U.S. Backs Sunni Plan to Fight Islamic State Jihadists in Iraq

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Iraqis displaced by insurgents register to receive aid in Basra

The U.S. is holding talks with Sunni Muslim officials in Iraq who have requested help in organizing grass-roots fighting forces to counter an extremist militant group seizing territory across the country.

The meetings follow an outreach by Iraqi governors of Sunni-dominant provinces, who sent letters to Secretary of State John Kerry in late June seeking U.S. support before the jihadist group, which calls itself the Islamic State, drags “the whole region into darkness with them.”

After a series of smaller rendezvous, U.S. officials met last week with the governors, tribal leaders and other Iraqi politicians in the city of Erbil to discuss recruiting and organizing fighters in four Sunni-dominant provinces where the Islamic State has snatched territory, said several participants.

In Washington, officials believe breaking Sunni tribes away from the Islamic State is critical to the long-term security and territorial integrity of Iraq. Some Arab and American officials say the effort is a cornerstone of a developing strategy to confront jihadist threats across the Middle East.

But the plan faces hurdles, in no small part because it is haunted by the legacy of a similar past project.

Many Sunni leaders, who say they have been disenfranchised and persecuted by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominant government, say his departure is a precondition to their involvement.

U.S. officials also are skeptical that any progress can be made until a new government, without Mr. Maliki, is in place. Mr. Maliki is determined to remain; Iraq’s parliament is constitutionally required to pick a prime minister by this week’s end.

The provinces involved are Nineveh, Salaheddine, Diyala and Anbar, which was the heart of the U.S.-led Sunni revolt against al Qaeda from late 2006 to 2008.

That campaign, called the Sunni Awakening or Sahwa in Arabic, provides a cautionary tale for the current effort, say its former leaders.

While the uprising succeeded in thwarting al Qaeda, the Sunni fighters involved say they were abandoned by the U.S., which handed the program to the government in 2009 under pressure from Mr. Maliki, U.S. officials say.

The effort has taken on new urgency as fighters from the Islamic State—formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS—widen their offensive in Iraq, this week into Kurdish-held territories.

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