Gunshots rang out one recent evening in the western Iraqi town of Haditha as local tribesmen in pickup trucks celebrated their capture of a handful of militants belonging to the al Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State.
Said Abu Faraj, 67, held his cell phone into the air so a caller could listen in on the festivities – a rare instance of Sunni Muslims pushing back against the extremists who claim to be their defenders against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
Loudspeakers announced that the militants were in custody. The tribesmen played patriotic music from the 1980s, with lyrics saying that an Iraqi fights to the death to defend what he loves.
“You hear this?” Abu Faraj asked. “Gunfire and songs.”
For now, such scenes are an anomaly in the vast swaths of territory that are included in the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. But the Haditha example and other nascent resistance campaigns in northern and western lands signal growing divisions among Sunnis over how much trust should be placed in a group whose harsh brand of Islamism represents only a minority of Iraq’s Sunnis.
Even Sunnis who tentatively welcome the Islamic State’s help in overthrowing what they view as an American-installed, sectarian political system privately express concern that the extremists are pursuing the same strategy they used in neighboring Syria, where they hijacked and eventually routed a more mainstream, nationalist rebel movement. The civil war next door paved the way for today’s cross-border caliphate, which encompasses nearly all of eastern Syria and roughly half of Iraq.
On this side of the border, the Islamic State is working in tandem with sympathetic tribes, members of Saddam Hussein’s former Baath Party, old-regime intelligence and military officers, and homegrown Islamists. These backup groups undoubtedly are wary of the jihadist powerhouse at the vanguard of the insurgency, especially amid increasing reports that the extremists have executed some erstwhile Sunni comrades for failing to pledge allegiance to “caliph” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi or for refusing to abide by his harsh brand of Islamic law.
And yet most Sunni rebels are still reluctant to speak out against the Islamic State, whether out of fear of retribution, out of gratitude to a force that’s humiliating their archenemy Maliki, or out of the belief that a united Sunni front is the only hope for taking the ultimate prize: Baghdad.
“The presence of other factions at this stage is normal and necessary and most welcome, on condition that each faction respects the boundaries of the others,” said Abdel Rahman al Fallahi, a colonel from Saddam Hussein’s army who is now fighting alongside the jihadists and other Sunni rebels near the western city of Ramadi. “But one faction shouldn’t pressure others into giving their allegiance or retaliate against them if they don’t. We are afraid that this might be the beginning of the divide between the Islamic State and the other factions.”
The developing rifts have been documented, cropping up in Arabic-language news reports or in the findings of human rights groups and academics who closely track the conflict.
One example is from Duluaiya, about an hour’s drive from Baghdad, where Sunni tribesmen balked last month when the Islamic State asked them to turn over government soldiers and police for execution, according to the most recent United Nations report on violence in Iraq. The locals launched a counteroffensive and fighting in the town continues, pitting the tribesmen against both Shiite-led government forces as well as the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.
Perhaps the most egregious case study is the northern Sunni village of Zowiya, where earlier this month residents tried to repel an Islamic State incursion and were punished with a merciless campaign of deadly mortar fire and house demolitions that the extremists hailed as “purification.” The group held up the destruction of Zowiya as a warning for any group that attempts to resist the caliphate, but the incident is drawing a backlash from some of the Islamic State’s allies.
A Sunni rebel who gave his name as Khaled al Iraqi, a major in the former regime’s army who now belongs to an insurgent faction called the Islamic Army, said “now is not a good time for picking a fight” with the Islamic State, which he fights with in Sharqat, in the northern Saladin province. But he was unsettled by the brutality in Zowiya and thinks the jihadists risk overplaying their hand.
“Although the Islamic State has not pressured any of our members into giving allegiance or attempted to detain them, we disagree on many things, for example about what happened in Zowiya,” he said in a phone interview. “We told them that destroying the homes of Iraqi citizens the way they did would only give rise to hatred and indignation in a population that they hope would support them. And it’ll cause them long-term problems in the future.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said that exploiting the burgeoning rifts could be one part of a counterterrorism strategy to halt the Islamic State’s advance. The problem with that idea, however, is that the political climate is far different now from 2006 and 2007, when the U.S. military recruited disgruntled Sunni tribes to help them fight al Qaida-allied militants in a project dubbed the “Sons of Iraq,” known in Arabic as the “Sahwa,” or “Awakening.”
In 2008, U.S. forces handed over the paramilitary project to the Maliki administration, which failed to live up to its promises to keep paying the fighters and to incorporate them into the state’s security forces. In the years since, as Maliki has pursued even more sectarian policies that alienated ordinary Sunnis, the word “Sahwa” has become synonymous with “collaborator” or “sellout.” While Sunni tribes might eventually turn on the Islamic State, that doesn’t mean they’ll drop their preexisting battle against the central government.
“In 2006, Anbar fought terrorism and what did it get in return? Arbitrary detentions, siege, the depriving of the people of their most rights, and the killing of people for their beliefs,” said Abdul Hameed al Jumaily, an imam who preaches at the Furqan Mosque in Fallujah, which is under Islamic State control. “No one trusts this government and this system anymore.”
He added that U.S. officials have themselves to blame for the spread of extremism because they dismantled military institutions and abandoned their few Sunni allies to the mercy of Maliki: “They handcuffed Iraq, threw it to the ocean and asked Iraq not to get wet.”
Maliki’s undermining of the Sahwa movement, along with a laundry list of other grievances Sunnis have racked up under his rule, means that a revival of such a strategy is a non-starter, according to analysts who study the conflict. Only a true overhaul of the Iraqi political system that results in a more inclusive, sectarian-neutral government stands a chance of separating Sunni rebels who support a republic from the jihadists who seek a theocracy, Iraq observers said.
“Most Sunnis maintain their suspicious view of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, but they do not see ISIS as a good alternative,” Harith al-Qarawee, a political scientist who researches sectarianism and political transition in Iraq, wrote this month in an essay on Sunni divisions for the online Middle East journal Al Monitor. ISIS refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as the group was formerly called.
“It is true that ISIS has largely invested in the sectarian tension in Iraq and the region, but its objectives go beyond the Iraqi borders or the major concerns of Iraq’s Sunni community,” al-Qarawee continued. “Through its simultaneous involvement in Syria and Iraq, ISIS established its distinct entity and identity with an agenda that is largely indifferent to Iraqi politics.”
Maliki has remained defiant against calls that he relinquish his post as a first step toward national reconciliation, dashing what scant hope remains to bring Sunnis back into the political process and to weaken the insurgency. Iraqi political and tribal leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, have said in interviews that the crisis has spiraled past most any scenario but a protracted civil war. And as the conflict grinds on, it’s doubtful that the Sunnis’ already fraying insurgent alliance could remain intact, raising the specter of a Syria-style free-for-all.
In the past week, several Sunni blocs – with the exclusion of any group with ties to the government – held crisis talks in the Jordanian capital of Amman with the goal of creating an umbrella for what they call “the revolutionaries” fighting the Maliki regime. During the talks, according to news reports and interviews, the members clashed over the role of the Islamic State. The summit’s final statement reiterated Sunni demands, but made no mention of the single most powerful faction in their rebellion.
Former Saddam-era general Mustafa Kamil Shibib watched news of the meeting from his palm-ringed estate in the Doura district of south Baghdad. As the former leader of a 2,000-man Sahwa militia that drove al Qaida from this area in 2008, he would be persona non grata at such a gathering, whose participants view him as a traitor for collaborating with the U.S. military and Iraqi government.
Shibib said that he’d fight the extremists “again and again,” but admitted that he felt a tinge of guilty pleasure in watching his old foes deal some payback to the Maliki regime, which he considers dangerously sectarian and strategically inept for dumping the Sahwas, the only Iraqi force with proven success in the fight against al Qaida.
His rival Sunni rebels might be feeling victorious now with their land grabs and waves of new recruits, he said, but the hour is approaching when they’ll regret their decision to join forces with the Islamic State.
“ISIS is the devil,” he warned, “and companions of the devil will have hell to pay.”