BAGHDAD — As the United States considers ways to increase aid to Iraq's beleaguered military, those who are fighting the Islamic extremists say nothing short of a dramatic increase in U.S. air attacks will allow them to defeat heavily armed Islamist militants.
"Iraq is going to lose the war without U.S. support," said Sheik Jassim Mohammed, a tribal leader in Ramadi in western Iraq. "We need airstrikes."
Sheik Jassim, as he is commonly called, said he is commanding about 700 fighters from an alliance of about seven tribes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
He said his forces are under siege by Islamic State extremists who daily fire mortars and artillery at his fighters, who are battling militants in an effort to protect their homes and farms.
Both the majority residents in the region and the militants are Sunni Muslims, but the Islamic State fighters, who have seized large swaths of Iraq practice stricter customs. Nationwide, most Iraqis are Shiites, who dominate the government in Baghdad.
Limited U.S. airstrikes have blunted an extremist offensive that appeared headed toward Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region in the north, and have headed off attacks on a small religious sect under siege on a mountaintop in northern Iraq.
The White House said Wednesday it would send 130 troops to Iraq to assess how U.S. forces on the ground could help rescue the Yazidis, who are on Sinjar Mountain surrounded by militants.
The administration has said it has no plans to send combat troops back into Iraq three years after their exit.
The United States said the airstrikes it launched were limited to protecting U.S. personnel and relieving a humanitarian crisis. There is a U.S. Consulate in Irbil and a joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations center.
"This is not a combat boots-on-the-ground operation," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
The White House has said it is considering an increase in aid to Iraq now that a new prime minister has been nominated to replace Nouri al-Maliki and lawmakers are attempting to form a new government that U.S. officials say should include more Sunnis. Al-Maliki has been fighting to remain in power for a third four-year term but his support from within Iraq and the country's foreign allies has withered.
"We are prepared to consider additional political, economic, and security options as Iraq starts to build a new government," Secretary of State John Kerry said this week.
Rolling back the gains the Islamic State militants have made in recent months will be difficult. They control about one-third of Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city, according to Pentagon estimates.
"The retaking of terrain is a different thing," said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Sheik Jassim, leader of the Albu Soda tribe, was part of the U.S.-supported tribal revolt that helped drive al-Qaeda fighters from Anbar province in western Iraq in 2006, when the country was last torn by sectarian war. With U.S. air support, his troops fought a key battle in November 2006 that helped rid Ramadi of militants.
Today he said he is mostly fighting alone. "ISIL's support is international," the sheik said, referring to the militants' former name, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. "Nobody is supporting us."