Reporter: Sunni Tribesmen Key In ISIS Fight

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Josh Rushing is a former Marine-turned-journalist who served in Iraq, and he just returned from a reporting trip to the front lines of fighting against the extremist group, ISIS, in northern Iraq.

He tells Here & Now's Robin Young that the story there "is so much more complicated" than what Americans are hearing, and that contrary to public perception, American special forces are already on the ground in Iraq, supporting allies on the front line.

Rushing describes chaotic conditions on the ground, such as one village he visited which was overrun by fighters from both Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-backed militias.

Interview Highlights: Josh Rushing

On the conditions on the ground

"It's so much more complicated than I think we're getting here in the United States. Here we get this almost simple formula, like a binary, that it's good versus evil. And what I found is that it's much more complicated on both sides of the front line. And there is a definitive front line that does run from the Syrian border to the Iranian border."

"In the U.S., the Islamic State is presented as foreign fighters who turn out to be good with social media and the videos. But the truth is I think there are a fairly small number there on the ground in Iraq. most of the fighters — and I get this from people who are fighting them in the villages and fleeing from them — are not these foreign fighters. But most of them are Sunni tribesmen. And the Sunni tribesmen have a complete different ideology, religious take and end goal than the foreign fighters."

On U.S. forces' role

"There's a lot of discussion here about the U.S. won't have a combat role. But the guys I ran into were near the Mosul dam, where there was intense fighting at that time. And so I'm sure they had some role in the combat. And I can imagine what that is. Not just anyone can call in airstrikes from a U.S. jet. I was a U.S. Marine for 14 years. There are specific things you need to tell that pilot in the air."

"So whenever you're seeing U.S. airstrikes coordinated in what we call close air support — so near friendly forces — someone is calling that in, and that someone has a lot of U.S. training."

"To me [the White House] paints the picture of predators, where you have guys back in an air conditioned room with large TV screens looking at a target and deciding what to take out...But what I saw, it was more about special forces that would be on the ground working closely with Iraqi forces and Peshmerga."

On the Sunni tribes

"The US is a game changer there."

"I want to make sure that with my reporting, that people understand what the game is that [the U.S. is] changing. It's not just pushing the Islamic State back. Something follows in the wake of the Islamic State as they go back, and that's where everyone else's agendas come into play."

"And I think the U.S. needs to have a vested interest in the Sunni tribes. A lot of what the Sunni tribes have done has been branded as the Islamic State, when actually its quite different. They are completely disenfranchised from the Iraqi government in Baghdad."

"The tribes hold the key to this. And you can think back to 2006-2007, when the U.S. started finally working with the tribes, called it "the awakening." And the tribes turned against Al-Qaeda in Iraq at that time and pushed them out. Well, the tribal leaders are saying they can do the same thing again, but they want their rights protected in Baghdad, enshrined in Baghdad. Or at the most extreme, they want an autonomous state."

"The one thing I really do believe is that's at the very heart of this problem: the disenfranchisement of the tribal Sunnis. Just to give you a sense, the tribal leader I talked to, his tribe has 2 million members. He has 600,000 men with guns. And so those people have the ability to change the situation in Iraq, and right now, from what I can see, they don't have a lot of reason to do that."


  • Josh Rushing, co-host of Al Jazeera's "Fault Lines" an investigative documentary series. His one-hour special on his reporting trip, "Flashpoint: Fighting ISIL," airs on Al Jazeera America tonight. He tweets @joshrushing.

This segment aired on September 19, 2014.


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