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Anti-Daesh Sunnis bombed in strike coordinated by Iraqi government

The international US-led coalition against Daesh has confirmed in comments to MEMO that coalition airstrikes that led to the deaths of 21 Sunni Arab anti-Daesh fighters yesterday were conducted with the full knowledge and "coordination" of the Iraqi government.

The Tribal Mobilisation Forces (TMF), an Iraqi force of Sunni Arab tribal fighters attached to the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), slammed the "blind aircraft" of the US-led coalition yesterday for allegedly killing 21 of their fighters.

In a statement, Nazhan Al-Sakhr Al-Luhaiby, a commander in the TMF, confirmed that coalition warplanes bombed a building being used by his men as they attempted to defend against an attack by Daesh fighters east of Qayyara, 60 kilometres south of Mosul.

Al Jazeera also reported that the TMF released a further statement confirming that the positions they were using in Kharayib Jabr near Qayyara were communicated to all allied military actors operating in the region, including Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and in coordination with the coalition.

Responding to an emailed request for comment, US Central Command (CENTCOM), on behalf of the international coalition dubbed "Operation Inherent Resolve", said: "We are aware of the reports that Sunni fighters were in the building that was struck and we are taking [them] seriously."

"As a result, both the Coalition and ISF are conducting a joint investigation on this incident," CENTCOM said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Marwan Al-Zayd, a TMF field commander, said that the Sunni tribes affected by the attacks yesterday have called for an investigation into the bombing and also demanded that the families of the dead be compensated.

"The international coalition undoubtedly knew that the area [where the airstrike occurred] was controlled by Iraqi forces," Sunni tribal spokesman Muzahim Al-Huwayt told Al Jazeera last night.

Regarding the airstrikes themselves, CENTCOM told MEMO: "The strikes were coordinated by, with and through the Government of Iraq in support of Iraqi security forces who requested the strike."

"Initial battle damage assessment reports indicated that one building was destroyed and eight enemy fighters were killed," CENTCOM added, while confirming they were aware of reports that other Sunni tribal fighters were killed in the blue-on-blue attack.

The Iraqi Ministry of Defence has so far not responded to request for comment, but MEMO will update this story if they do.

Concerns over further Sunni disenfranchisement after Daesh threat

The fact that the ISF requested the strike knowing the TMF were in the building as well as the fact that Baghdad has a high level of coordination with the US-led coalition has raised serious concerns that Iraq may be considering its options to weaken the Sunni force, even if it is pro-government.

"They did the same to us when we fought Al-Qaeda," a source within the TMF told MEMO, adding: "At the time, we were fighting as the Sahwa [Sunni Awakening], and when we beat Al-Qaeda, [Baghdad] started cutting off our salaries and ammunition."

"I feel it's the same as the sectarianism of [former prime minister] Maliki. They have us fight and kill extremists on their behalf, legitimising them as non-sectarian, then they discriminate against us once we finish the fight because we're Sunnis."

Michael Stephens, a security expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told MEMO: "No doubt the Iraqi state sees rival military organisations as problematic and the Sunni Hashd [TMF] don't operate smoothly alongside the main Iraqi state."

"It's unclear to me what happens to the [TMF] after the Sunni heartlands are cleared of [Daesh]…Perhaps a Sunni Hashd could form the backbone of some sort of national guard, but given how Baghdad has discussed this issue it's unlikely to happen," Stephens explained.

In a related development, Al Jazeera's Iraq editor Hamid Hadeed wrote on Twitter that the Iraqi government had decided that the TMF was not a part of the PMF, but were instead considered as "citizens who had volunteered" to support the security forces temporarily.

Hadeed also warned that the Iraqi government would "dispose [of them] after use," drawing parallels between the Sahwa who fought against Al-Qaeda before being sidelined by Baghdad.

Baghdad's attempts to weaken the TMF could be because "[The Iraqi government] may be working to prevent [the] Sunni Hashd from growing too strong," Stephens explained.

PMF made official, while Sunnis still unofficial force

Last summer, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi officially incorporated the PMF as a formal and separate military formation that functions independently of the Iraqi Army.

The revelations that the TMF may no longer be considered as a part of the PMF raises the spectre of further Sunni disenfranchisement after Daesh is removed from Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. The PMF has been widely accused of sectarian abuses, including by Human Rights Watch.

This comes as the leader of the Shia Badr Organisation, one of the largest militias within the PMF, declared earlier this week that the PMF will be involved in the operation to recapture Mosul from Daesh.

An operation to retake Mosul, Daesh's last major urban stronghold in Iraq, is expected imminently. Al-Abadi has frequently made mention of Iraqi preparations, and shaping operations have been taking place around towns and villages surrounding Mosul for months now.

Mosul fell to Daesh in June 2014, after several hundred militants put two divisions worth of ISF soldiers to flight in a surprise attack that saw Baghdad's security apparatus' efficacy placed in doubt. Daesh has steadily lost ground in the last year, with Mosul perceived as the final step to prising them from Iraqi territory.

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