatem said tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen and other anti-government groups now supporting the Islamic State would change their loyalties if the new government in Baghdad offered something in return. He said the Islamic State includes thousands of non-Iraqis who could easily be defeated by Iraq’s much larger complex of Sunni tribes.
All the new government of Prime Minister-designate Abadi must do, Hatem said, is end Iraqi army and Shiite militia activities in Sunni areas, limitairstrikes to Islamic State targets only and hold a referendum that would grant Sunnis autonomy.
“We will fight them once you return our rights and remove the Maliki militias,” Hatem said.
“ Daash formed because of the sectarian policies of Nouri al-Maliki,” he said, using a derogatory Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, “and it will be no problem for the tribes of Iraq to remove them if we are supported.”
A second offer of rebellion came from Anbar province in Iraq’s west, where 25 major tribes announced to the Agence France-Presse news service that they would take up arms against the Islamic State after the group “spilled the blood” of tribal members in a series of clashes.
“This popular revolution was agreed on with all the tribes that want to fight ISIS, which spilled our blood,” the agency quoted Sheikh Abdel-Jabbar Abu Risha as saying.
The Abu Risha tribe was a key participant in the American-backed Awakening Councils, a successful attempt by the tribes to push their onetime allies in al-Qaida in Iraq out of Anbar in 2007. The Islamic State, the successor to al-Qaida in Iraq, took control of most of the province in December.
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