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Sunni tribesmen battling Daesh demand federalism in Iraq

DAILY SABAH WITH WIRES
ISTANBUL
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Sunni tribesmen (File Photo - Reuters)
Sunni tribesmen (File Photo - Reuters)

As mortar bombs landed ever closer, Sunni tribal fighters preparing to attack Daesh terrorists seemed preoccupied by the failures of Iraq's political class.

The men - and one woman - from the Lions of the Tigris unit gathered on Wednesday in Shayyalah al-Imam, a village near Mosul, with some of their leaders expressing deep distrust of the politicians and saying Iraq's governance must change once Daesh is defeated.

"Iraq needs serious reforms," said Sheikh Mohammed al-Jibouri, the top commander of the tribesmen. "Only serious reforms will lead to the unity of Iraq."

The unit is part of the Popular Mobilisation Committee, or Hashd al-Shaabi, which was formed to take on Daesh after the hardliner group swept through northern Iraq in 2014, facing little resistance from the army.

Hashd al-Shaabi is mostly comprised of Shi'ites but there are also Sunnis, such as the 655-strong Lions of the Tigris unit.

Despite the opposition of Sunni lawmakers and other regional forces, Iraq's parliament last Saturday voted to accord full legal status to government-sanctioned Hashd al-Shaabi militias as a "back-up and reserve" force for the military and police and empower them to "deter" security and terror threats facing the country.

The Popular Mobilisation Committee, would cover all Iraqi sects, a thinly veiled reference to the much smaller and weaker Sunni tribal forces. The Shiite militias number more than 100,000.

The legislation was promptly rejected by Sunni Arab lawmakers who said it was evidence of what they called the "dictatorship" of the country's Shiite majority.

Their efforts along with government soldiers to capture several villages are part of an offensive to oust Daesh from its stronghold of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

On the surface, their participation somewhat lends credibility to the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, accused by Sunnis of marginalising their minority community.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been struggling to persuade Sunni tribesmen who helped U.S. forces defeat Al-Qaeda during the 2003-11 occupation to join the battle against Daesh. He has declared a war on corruption in government and army but faces resistance.

The show of force in Shayyalah al-Imam points to progress, with soldiers and tribesmen standing side-by-side.

But some of the men doubted the politicians have the resolve or desire to unify Iraq, gripped by sectarian bloodshed since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Another tribal commander, Abdel Rahman Ali, even saw Daesh as part of an elaborate plot to weaken Sunnis, underlining the pervasive mistrust in Iraq.

"Everyone knows Daesh will be defeated. The conspiracy was designed to hurt Iraq, especially Sunnis, after we liberate Mosul," he told Reuters. "Our own politicians are behind it."



UNITY OR PARTITION

Officials have said the Mosul offensive, the biggest ground operation since 2003, could make or break Iraq. If it inflames sectarian tensions in the predominantly Sunni city, the fighting could lead to Iraq's partition, they warn.

But if the campaign goes smoothly and a new administration in Mosul is seen as non-sectarian, that could help the country to unite.

Ali said federalism modelled on the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is the best option, even though that has created friction with Baghdad over oil resources.

Like many Sunnis, the minority who dominated under Saddam and then watched the majority Shi'ites rise to power, he is disillusioned with a governing system that allocates posts according to sects. Sunnis themselves are divided and lack a strong leadership, adding to Iraq's fragmentation.

As the men spoke, Daesh militants fired more mortar bombs towards their unit. One day earlier, suicide bombers attacked the area, a collection of bland cement houses choked by dust, overlooking the desert.

A few hundred metres away, soldiers stood on a rooftop, focused on two suspected car bombs in the distance.

Nashwan Sahn, a Sunni tribesman who has been fighting terrorists in Iraq for 11 years, taking on al Qaeda and then Daesh, kept warm at a small campfire where freshly-slaughtered chickens had been barbecued. A few raw livers lay scattered on a tray. Beside him was a Shi'ite soldier.

Both said they support Iraqi unity but neither had any faith in the politicians to manage the sectarian tensions which provoked a civil war in 2006-2007.

"Federalism would be good but only if we have good leaders," said Sahn, who criticised all politicians including fellow Sunnis. "We liberate these villages where Sunnis live. Yet Sunni politicians who have constituents here have never visited us at the frontline."

Miaad Madaad, the only female member of the Lions of the Tigris, clutched an AK-47 assault rifle and vowed to defeat Daesh. "The last time they came to my house and threatened me I threw rocks at them and called them dogs," she said proudly.

Daesh terrorists beheaded her father-in-law and brother-in-law. But her story illustrates the sectarian and ethnic complexities and mistrust facing Iraq.

When she and her husband fled to the relatively stable Kurdish region earlier this year, he was arrested by Kurdish fighters who suspected him of being a Daesh fighter.

Turkey have repeatedly warned against the inclusion of PMC militia in operations in northwestern Iraq -- where the vast majority of the population are Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, in addition to Shiite Turkmens and Yazidis -- stating that it may trigger sectarian and ethnic violence.

Turkish officials proposed using Turkish-trained Sunni forces and Turkish troops for the capture of Tal Afar, failing to convince the U.S. led anti-Daesh coalition and Iraq's central government.

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