WASHINGTON -- Watching events unfold in Iraq this year has been like viewing a slow-motion train wreck. Tribal leaders have been warning since spring about the rise of the terrorist Islamic State and pleading for American help. But after months of slaughter, the United States is only now beginning to build an effective tribal-assistance program.
The Albu Nimr tribe has been savaged especially, in part because it supported what became the U.S.-led Awakening movement in Anbar province. In 2004, members of the Albu Nimr made early contacts with U.S. Marine officers in Amman, Jordan, that helped foster the later, broader campaign against al-Qaeda.
Back in October, I wrote about the plight of the Albu Nimr as Islamic State fighters advanced on the tribe's ancestral home near Hit along the Euphrates River. Pleas to Centcom and the Iraqi military on the night of Oct. 23 brought no aid, and the tribal fighters surrendered; over the next few weeks, several hundred tribesmen were killed.
"What happened to the Nimrs was an unmitigated tragedy," says one top U.S. official. U.S. commanders say they lacked systems for quick response. Centcom is now said to have a hotline for the tribes, but material assistance has been limited.
The Albu Nimr catastrophe happened partly because of crossed wires. Many of the tribe's leaders were based in Amman, but U.S. policy was seeking to draw Sunni fighters toward Baghdad and the new, less-polarizing prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. In effect, Baghdad trumped Amman, and the Albu Nimr were caught in the middle.
A step toward needed Jordanian-Iraqi cooperation came this week, as Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi announced that Jordan would train and arm Sunni tribal units. This unusual Amman-Baghdad project followed a visit by Abadi to the United Arab Emirates, which pledged support for arming and training Anbar's sheiks. The Kuwaitis have also pledged weapons and ammunition for this Sunni "national guard."
The plight of the Albu Nimr and other tribes is suggested by emails sent over the past few months as the Islamic State terrorized Anbar.
"Today, we have a small window of opportunity to recruit fighters from Sunni tribes because they are mad about losing their livelihoods and their relatives have been killed," wrote one Albu Nimr leader in November, after the Hit massacre, to a retired Marine major who had served in Anbar.
The problem, the tribal leader argued, was that because the United States was working so closely with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, Sunnis in Anbar doubted there was any U.S. commitment to giving them more power. Without this political commitment, weapons and even Apache gunships would be of little use.
"This effort will not succeed as a strategy simply because there is no political solution offered as part of the recruitment," the Albu Nimr leader warned.
On Nov. 21, the same tribal leader advised Centcom, through the retired Marine major, that Albu Nimr volunteers still fighting near Hit had not been fed properly for three days and that 17 had given up because of hunger. "The whole effort will collapse very soon if no proper supplies and proper food [are] delivered."
The Albu Nimr continued to knock on the U.S. door. On Dec. 11, the tribal leader wrote to the retired Marine major: "I must say, people are very disappointed with the level of support by government to tribal fighters which is almost nonexistent." Ten days before, he said, Albu Nimr fighters had been forced to give up a position they had retaken along the Euphrates, with several dozen captured, and that the situation in nearby Ramadi was "very critical."
A retired Marine brigadier general who served in Anbar summarized the lesson for rolling back the Islamic State. "It's about trust, and trust can't be surged or instantaneously developed," he argued.
What has begun to change over the past six months is that Sunni leaders in Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all seem willing to work with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to back a tribal campaign against the Islamic State. This effort may fail because of mistrust among the tribes, but it would have been inconceivable while the divisive Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister.
Sunni tribal leaders say in interviews that they want to roll back the Islamic State, but they're wary allies. They don't trust Baghdad, and many don't trust the United States. A common-front strategy won't work without sustained, close-in U.S. support for people who have been betrayed so often that their first thought is survival.