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Iraqi Government Training Thousands of Sunni Tribesmen

FILE - Sunni tribesmen attend a ceremony to present them with weapons at Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, April 8, 2015.

Three senior U.S. defense officials with ties to the Iraqi government have told VOA that Iraq has recruited about 6,000 Sunni tribesmen fighters, a force many say will be critical in defeating Islamic State.

Analysts said the large number was a step in the right direction.

“There’s 6,000 who are willing to work together — that may be even more important,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not so much that they’re going to get great training in whatever amount of time we’ve had, it’s more perhaps that they now at least are part of a general concept of operation.”

Security experts have criticized the Iraqi government for taking several months to actively include the Sunni fighters. They also say the training programs for the Sunnis are too small and disorganized to make a difference in the fight.

U.S. officials, however, have welcomed the large recruiting numbers as a sign of unity. Michael Weiss, co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror," says Western officials are hoping for a second Sunni Awakening, a movement during the last war in Iraq in which Sunni tribesmen realigned themselves to help counter al-Qaida.

But he warned that Iraq has further destabilized since then.

“I think Iraq has ceased to exist in all but name, and I think the United States is clinging to a myth of a cohesive unified country or state. It’s not,” Weiss said.

Officials said hundreds of those recruits are currently training under Iraqi security forces at al-Taqaddum Airbase in Habbaniyah, about 75 kilometers west of Baghdad.

O’Hanlon said the war against Islamic State cannot be won without the involvement of Sunni tribesmen, either as dedicated Iraqi army units that are largely Sunni, or a stronger Iraqi police with paramilitary capabilities, or as part of a National Guard.

He adds that having 6,000 recruits is another reason to be skeptical that the coalition is not “anywhere near where it needs to be,” adding that the total isn’t even close to the number of Sunnis involved in fighting Islamic extremists in the Sunni Awakening.

“It took 50,000 of them, or some substantial fraction of that number,” said O’Hanlon. “And therefore 6,000, even if it’s 6,000 well-trained and good ones, is really just the beginning.”