Middle East

Iraq: Sunni tribe 'left for slaughter' by Islamic State

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Media captionSunni tribesman who witnessed IS massacre: "I hid between the bodies"

When the shooting stopped around 100 men lay dead in the desert, at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

The victims were from the Al Bu Nimr tribe, a powerful Sunni clan targeted for opposing IS in Iraq's vast western province of Anbar.

They fled the frontlines after they ran out of ammunition, but the militants hunted them down. While IS usually target Shia Muslims, this massacre was Sunni on Sunni.

Abu Ahmed (not his real name) says he was hit twice - in the arm and the leg - but survived by lying motionless among the corpses.

"There were many of us hiding in the reeds, " said the former policemen, who is a father of eight.

"They came in about 40 cars. They started firing at us, saying 'Come out you defectors. We would have got to Baghdad but you stopped us.'"

"There were bullets flying. I saw so many dead bodies. They tied up those who survived and took them away. I don't know what happened to them."

'Betrayed by the government'

Abu Ahmed says he knew the tribesmen who were gunned down and many were in the police and the army.

Hours after the mass execution, he walked through another killing ground as he retreated in the direction of Lake Tharthar.

"Every few minutes I saw about 20-25 bodies on the ground," he said.

"There were women, old men and children. I even saw the body of a dead child who was about three months old. I picked him up with my own hands."

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Image caption Frame from video purported to show Al Bu Nimr tribes people captured by Islamic State in Anbar province

He says the dead numbered between 80 and 100, and included some of his first cousins.

Abu Ahmed gave us this rare testimony by phone, as much of Anbar province is inaccessible due to the presence of IS. Even on a crackly phone line, his anger against Iraq's Shia-led government came across loud and clear.

"We were betrayed by the government," he told us.

"They said 'fight and we will help you' and they didn't do anything. They didn't give us weapons. They didn't send us anything. After 13 days of fighting - with no air support - we ran out of ammunition."

His sense of betrayal is echoed by Sheikh Naeem al-Gaoud, a tribal elder, who told us his people were handed to Islamic State on a platter.

"The government abandoned us," he said. "We asked them many times for weapons but they gave us only promises. We gave the government co-ordinates for airstrikes, but they didn't keep their word."

Terror tactics

Tribal leaders say the death toll among the Al Bu Nimr has now reached more than 630, but there is still no help from the government.

The mass killings of members of the Al Bu Nimr has implications far beyond the tribe itself. The bloodletting serves as a warning to other Sunni tribes about opposing IS, according to Iraqi security analyst Dr Hisham al-Hashemi.

"For Islamic State brutality can be more important, and effective, than battles," he said. "Other Sunni tribes saw the slaughter of the Al Bu Nimr. Most will remain neutral and stay out of the fight. "

Image caption The Iraqi government says it is doing all it can to help Sunni tribes fight IS

That is a problem for the governments in Baghdad and Washington, both of which are trying to get more Sunni tribes into the battle.

The tribesmen played a key role in helping the US defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq (a precursor to Islamic State) back in 2006 and 2007. That was during the so-called 'Sunni Awakening' when militias were on the US payroll.

Washington is pushing the new Iraqi government to arm the tribesmen to fight IS. But there has been no flood of weapons across Iraq's bloodstained sectarian divide.

"Every time they meet the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, he says he doesn't have weapons for them," said Dr Hashemi. "They view the government as weak, and believe it can't give them any support."

Iraq's National Security Advisor, Faleh al-Fayad, insists that the government is trying to help the tribes, who he says are spearheading the fight against IS in Anbar.

"It's a fact that many of the tribes are even more willing and determined to fight Isis [an alternative acronym for IS], than some of our troops, " he told the BBC.

"The government and the tribes face various pressures including lack of weapons, but we are doing all we can - in various ways - to get arms to supply the tribes, and everyone fighting Isis."

He denied allegations of neglect from the Al Bu Nimr.

"The government is waging a fierce battle in Anbar," he said. "Most of the army units, weapons and vehicles are in Anbar. A large number of troops have been killed there as well as locals."

Black market weapons

There is talk of recruiting tribesmen into a new national guard, but even if it is approved by parliament it could take 18 months to get it up and running.

Image caption Oumaya, a mother-of-four from the Jabouri tribe, was killed after taking up arms against IS

In the meantime the Al Bu Nimr tribe are still trying to combat Islamic State. A tribal leader told us they are buying guns on the black market in the absence of help from the government.

The Jabouri tribe in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, has also been left to fight its own battles, according to Sheikh Marwan al-Jabouri.

He proudly shows me pictures of his sister, Oumaya, who took up arms.

The social care advisor and mother-of-four died in battle in June - after killing three IS fighters.

"Once she heard that IS was in Mosul, she started taking a machine gun everywhere. She said 'they won't enter my area, unless they walk over my dead body'. People compare her to generals who ran away in Mosul and Tikrit," her brother said.

He says he is angry about the loss of Oumaya and all those who were abandoned, and worried about 50 of his tribesmen taken captive by IS.

"Our biggest fear is a repetition of the Al Bu Nimr scenario," he said. "If you offer even the slightest opposition to IS, you are killed."

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