The security situation in Iraq rapidly deteriorated following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 during an insurgent offensive spearheaded by what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but has since been renamed the Islamic State. Since then, much discussion has arisen on how the group can either be contained or 'rolled back' by reducing its territorial holdings on a substantial scale and thus significantly weakening its power base within the country. However, for such an objective, a fundamental prerequisite is a local Sunni Muslim force on the ground that can contest the Islamic State's control of Sunni majority areas of Iraq, notably the provinces of Anbar, Ninawa, and Salaheddine, as well as parts of Babil, Diyala, and Kirkuk.
In assessing how realistic a prospect this is, both currently and in the short-to-medium term, it is necessary to examine the existing Sunni initiatives aimed at combating the Islamic State, as well as analysing the dynamics between the group and the other Sunni insurgent organisations in Iraq. Considering that such insurgent groups have their own local support bases within the Sunni population, it may be necessary to attempt to persuade such militants to form a wider, co-ordinated initiative against the Islamic State.
However, this task already faces significant obstacles, most notably because the main Sunni insurgent groups that might combat the Islamic State are generally committed to a path of 'revolution' in some form that cannot be reconciled to the present existing order in Iraq. So, rather than merely seeking reform within the system to strive for, for example, greater autonomy for majority Sunni provinces - possibly in the form of a federal system - or seek concessions in the form of reforms to legislation that has widely been perceived by Sunnis as discriminatory, there is a widespread belief among such groups of the need to overthrow the government in Baghdad.
What system should follow that overthrow is of course a defining difference between the different insurgent groups, in particular separating the Islamic State from other actors. However, a significant problem at this juncture - as opposed to the 2005-06 period when the Sunni Awakening Councils were formed - is that with the perceived failure of the political process for Sunnis following the rollback of an earlier manifestation of the Islamic State (the Islamic State in Iraq), from the end of 2006 onwards, Sunni insurgent actors may conclude that consistently rejectionist insurgent groups, particularly those of a Baathist orientation, were correct all along. As a result, they may refuse to countenance engagement with the political process.
There are several local armed Sunni initiatives that have been established over the course of 2014 with the specific objective of combating the Islamic State. The most notable of these is Kataib al-Mosul, or the Mosul Battalions, which was established by the Nujaifi family - including Ninawa governor Atheel al-Nujaifi and vice-president Osama al-Nujaifi - following the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State in June. Kataib al-Mosul consists of several declared sub-battalions, including the Prophet Jonah and Prophet Seth battalions - named for historic shrines in the city destroyed by the Islamic State. The exact strength of the group is difficult to determine, but videos released to mark the formation of various sub-battalions rarely show more than 10 people. In an interview with IHS Jane's on 3 September, a representative for the group's Katiba al-Bawasil, or Battalion of the Intrepid Ones, put the contingent's strength at 100 fighters, but IHS Jane's assesses that in reality that figure can probablly be considered something of an exaggeration.
In total, Kataib al-Mosul may well have no more than 100-200 members and, considering that Mosul is a city of more than 1 million people, such a force hardly constitutes an effective body with which to undermine the Islamic State's control of the city. The group's limited capabilities are also underlined by the nature of operations claimed by it against the Islamic State. Leaving aside likely exaggerations and fabrications that cannot otherwise be corroborated, the claimed attacks are low-level and of little significance, consisting of limited improvised explosive device (IED) attacks or small-arms assassinations.
The same observations and criticisms apply to a similar Sunni group in Mosul, Harakat Ahrar al-Mosul/Fursan Ninawa (Movement of the Free Men of Mosul/Knights of Ninawa), which claims to be separate from Kataib al-Mosul and to have a fighting force of approximately 350 people.
Other Sunni anti-Islamic State units initially emerged in Mosul following the fall of the city, such as Fursan al-Hudba (Knights of the Hunchback) - a reference to the leaning minaret of the Great Mosque of Mosul - which was reported on by local Iraqi media and featured on its statements the old Iraqi flag, probably indicating adherence to a third way between Baghdad and the Islamic State. This group, like Kataib al-Mosul and Harakat Ahrar al-Mosul, has also claimed low-level operations against the Islamic State, but there have been no further public announcements of operational activity since August, possibly indicating that it is currently dormant or defunct.
Beyond Mosul, specific anti-Islamic State initiatives can also be found in Anbar and Salaheddine provinces. In Anbar, the most notable organiser of such activity is Ahmed Abu Risha, a senior leader of the Awakening Councils in the province, who co-ordinates with government forces. Risha's fighters remain the predominant pro-government Sunni tribal force in Anbar. The most important impact of this co-operation with the security forces has been to prevent the fall of the Ramadi area of the province, as well as the Amiriya al-Fallujah and Habbaniya districts, to anti-government insurgents - a combination of Islamic State and other Sunni militants. Working with Risha was his nephew, Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha, who appeared in a video from Amiriya al-Fallujah alongside anti-Islamic State tribesmen in May 2014 but was killed in a suicide attack in Ramadi in June.
Further west in Anbar, in Haditha district, Kataib al-Hamza has emerged, named after an Awakening Council previously established in the Al-Qaim district of Anbar, on the border with Syria. In an interview with IHS Jane's on 31 August, the group claimed to have 180 fighters and by its own admission is only capable of conducting "simple" operations against the Islamic State. Further information about the group came to light in an Al-Aan TV interview with the group's commander, Muhammad Ibrahim, in Haditha in October, in which he claimed that Kataib al-Hamza had contacts in places such as Al-Qaim, and Anah and Rawa - localities further west of Haditha that are solely controlled by the Islamic State - as part of efforts to undermine the group. However, it is not possible to detect any substantive results of such efforts in open source reporting, and it seems clear that Kataib al-Hamza's primary function has been defensive, working with the security forces to prevent the Islamic State from capturing Haditha.
At the local level, there is the example of fighters from the Sunni Muslim Jubur tribe working with pro-government forces in the Dhuluiya district of Salaheddine province. Here again, the function is primarily defensive, preventing the Islamic State and other insurgents from taking control of the area. On a wider scale, the anti-Islamic State Sunni cleric Mahdi al-Sumaidaie announced plans in mid-October to hold a conference to form a wider tribal Ahrar al-Iraq (Free Men of Iraq), force to combat the Islamic State. However, his credibility among Sunnis is somewhat in doubt as he is perceived as a government stooge, most notably because he is viewed as an associate of Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Shia Islamist militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which itself has close political ties to former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In short, the current array of Sunni groups and forces opposed to the Islamic State across Iraq is too weak and too localised, and is lacking in the wider credibility required to constitute an effective fighting force.
The current weaknesses of local Sunni anti-Islamic State forces are reinforced by dynamics within the spectrum of Sunni insurgent groups currently operating across the north and west of the country in relation to the Islamic State.
As highlighted earlier, consistently rejectionist militant actors have garnered more credibility over the past 12 months in light of the perceived failure of the political process for Iraq's Sunnis. This is reflected in the widespread acknowledgment of the Baathist Jaish Rijaal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiyya (JRTN) as ranking second in influence only to the Islamic State in the overall insurgency, and the two groups have co-operated operationally in seizing control of territory in northern Iraq. The JRTN also participates in an umbrella initiative - Al-Majlis al-Askari al-Aam li-Thuwaar al-Iraq (the General Military Council for Iraq's Revolutionaries: GMCIR). The GMCIR notably includes Harith al-Dhari and his Muslim Scholars Association, together with Dhari-linked militant group the 1920 Revolution Brigades.
A composite of images released by Baathist insurgent group Jaish Rijaal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiyya (JRTN) in 2014. (IHS Jane's/JTIC)
Although the JRTN in particular has been known to clash with the Islamic State at the local level, notably in Diyala province and the Hawija area of Kirkuk, and the Islamic State has cracked down on the JRTN presence in Mosul, the JRTN remains committed to a path of 'revolution' and has rejected notions of forming an Awakening Council-style body to fight against the Islamic State. The JRTN has also denied working with Kataib al-Mosul, dismissing the group as an organisation of "militias" in a statement in early August. This remains the case even as the JRTN has formally distanced itself from some of the Islamic State's worst excesses, including the forced displacement of Christians from Mosul and attacks on the minority Yazidi population in northern Iraq. Yet, in keeping with the idea of maintaining the image of the 'revolution' as supposedly representative of all Iraqis, the JRTN has cast the government in Baghdad as ultimately responsible for these crimes.
In a similar vein, the GMCIR has been equally strident in its rejection of any notion of reconciliation with the government. The most elaborate indication of this rejectionist sentiment was a lengthy statement put out in late September denouncing Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's initiative to form a 'National Guard' to give Sunnis a greater role in managing security in their own areas as merely a new Awakening Council project designed to defang the 'revolution' under the pretext of addressing Sunni grievances and fighting the Islamic State. Furthermore, the 1920 Revolution Brigades' political office has sought to distance itself from the actions of the Islamic State, albeit without mentioning the Islamic State by name and only in so far as it believes such excesses tar the reputation of the 'revolution'.
Indicative of a more general shift towards revolutionary radicalism in the Sunni insurgency is the case of the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), a group dating back to the early days of the insurgency in Iraq following the United States-led invasion and many of whose senior figures had joined the Awakening Councils during the US troop surge from 2007 onwards. Following the completion of the US withdrawal in December 2011, the group demobilised to form the Sunni Popular Movement, which aimed to work for a Sunni federal region. However, in early to mid-2014 the IAI returned to full-blown militancy - typified by low-level mortar and sniper attacks targeting security forces, primarily in Salaheddine and Diyala - with the group's rhetoric shifting to the idea of a Sunni federal region as only a stepping stone towards the 'liberation' of Baghdad from the rule of the Shia-dominated government. Like the JRTN and the wider Baathist network, the group rejects the concept of the formation of a new Awakening Council to fight the Islamic State, and in early October it specifically denied rumours of discussions with US officials in Amman to form a Sunni pushback force against the Islamic State, dismissing those who may be engaged in such enterprises as "bogus factions" with no real influence in the "Sunni revolution".
Not all Sunni insurgent groups have shied away from combating the Islamic State though. The nationalist Sunni Salafist group Jaish al-Mujahideen, which has openly condemned the Islamic State as extremist, fought with the group in the Al-Karma area of Anbar, northeast of Fallujah, in late August. Jaish al-Mujahideen had exerted strong influence in Al-Karma since the capture of Fallujah by the Islamic State and other local insurgents in January, and tensions with the Islamic State became apparent over allegations that the latter was trying to gain a monopoly on the movement of materiel in and out of Al-Karma so that locals would be forced to buy fuel and food from it.
However, the clashes in Al-Karma did not go well for Jaish al-Mujahideen, as the group was forced to withdraw from the main urban area of the town following tribal mediation. This incident illustrated that one insurgent group alone - even if well-established and active in an area where it has a strong operational basis - is not sufficient to push back effectively against the Islamic State.
The other main Sunni Islamist insurgent organisation willing to denounce the Islamic State openly - Ansar al-Islam - is similarly too weak to take on the group, and has suffered in Mosul in particular from defections to the Islamic State, undoubtedly facilitated by the Islamic State's assertion of authority by coercion and co-optation in the city.
More general dynamics in the Islamic State's relationships with other Sunni insurgent groups further undermine the potential for a wider pushback against the group. For example, one pattern evident over the course of the year has been that the Islamic State, whether gradually or more rapidly, becomes the dominant power in the main urban area of a captured town or city and other factions end up fighting on the peripheries. This allows the Islamic State to acquire a baseline within the city - above all in the form of additional manpower - to expand eventually into the surrounding areas as other factions are worn down by fighting with government forces.
A case in point is the city of Fallujah, which fell to a coalition of the Islamic State and other local Sunni insurgent or political groups in January. However, through seizures of weapons, assassinations, and other means, the Islamic State had become the main power in Fallujah by the end of June, while others such as the JRTN ended up in peripheral areas, such as the Sijr area to the northeast, where extensive fighting took place with the Iraqi army. At the end of September, the Islamic State then expanded to assume control of Sijr from the weakened JRTN.
A further complicating factor in the emergence of concerted, armed Sunni opposition to the Islamic State has been the increasing prominence of Shia militias since the fall of Mosul in June. Several Sunni insurgent commanders told local media in Iraq in mid-October that although they maintained grievances against the Islamic State, they were unwilling to fight against the group as they considered Shia militias to pose an equal, if not greater, threat.
Since June, when the Islamic State captured Mosul and began pushing south and east towards Baghdad, Shia militias have played an important role in bolstering local security forces and preventing key cities from falling under the group's control, such as Samarra and Baquba in Salaheddine and Diyala provinces, respectively.
It is also apparent that in many areas Shia militias have taken the lead in the fighting against the Islamic State, rather than the regular armed forces, such as in Diyala province where the claimed 'popular mobilisation' force was in reality composed of members of the Badr Organisation, a longstanding Shia militia with heavy political ties to Shia Islamist political party the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq. Members of the militia had already joined the security forces, particularly the police, in large numbers over the past decade, but Sunni perceptions of collusion between the Badr Organisation and the security forces were probably only further underlined following the selection of Badr Organisation official Muhammad al-Ghabban as minister of the interior - the key internal security cabinet position - in mid-October.
A picture published on social media purportedly showing a member of Iraqi Shia Muslim group the Badr Organisation, dressed in an Iraqi police uniform, in front of a picture of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (IHS Jane's/JTIC)
Indeed, the widespread bolstering of security forces by Shia militias - particularly in areas of Baghdad and Diyala - only underscore long-held Sunni perceptions of the security forces as a fundamentally sectarian body, and this in itself presents perhaps the greatest challenge to composing a co-ordinated, armed Sunni force to combat the Islamic State.
Although there have been elements of co-operation between Shia militias and Sunni tribesmen, such as with the Jubur in Dhuluiya, the repeated suggestion of Iranian involvement in the equipping and organising of Shia militias only reinforces the Sunni insurgent narrative of Baghdad being an Iranian proxy that needs to be overthrown or at the very least whose authority should be rejected in Sunni-dominated areas. Numerous pictures on social media show militiamen equipped with Iranian weapons and pictures of the head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, with militiamen in Baghdad.
As illustrated, there are a number of substantial factors that impede a wider Sunni armed pushback against the Islamic State within Iraq, but this does not mean no local gains or progress is possible in the campaign against the group. After US airstrikes began targeting Islamic State positions in northern Iraq in early August, it was apparent that the concentration of air power in support of effective ground forces could be successful in forcing the group to withdraw from territory. This was apparent in Iraq most recently with the breaking of the Islamic State's siege of Amerli by Shia militias and the group's loss of the Rabia border crossing in Ninawa province to the Peshmerga (Kurdish security forces).
However, neither the Peshmerga nor Shia militias have either the means or legitimacy to assert authority over the substantial swaths of predominantly Sunni territory that the Islamic State currently controls in conjunction with local Sunni insurgents. What is required for external airstrikes to be effective in these areas is a Sunni force with local legitimacy to be able to restore the presence and authority of the government. However, with a current severe disconnect between the government and the Sunni population of western and northern Iraq, what is required is deep internal change from within on the part of the government, in addition to a sea change in attitude among Sunni insurgents and their local supporters; whether such change is possible in the foreseeable future is in doubt.
A man wearing an Iraqi army uniform stands in front of an Iranian Safir jeep with a 107 mm multiple rocket launcher in a photograph posted on the Facebook page of Iraqi Shia militia Saraya Khorasani in 2014. (IHS Jane's)