BAGHDAD — After enduring weeks of abuse by insurgents of the group called Islamic State, members of the Aza tribe struck a secret deal last month with local police and military officials: The authorities would supply weapons to two tribal regiments totaling about 1,150 fighters, and in return the tribe would help government security forces fight Islamic State.
Several days later, the tribal regiments, in collaboration with Iraqi government troops and Shiite militia fighters, liberated 13 villages in Diyala province from the group also known as ISIS, officials said.
“ISIS has humiliated the top sheiks of Diyala and has done horrible and unforgivable crimes against people here,” said Abu Othman al-Azawi, an Aza sheik and a member of the provincial council. “They tried to vandalize the tribal system and break its ties.”
Despite the support of U.S.-led airstrikes, anti-ISIS forces have had little success driving the insurgents from territory they seized in Iraq and Syria.
A cornerstone of the government’s military strategy is a long-term plan to integrate Sunni tribal fighters into national guard units in the Sunni-dominated provinces where Islamic State has made its greatest gains. That idea, however, remains inchoate.
“They’re just fleshing out the concept now,” retired Gen. John R. Allen, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition fighting ISIS, said of the national guard plan during a recent visit to Baghdad.
But the successful deal with the Aza tribe — arranged by a brigadier general without Baghdad’s input — offers an early glimmer of hope for long-term cooperation between the Shiite-led security forces and Sunni tribes.
Around the country, government forces and some Sunni tribal leaders are brokering emergency marriages of convenience, resulting in a patchwork of alliances against Islamic State.
Some of the arrangements involve the arming of tribes and even cash payments by the government. Others are nothing more than an understanding that despite whatever animosity a Sunni tribe might feel toward the central government, its weapons will be trained on their common enemy, Islamic State, not on each other — at least for now.
Wasfi al-Aasi, an Obeidi tribal sheik and head of a council of tribes opposed to Islamic State, said in an interview Monday that most tribes fighting alongside the government are doing so out of necessity, but not with contracts or guarantees.
“The Iraqi government and the coalition should arm us and support us because it’s us who are on the ground,” he said. “They know this very well because they need our power on the ground.”