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.
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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."