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Obama's ISIS Plan A 'Sunni Awakening: Part Two'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. We begin this hour with a closer look at one element of President Obama's strategy to take on the so-called Islamic State. Along with airstrikes and weapons and training for fighters in Syria and Iraq, the president described last night this component of his plan.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll also support Iraq's efforts to stand up National Guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL's control.

CORNISH: Working with Sunni communities is something the United States did once before, during the Iraq War. The effort was called The Awakening and to explore whether the idea might work again and why it's so important, I'm joined now by NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Hey there, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

CORNISH: And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here with me in the studio. Hi Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: So I'm going to start with you Tom and the president's plan. What is the idea behind what they are calling a National Guard?

BOWMAN: Well, the Iraqi army is basically a Shiite army so it's made up of the largest ethnic group in the country, but it does not represent the Sunnis. So to draw them into the fight against the Islamic State, Iraq is creating Sunni units - basically National Guard units in the areas where they live. So the idea is they'll have these separate units and not have to fight alongside an Iraqi army they frankly just don't trust.

CORNISH: And Alice, we've been talking about northern and western provinces in Iraq where ISIL, or the Islamic State, has taken territory essentially by exploiting the dissatisfaction of the local population, who are the Sunnis, right?

FORDHAM: Right. So in addition to the firepower that they used to blast their way into cities like Fallujah and Mosul, Tikrit; Sunni cities - they found a degree of support among the local population because that population was largely Sunni and had complained and protested for years against what they saw as a highly sectarian Shiite government. So many people there were open to the idea of an alternative, any alternative, to that government. And if they were Sunni, the Islamic State militants usually let them be, to a certain extent.

CORNISH: And Tom, what the administration is planning now is basically a new version of what happened back in 2006 and 2007. You covered that at that time. I mean, how did it work?

BOWMAN: Well, that's right. First of all, one of the big threats back then was a group called al-Qaida in Iraq, basically the forerunner of the current group now called ISIS. Now, back then, the Sunni groups were allied with al-Qaida in Iraq. But over time, al-Qaida was too heavy-handed. They tried to take over some of the more lucrative illicit businesses the sheikhs had, like oil and gas smuggling. They were also brutal towards those who crossed them. There were instances where they killed sheikhs and left their bodies out in the desert. So over time, Sunnis started working with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq and the American military paid these Sunni fighters around $300 per month. They were formed into units that became known as the Sons of Iraq and it was pretty effective.

Now with this whole effort was accelerated by the surge of American troops in 2007. That's when, if you remember, some 30,000 more U.S. forces went to Iraq under General Petraeus. I was there at the time with American units and working with some of these guys in the Sons of Iraq. And the sense was that once the Americans leave, this whole thing's going to fall apart. The Shiite government wouldn't support them anymore, wouldn't pay them and they would even face arrest, or worse. And that's precisely what happened.

CORNISH: Alice, you've been speaking to people who actually helped America fight al-Qaida during the Sunni Awakening back then. Do you sense that they will help again now in this fight against ISIS?

FORDHAM: So I reached out to some of these tribal leaders, mostly from Sunni areas here in Baghdad, from Anbar Province in the West and from around Saddam Hussein's hometown near Tikrit.

And as you say Tom, that exactly the way that they predicted it, has happened. There's a constant complaint among these people that they were picked up by the U.S. to fight against al-Qaida, they were paid and they were promised that they would continue to be paid. But as you say, as the U.S. slowly withdrew and the Iraqi authorities took over they usually weren't. And they were sometimes arrested and intimidated, according to their allegations. So the sheikh near Tikrit that I spoke to, who's an old army colonel - he was fired the United States invaded - he told me the families of those who died fighting al-Qaida were never compensated, they were left destitute.

But what was interesting about talking to people is that this ire was directed less at the Americans for abandoning them, then at the government here for not continuing the support.

CORNISH: So it is more about the Iraqi government, not necessarily the relationship with the Americans?

FORDHAM: That's what I'm picking up here. And I think the rifts between the government and most Sunnis have only gotten wider since the Americans left. And what's changed now is that to help fight the Islamic State, the government has recruited Shiite militias who the Sunnis are afraid of in general. The men I've spoken to seem to be prepared to be on board with the Americans in many cases, but not with these groups that the United States has now de facto sided with.

And another thing to take into consideration is that this fight is bigger and it's more daunting than it was previously. Because they're not asking Iraq's Sunnis to fight small armed groups. They're asking them to fight a powerful enemy that's holding territory.

CORNISH: So Tom, how does the Obama administration create National Guard units comprised of Sunnis if the Sunnis are so suspicious of the whole idea?

BOWMAN: Well, it's going to be very difficult and very delicate situation. There's been outreach to the Sunnis in recent months by U.S. diplomats, military personnel and others. And they say some of the Sunni sheikhs are willing to work with the Americans. But as Alice said, they're very, very wary of the Iraqi government. So this is going to take a while to get this thing together.

And part of this, you know, a big part of it really, is the political part of it. I talked to a Pentagon official. I said, what do you worry most about this whole effort? And this official said, the political part of getting the Sunnis on board. That was the most difficult part of all this. Not getting ISIS out of Mosul or some of these other cities. And another part of this is, of course, the U.S. will have to train some of these Sunni units, these National Guard units. The question is, the United States doesn't seem to be sending enough trainers over to make this happen, only a few hundred.

So that's another issue as well. But the political part of this, that's going to be the hardest part.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. And NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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