U.S. Call To Fight Militants Stirs Bitter Memories For Iraq's Sunnis President Obama wants Sunnis to join the battle against the Islamic State. But those who helped fight al-Qaida several years ago feel abused by the Iraqi military, and now are not so eager to sign up.
NPR logo

U.S. Call To Fight Militants Stirs Bitter Memories For Iraq's Sunnis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/348329972/348412154" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Call To Fight Militants Stirs Bitter Memories For Iraq's Sunnis

U.S. Call To Fight Militants Stirs Bitter Memories For Iraq's Sunnis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/348329972/348412154" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Part of President Obama's plan to defeat the Islamic State involves bringing Iraq's Sunnis on board to fight against them. NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad asks some of these Sunni leaders what they think.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: If the president's plan sounds oddly familiar, it is. When the United States faced a raging insurgency by Sunni militants then called al-Qaida in Iraq seven years ago, they recruited local Sunni leaders, paid their tribesmen to fight against those militants and quieted the threat for a while. It was called The Awakening.

To find out how these Sunnis feel about rejoining the fight, I meet Ahmed al Qarghouli, who tells me he led 90 men in The Awakening in the province of Anbar where al-Qaida was strongest. He says his men were invaluable to the Americans.

AHMED AL QARGHOULI: (Through translator) We helped them. We captured the weapons in a huge number of caches. We found a place where they manufactured car bombs. We found huge amounts of C-4 and TNT.

FORDHAM: Qarghouli reminisces about how they cleared a lake of weeds, eliminating a hiding place for al-Qaida. He let an American soldier sleep in his house.

QARGHOULI: (Through translator) I kept videos to remember as a record.

FORDHAM: He feels proud when he watches those videos. But after the American withdrawal, Qarghouli's men's salaries were swallowed up by corruption or disappeared under a hostile Shiite-led government.

A senior tribal sheik from Anbar named Faris al Dulaimi sits with us. He knows exactly what he thinks about The Awakening.

FARIS AL DULAIMI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The Awakening is dead, he says. And it was the Iraqi government that killed it. They allege years of abuse by mainly Shiite security forces, including broken promises that The Awakening fighters would get jobs and the bombing of civilian areas. But they hate the Islamic State and would fight alongside the Iraqi army against them - albeit with conditions.

DULAIMI: (Through translator) The first - the first thing - we need an American guarantee that the Iraqi government is going to give these people permanent appointments and payment. We're a rich country.

FORDHAM: Some Awakening leaders also point out the Islamic State is a more formidable enemy, controlling territory in a way al-Qaida never did. Plus this time, the Iraqi army has recruited feared Shiite militias as paramilitary forces. One man who built the role of The Awakening as part of the surge of troops in Iraq in 2007 is retired Colonel Derek Harvey. He saw huge resentment after Sunnis were cut loose.

COLONEL DEREK HARVEY: Many become very disgruntled and what we saw was a drift towards antigovernment behavior.

FORDHAM: Harvey thinks as many as a quarter of them fought alongside the Islamic State this year. He says that everything depends on the new government led by new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who will have...

HARVEY: ...To work and legitimize local defense forces and empower Sunni-Arab political leaders of all stripes in these provinces.

FORDHAM: Abadi's been in power for almost a week now and is making all the right promises. But political wrangling has stopped the appointment of an interior or defense minister. And Harvey says this plan won't work until there's tangible political progress here. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.