Despite airstrikes, ISIS appears to hold its ground in Iraq

Iraqi policemen secure an area after government security forces and militia retook the city from Islamic State group jihadists in Dhuluiya, some 75 kms (45 miles) north of Baghdad.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye | AFP | Getty Images
Iraqi policemen secure an area after government security forces and militia retook the city from Islamic State group jihadists in Dhuluiya, some 75 kms (45 miles) north of Baghdad.

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government's forces have scarcely budged Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

Although the airstrikes appear to have stopped the extremists' march toward Baghdad, the Islamic State is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraq government forces.On Monday, the government acknowledged that it had lost control of the small town of Sichar and lost contact with several hundred of its soldiers who had been besieged for nearly a week at a camp north of the Islamic State stronghold of Falluja, in Anbar Province.

By midday, there were reports that hundreds of soldiers had been killed in battle or mass executions. Ali Bedairi, a lawmaker from the governing alliance, said more than 300 soldiers had died after the loss of the base, Camp Saqlawiya. The prime minister ordered the arrest of the responsible officers, although a military spokesman put the death toll at just 40 and said 68 were missing.

"They did not have any food and they were starving for four days," a soldier who said he was one of 200 who managed to escape said in a videotaped statement that he circulated online. "We drank salty water, we could not even run."

Behind the government's struggles on the battlefield is the absence or resistance of many of the Sunni Muslim tribes that officials in Baghdad and Washington hope will play the decisive role in the course of the fight — a slow start for the centerpiece of President Obama's plan to drive out the militants.

Read MoreUS suspects more direct threats beyond ISIS

The Sunni tribes of Anbar and the northwest drove Qaeda-linked militants out of the area seven years ago with American military help, in what became known as the Sunni Awakening. But the tribes' alienation from the subsequent authoritarian and Shiite-led government in Baghdad opened the door for the extremists of the Islamic State to return this year.

The foundation of the Obama administration's plan to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is the installation of a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi,who has pledged to build a more responsive government and rebuild Sunni support. But, though at least some Sunni Arabs are fighting alongside the army in places like Haditha, influential Sunni sheikhs who helped lead the Awakening say they remain unconvinced.

"The Sunnis in Anbar and other provinces are facing oppression and discrimination by the government," said Mohamed el-Bajjari, a tribal sheikh in Anbar who is a spokesman for a coalition of tribes. "This government must be changed to form a technocratic government of nonsectarian secular people, or the battles and the anger of the Sunni people will continue."

Iraq's factions and their goals

Sunni tribal leaders said they were already disappointed by Mr. Abadi, who has been hailed by President Obama as the face of a more inclusive government. They said that the military had not lived up to a pledge by the prime minister to discontinue shelling civilian areas in the battle against the Islamic State —an accusation that could not be confirmed. They also complained that the government had done nothing to reform abusive security forces, and that it continued to give a free hand to Iranian-backed Shiite militias whom Sunnis and human rights groups accuse of arbitrary killings.

"Hundreds of poor people are in prison without being convicted, and today we have the militias as well killing our people,while the military is bombing our cities with barrel bombs and random missiles," Sheikh Bajjari said. "If we ever put down our weapons, the militias would come over and kill us all."

In Dhuluiya, a town famous here as the exceptional location where the mostly Sunni Jabouri tribe has held out during a three-month siege by the Islamic State's forces, local fighters said their Sunni neighbors had abandoned them.

"The Sunni tribes' role here is almost nonexistent," said Ali al-Jabouri, a local fighter. "There are many tribes in the villages near here but they were not serious about joining us to combat the Islamic State, and until now none of them have joined us."

Other Sunni leaders, however, insisted that things would improve.

Wasfial-Aasi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader who leads a pro-government council of sheikhs in Baghdad, said that the biggest tribes had signaled their support against Islamic State and that "we are in the process of establishing national guards in the main six provinces."

Islamic State, for its part, has kept up a public attitude of extreme confidence.Photographs and videos emerging from the cities it controls, including Falluja and Mosul, show its officials opening the school year with a puritanical Islamic curriculum, establishing Shariah courts, or even patrolling the streets in newly painted police cars labeled "the Islamic Police of the Islamic State of Iraq."

More from the New York Times:

White House Intruder Had Rifles and Ax in Earlier Stops
U.S. Acts to Curb Moves Overseas to Avoid Taxes
Arab Bank Liable for Backing Terrorist Efforts, Jury Finds

Positioning itself as the leadership of the jihadi world, Islamic State's spokesman issued a statement Monday dispensing specific advice to mujahedeen in Tunisia, Libya,Yemen and Egypt. "Rig the roads with explosives for them. Attack their bases.Raid their homes. Cut off their heads," the statement told Egyptian militants attacking police officers and soldiers: "Turn their worldly life into fear and fire."

The statement called for swift execution of any "non-believing" citizen whose country took part in the military intervention in Iraq — "especially the spiteful and filthy French."

And it warned those foreign powers of terrorist attacks: "You will pay the price as you are afraid of traveling to any land. You will pay the price as you walk on your streets, turning right and left, fearing the Muslims."

Iraqi government forces have managed to recapture a handful of strategic cities, usually with the help of American airstrikes as well as Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Sunni Arab tribal fighters, or the Kurdish militias in the north.

The army and some local Sunni tribal fighters captured the town of Barwana and much of Haditha, near a vital dam in the west. Shiite militias and American airstrikes helped the army take the towns of Amerli and Yusufia, as well as Adam, on an important road to the north. And American airstrikes helped Kurdish fighters recapture the critical Mosul dam just days after it fell to Islamic State, at the start of the campaign.

Read MoreHow ISIS is helping the GOP

But even with the backing of Western air power, the broad battle lines have remained roughly static.

"It doesn't look like anyone is moving at all," said Michael Stevens, a researcher based in Doha, Qatar, at the Royal United Services Institute who recently returned from Iraq. "People have basically just dug trenches," he said, adding that when it came to re-mobilizing the Sunni tribes against Islamic State, "It does not seem like there has been a lot of traction with the political solution put forward."

The Sunni Arab-dominated areas in western Iraq are still largely hostile territory for the government forces.

Read MoreOil smuggling, theft, extortion: How ISIS earns $3M a day

A week ago, for example, a force of about 800 soldiers found themselves stranded at Camp Saqlawiya in Anbar, cut off from the rest of the army behind Islamic State lines without food, water, fuel or, eventually, ammunition, according to soldiers who escaped. Finally, on Sunday, an army tank unit based in Ramadi,outside of Anbar, made its way through a road mined with improvised explosive devices to within 500 yards of the base, said a soldier in the group who gave his name as Abu Moussa.

Seeing the rescuers, the soldiers inside the base opened the gates and ran out, he said. But groups of Islamic State fighters suddenly poured out of neighboring buildings and surged forward in armored vehicles with heavy-weapon mounts. At least two armed vehicles rigged with bombs made it into the base and exploded.

The tanks retreated, Abu Moussa said, crushing bodies of dead soldiers underneath them. "I have not seen such fire and blood for 10 years" in the military, he said. "It is a disaster."