The liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, remains a top priority for most actors involved in the campaign against the so-called Islamic State. A major ally in this battle is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its peshmerga military forces. The KRG is unlikely to send peshmerga units into Mosul itself, as it’s a predominantly Sunni Arab city that the Kurdish leadership neither claims nor contests to be part of its territory—a prerequisite for direct peshmerga involvement. Rather, the focus is on shaping the political environment there for after the Islamic State is removed.  

In anticipation of the eventual power vacuum in Mosul, the KRG has begun to plan for what comes next in the city, only an hour’s drive from Erbil, the region’s capital. The Kurds have three priorities.

First, they do not want the Islamic State to remain in any form near the Kurdistan region. That means not only defeating the group but also ensuring it does not reemerge as a threat.

Second, the Kurds do not want the Iraqi central government, particularly Shia paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), to exploit the recapture of Mosul to reimpose Baghdad’s authority in the area. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has made clear many times, the Popular Mobilization Forces are part of the state, which pays their salaries and coordinates militarily with their commanders.

And third, they do not want the future local government in Mosul to include Iraqi Sunni Arabs who are unfriendly to Kurds, such as former Baathists. Their main objective is to put in place allies in the city who can support KRG policies negotiated with the central government. These policies have generally revolved around furthering regional and provincial autonomy and securing a greater share of national revenues.

But in the end, what happens in Mosul will be about much more than Mosul. For the Kurds in particular, it may serve as the final test of whether Iraq can effectively manage its diverse communities and function as a single federal state. As such, they are already planning for the future.

Clearing the Neighborhood

Preventing a return of the Islamic State after it is defeated in Mosul will require working with local tribal forces and neighbors that have the military capacity to hold ground in the city and territories around it.

Saadi Pira, the head of the Foreign Relations Office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), confirmed to the author that his party (part of the KRG governing coalition) enjoys good relations with several such tribes. He included in that list the Shammar, Tayy, Jabour, and Hadid tribes—all vital partners in liberating Islamic State–controlled areas.1

The ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is also collaborating with Sunni Arab tribal forces. For example, the KDP and members of the Shammar tribe fought together against the Islamic State in Rabia in October 2014, forcing it to withdraw from the border town. Military cooperation includes training as well. Hemin Hawrami, who heads the KDP’s Foreign Relations Office, told the author that the peshmerga units affiliated with his party have provided two training camps—in the towns of Nawaran and Makhmour—to help Sunni forces prepare for combat.2

The KDP leadership has also been working with paramilitary forces affiliated with Turkey, with which it has a strong economic and security relationship. Among these are the National Mobilization (al-Hashd al-Watani) forces of Athil al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh Province, who has been living in Erbil since being displaced from Mosul in summer 2014. Nujaifi told the author that his forces include some 4,000 fighters outside Mosul and thousands more inside the city who are ready to launch resistance operations.3

Nujaifi, whose brother Osama was one of Iraq’s vice presidents until 2015, is supported by Turkey, which intends to remain influential in a post–Islamic State Mosul. According to reports, some 1,200 Turkish troops, with hundreds of military vehicles, have been deployed in Iraq in preparation for the city’s liberation. The KDP wants to work with Nujaifi to ensure not only that the Islamic State is defeated but also, more critically, that the security apparatus in Mosul afterward will be one friendly to the KRG.

Keeping Baghdad Out

The political and military influence of Iraq’s central government is another troubling factor the Kurdistan region’s leadership wants to keep far from its borders. To avoid any interference, the KRG would like to expand the scope of decentralization in the context of a federal (if not confederal) Iraq. Although officially the Kurdish leadership says local leaders in Mosul must decide on which system of government they would like to see introduced in their areas, there is little doubt that Kurds would prefer one that greatly limits Baghdad’s reach. An official in the Kurdistan Region Security Council reflected this attitude best when he told Newsweek:

The idea of a central government in Baghdad has failed. . . .

Kurds, Sunnis and Shia just do not trust each other and the only way you can address that is by allowing local regions and provinces to govern their own affairs.

To advance such an agenda, some Kurds are willing to support the transformation of the administrative status of Nineveh, where Mosul is located, from a governorate (muhafaza) to a region (iqleem). According to Article 115 of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005, a governorate can opt to become a region through a request signed either by at least one-third of the members of the Governorate Council or by one-tenth of registered voters in the governorate.

A region enjoys considerably greater autonomy than a governorate. For instance it has the right to exercise executive, legislative, and judicial authority in accordance with the constitution (except for certain powers deemed exclusively under the purview of the central government). More importantly, regions have the right to modify federal legislation if it contradicts regional laws.

Thus far only the KRG has become a region. Other governorates such as Diyala or Basra attempted to do so, but failed because of interference from the central government when Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister. Maliki used his influence over the Independent High Electoral Commission (which has exclusive power to manage and supervise referendums on establishing regions) to veto the bids. For the Kurds, Baghdad’s refusal to grant regional status to governorates that had met the constitutional requirements to do so only confirmed their doubts about the nature of Iraqi federalism today.

Most Sunni Arab leaders appear to embrace the idea of devolving power away from Baghdad as well. Even Sunni Arab leaders who opposed federalism in the early years after the U.S. invasion now regard it as the preferred political system for Iraq. A KDP Political Bureau member, Ahmad Kany, who heads the party’s National Relations Office, also believes that the Sunnis are finally beginning to understand that a more decentralized political arrangement is best for their cause.

In an extreme case, Mudhar Shawkat, who in 2015 established the National Salvation Front, a political coalition, has called for a Sunni Regional Government, along the lines of the KRG—in other words, encompassing several governorates. He told the author that the Kurdistan region is supportive because it “understands that it is also in danger and is scared of what will happen if the Sunni forces retreat” in the face of Shia paramilitaries tied to Baghdad.4

Other Sunni Arab leaders, such as the Nujaifi brothers, prefer not to establish a broad Sunni region. They would favor following constitutional provisions and setting up regions based on individual governorates, some of which have mixed ethnic and religious populations.

Yet, the Sunnis’ experience during Maliki’s time in office has led them to conclude that the Shia-dominated leadership in the central government would likely oppose any process moving in the direction of decentralization.

Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also want to limit the central government’s military influence along the Kurdistan region’s border with Nineveh. To them, a buffer zone manned by friendly Sunni Arab allies would be a means of doing so, and would serve to neutralize possible threats represented by the Popular Mobilization Forces. The Kurds fear that Shia paramilitary units will gain a foothold near Kurdish areas, provoking clashes with peshmerga groups. This has already happened on a number of occasions, for example in April 2016 in the city of Tuz Khurmatu. And they worry that the presence of the Popular Mobilization Forces could fuel pro–Islamic State sentiment in Mosul and the wider area. That is why Erbil is interested in supporting local forces to govern the liberated areas—to keep out groups that are certain to antagonize Sunni communities.

Promoting KRG-Friendly Sunnis

Another aim of the KRG is to ensure that the future political elite in Mosul and other Sunni Arab areas cleared of the Islamic State is friendly toward the Kurds.

To officials in the Kurdistan region, friendly ties with the Sunni Arab community are of strategic importance. A Kurdish–Sunni Arab alliance, for now, can serve as the cornerstone of a political coalition to check an untrusted Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. At the national level in 2012, for instance, Ayad Allawi’s secular parliamentary bloc representing many Sunni Arabs (though Allawi himself is Shia) was a critical partner of the Kurds in their bid to oust Maliki through a no-confidence motion in parliament. The effort failed, but the episode showed the Kurds the necessity of finding parliamentary allies to oppose Baghdad’s overcentralization of power.

The Kurds and Sunni Arabs have indeed entered a somewhat friendly marriage of convenience vis-à-vis the external threat of Baghdad. As a multiethnic city, Mosul has Kurds in its local government. For instance, the head of the Provincial Council in Nineveh, Bashar Kiki, is a Kurd. According to Kiki, the Kurdistan region has very strong relations with his council, and coordination will continue between the two sides.5

Mosul is mainly a Sunni Arab city, and the KRG leadership has developed a network of Sunni Arab allies from there, some of whom had relationships with the regional government prior to the Islamic State takeover. Kurdish–Sunni Arab ties improved following the displacement of much of the Sunni Arab leadership after the triumph of the Islamic State. Many of these individuals—former officials, tribal sheikhs, and religious figures—preferred to move to the relative stability of the Kurdistan region than to an unstable, Shia-dominated Baghdad.

By providing a place of refuge for the Sunni Arab leaders, the KRG has gained considerable leverage. It has used their predicament to underline that the Iraqi central government is failing to properly represent the Sunni Arab population. By discrediting the authorities in Baghdad, the Kurds make it easier to keep them out of Mosul, while also building bridges to Iraq’s Sunni Arab community and to its leaders whom the Kurds hope to help put in power in the city. This will allow the Kurds to advance their project of setting up a buffer zone between the Kurdistan region and potentially unstable Arab areas in northern Iraq, especially if there is a resurgence of the Islamic State.

An official from the KRG prime minister’s office told the author that Kurdish support includes providing personal security and funding initiatives for selected Sunni Arab leaders.6 Many displaced Sunni Arab politicians, sheikhs, and clerics have been offered a security detail and safe housing, among other favors. The stronger the relationship, the more benefits offered by the KRG.

One of the strongest Sunni allies of the KRG is Mithal al-Alusi, who was an Iraqi member of parliament until 2010. Alusi has been living in the Kurdistan region since 2011, when threats from both al-Qaeda and Shia paramilitaries forced him to seek refuge there. KRG President Masoud Barzani has in the past offered security protection to Alusi and will continue to promote him at the national level. Although the Kurdish leadership will shy away from openly influencing Sunni representatives, Alusi is someone it will want to see play a prominent role in Baghdad backing the shared objectives of Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Another Sunni Arab ally of the Kurds is Mudhar Shawkat. Revealingly, he announced the formation of his National Salvation Front at the Erbil International Hotel in the presence of senior Kurdish leaders, including Ahmad Kany. Shawkat has argued that “the KDP wants a leadership [in Mosul] with which it can establish partnerships,” and he shares with the Kurds a close relationship with the United States, a KRG priority.7

Complicating the situation, however, is the fact that until recently Kurdish-Arab relations in Mosul were strained. During the 2009 Iraqi provincial elections, Athil al-Nujaifi ran against the Kurdish parties in Nineveh and called for the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the governorate. Interestingly, at the time he was supported by the central government.

Despite the rapprochement today between Sunni Arab leaders from Mosul and the Kurds, the risk that relations will deteriorate remains real. For now, however, their interests are parallel, as they face two common enemies: the Islamic State and the Shia paramilitary groups. It is likely that they will cooperate for as long as these threats continue to exist.

Opening a Door to Iraq’s Future

The liberation of Mosul remains a distant reality at present. Both Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders agree that removing the Islamic State will require more than military force alone. It will also necessitate a political initiative that can win back disenfranchised Sunnis who are currently supportive of, or indifferent to, the Islamic State in their areas. To move past the crisis of Sunni representation, some Kurdish and Sunni Arab officials insist that Baghdad’s role, particularly through the paramilitary groups it is sponsoring, must be minimized in Mosul and other predominantly Sunni areas where the Islamic State remains active.

For the United States, which is leading international efforts to recapture Mosul, support for the Kurdistan region’s peshmerga forces is a sign of the importance the Kurds will play in defining an aftermath that can consolidate the gains made against the Islamic State. This was evident when U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced in April 2016 a direct payment of $415 million to peshmerga units, thereby circumventing the Iraqi central government. The unprecedented move will have implications for the legitimacy of substate actors in Iraq and possibly for the eventual political makeup of the country. Indeed, as international actors move away from dogmatic state-centrism in their interactions with Iraq, this approach could extend to include local leaders in Mosul.

If the major preoccupation is to ensure that the Islamic State does not reappear after a future ouster—either in its present form or under some other label—then it is vital for the Iraqi central government to accommodate the inhabitants of Nineveh, including the local tribes, by providing them with the financial means for economic development. This will serve to set up barriers against a return of the Islamic State, as governorate councils and tribes benefit from sufficient revenues allowing them to administer their own affairs. There cannot be a return to Maliki’s policy of imposing central authority and marginalizing Sunnis, which facilitated the Islamic State’s arrival in the first place.

But more profoundly, the recapture of Mosul will revive the contentious debate over the future of Iraq. That is why the Kurds are now seeking to lay the groundwork to ensure that their vision can prevail. This will not be without consequences. The Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, while they may agree over the noxious influence of Baghdad, disagree over whether Iraq should remain a single state—even as Sunni Arabs themselves have no unified vision for the country they desire.

The city’s liberation could emerge as a defining moment for an Iraqi state that has yet to find a consensual national political arrangement to satisfy all its communities.

This research is part of Governance of Diversity: Case of the Kurdish and Amazigh Communities in the Middle East and North Africa, a program funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC).

Notes

1 Interview with Saadi Pira in Erbil, November 2015.

2 Interview with Hemin Hawrami on the telephone, February 2016.

3 Interview with Athil al-Nujaifi in Erbil, March 2016.

4 Interview with Mudhar Shawkat on the telephone, February 2016.

5 Interview with Bashar Kiki in Erbil, April 2016.

6 Interview with a Kurdistan Regional Government official in Erbil, March 2016.

7 Interview with Mudhar Shawkat on the telephone, February 2016.