Iraqi officials upped the death toll of a massacre of Sunni Arab tribesmen by the self-styled Islamic State today to 322, making it among the largest massacres of civilians carried out by the group so far in its campaign to terrify Iraqi civilians and security forces from opposing the group.
Iraqi officials originally said that about 50 captive men and women from the Albu Nimr tribe were murdered by IS militants on Friday north of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province, as punishment for resisting the militants takeover of their hometown of Hit. Today Iraqi officials upped the death toll.
The Islamic State has used tactics so brutal that many Iraqis have compared the group to Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan who sacked Baghdad in 1258, killing tens of thousands of residents as punishment for the city's defiance and emptying so many of Baghdad's famed libraries into the Tigris River that legend had it a man or horse could walk across on them.
And for the same reason. During the group's return to prominence in Iraq this year, the place where it was founded, a fearsome reputation has been the group's best weapon - contributing to the Iraqi military's panicked retreat from the northern city of Mosul, abandoning US-supplied tanks and armored cars, ahead of the IS advance.
While IS has found support among many Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who complain of marginalization and human rights abuses at the hands of the Shiite Arab-dominated government in Baghdad, others in that community have tried to resist the Islamist army, not interested in accepting its harsh and fanatical version of Islam into their lives and remembering how brutally the group's predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, treated their communities.
Over 5 years ago now, Sunni tribesmen elected to fight alongside US forces in Anbar and other provinces where Al Qaeda in Iraq was strong, in exchange for promises of payment and government jobs. After the US departed Iraq at the end of 2011, the Shiite government in Baghdad effectively negated those promises and targeted many of the Sunni Arab leaders of the fight against Al Qaeda as potential political rivals.
But even so, many Sunnis are ready to fight the group, since rebranded as the Islamic State, once more. But Baghdad's Shiite leaders remain wary of arming a group they view with hostility, even in service of defeating a shared enemy. Reuters quotes a leader of the Albu Nimr saying the government has ignored recent requests for help.
One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheikh Naeem al-Ga'oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken.
State television said on Sunday that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered airstrikes on Islamic State targets around the town of Hit in response to the killings.
Officials at a government security operations command center in Anbar and civilians reached by Reuters said they had not heard of or witnessed airstrikes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, last week addressed the lack of government support for Sunni tribes in Anbar, overwhelmingly Sunni Arab and just west of Baghdad. He said US military advisers working alongside local tribes could do a lot of good in the fight against IS in the province, where IS currently has free rein, but that Baghdad so far is standing in the way.
"The precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes," Dempsey said at a press conference. "We have positive indications that they are, but [they] haven't begun to do it yet."
Meanwhile, it appears that Obama administration's approach to taking the fight to IS is going even worse in Syria than it is in Iraq. On Saturday Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), a direct Al Qaeda affiliate unlike the independent Islamic State, ejected US-trained rebels from their last bastion in Syria's Idlib Province. The Daily Telegraph reports that the rebels the US supported surrendered many weapons to the Al Qaeda affiliate.
It was not immediately clear if American TOW (anti-tank) missiles were among the stockpile surrendered to Jabhat al-Nusra on Saturday. However several Jabhat al-Nusra members on Twitter announced triumphantly that they were.
Also the loss of a group that had been held up to the international media as being exemplary of Western efforts in Syria is a humiliating blow at the time that the US is increasing its military involvement in the country, with both air strikes and training of local rebels.
In Idlib, Harakat Hazm gave up their positions to Jabhat al-Nusra "without firing a shot", according to some reports, and some of the men even defected to the jihadists.
The US had said earlier this year that pro-Western rebels like the ones defeated by JAN would prove important in Syria in the fight against both the jihadis and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad they're seeking to destroy.