In battle against Islamic State, Iraqi tribal chiefs plead for more U.S. aid

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha addresses Iraqi troops on June 21, 2014, in the city of Ramadi. (AFP via Getty Images)

The meeting in the Virginia home of retired Gen. John Allen, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS), was like a "Band of Brothers" reunion of old soldiers.

Warmly greeting a group of Sunni leaders led by Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the president of the Iraqi Awakening Council, Allen reminisced last week about the critical help the leaders had provided the U.S. military eight years ago in ridding Anbar province of al-Qaida insurgents.

Allen even joked about returning to Anbar — and investing in local real estate. “I want to go back and buy a house there,” he told the group, according to one of the Iraqis present.

But hours later, Abu Risha and Allen got a rude jolt. IS fighters, they learned, had just stormed the compound of Abu Risha and his family, overrunning security forces, blowing up homes and the mosque.

“This was a message to the United States — that you cannot protect anyone. … We are able to reach anywhere,” Abu Risha told Yahoo News.

Although it got little attention in the U.S. media, the brazen assault on the home of a once key U.S. ally in Iraq alarmed officials in Washington and stepped on a central message in Obama’s State of the Union address the next day: that U.S.-led airstrikes are “stopping ISIL’s advance.” (ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the the Levant, is another name for IS.)

In the hours after the attack, Allen stayed in close touch with Abu Risha and emailed with him about “this vicious attack,” a State Department official told Yahoo News.

Allen and other U.S. officials — including Vice President Joe Biden in a later meeting at the White House — expressed personal condolences. “The attack only proves once again that ISIL is an enemy of all Iraqis, regardless of sect or background,” the official said in an email.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop on the Turkey-Syria border on Nov. 17, 2014. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

But according to Abu Risha and his fellow visiting Sunni leaders from Anbar — as well as some U.S. counterterrorism experts — the attack also underscores the limits of U.S. strategy at a time when the president is asking Congress to enact a new authorization for the use of military force against IS, essentially codifying another U.S. war in the region.

Despite a steady barrage of coalition airstrikes that have helped the Kurdish peshmerga regain some territory (including retaking the Syrian border town of Kobani this week), IS has solidified its control in Anbar, setting up a ministate that now controls 85 percent of the province, according to Abu Risha and Sohaib Al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar, who accompanied Abu Risha on the trip to Washington.

Anbar is of major strategic and symbolic importance in the war against IS. It is Iraq’s largest province, covering a huge swath of the country’s west, and was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. An estimated 1,332 Americans have died there.

But in their meetings with U.S. officials, including Biden, over the past week, and in exclusive interviews with Yahoo News, the visiting Iraqis delivered a bleak message about the state of the conflict in Anbar.

The Islamist insurgency is a truly global enterprise. Foreign fighters are continuing to pour into the province — from 45 countries, including Russia, France, Great Britain and other European nations, they said. Iraqi security forces recently captured two of the IS recruits — one from Egypt and another from China — and learned that they had been trained as snipers by Italians at an IS training camp in Syria, Abu Risha said.

The humanitarian toll on the province has been disastrous, according to the visiting Iraqis. Much of the province’s infrastructure — including 45 bridges and 250 schools — has been destroyed, they said. More than 750,000 people have been displaced. The price of food has skyrocketed and is now five times what it was when the IS militants began their onslaught in Anbar early last year. Abu Rusha, Al-Rawi and other Sunni leaders from the Awakening have now been forced to spend most of their time outside of Anbar, in Baghdad or Jordan.

A woman reacts at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, western Anbar province, on Oct. 15, 2014. (Ahmed SaadReuters)

As for the airstrikes — now the centerpiece of U.S. strategy — they have been far more circumscribed than Pentagon officials have acknowledged, according to Abu Risha. In order to avoid civilian casualties in urban centers, where IS is now entrenched, the Pentagon’s strikes have been largely aimed at picking off IS fighters cutting supply routes in isolated desert areas, he said. 

The airstrikes “have not stopped their advance,” said Abu Risha. “They have been able to gain more territory.”

(A senior U.S. official told reporters last week, in advance of a meeting in London between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, that the strikes “have taken off the battlefield thousands of [ISIL] fighters.”)

In their meetings at the White House and at the State Department, the Anbar chiefs pressed the case for a sharp increase in U.S. military support — weapons for the Iraqi army, more drones to kill the incoming flow of foreign fighters and, most problematic, the return of U.S. ground troops. Abu Risha said that as much as one U.S. Army division and two U.S. Marine brigades may be needed to dislodge IS in Anbar. When they have raised the issue of ground troops, according to sources present, the U.S. officials have listened in silence — knowing full well that Obama has ruled out the return of “boots on the ground.”

But Abu Risha’s response was to recall the visit he had with Obama when the then candidate came to Anbar during the 2008 presidential campaign — and honored the role that the Sunnis of the Awakening played in the bloody battles that rolled back the insurgents. The meeting that summer took place in Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, where Obama sat in an ornate gold-plated chair with an Iraqi flag draped behind him. “Obama said when he visited with us, ‘We will not turn our back on you and we will not forget your sacrifices,’” Abu Risha said.

“This is my message: We are asking the president to fulfill his promise.”