The liberation on November 17 of Rawa, the last significant Iraqi town held by the Islamic State, promises the end of a particularly dangerous phase in the history of a country that has experienced three especially destructive wars since 1980 and almost incessant armed conflict in between. But rather than an era of peace and stability, what Iraq faces next is a far more complex and potentially fateful struggle. For three years since the Islamic State’s dramatic surge and capture of the northern city of Mosul, the military campaign to defeat it has obscured the three challenges that truly threaten the cohesion and integrity of the Iraqi state from within.
The first of these is the deeply problematic reality of key state institutions, which suffer high levels of corruption and political factionalism, and have repeatedly proved themselves dysfunctional. The abrupt collapse of the armed forces that allowed a small number of Islamic State fighters to capture Mosul in June 2014 demonstrated this most graphically, but similar problems afflict the security sector that comes under the ministry of interior. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s use of the armed forces and counter-terrorism units to spearhead his interventions in local government and replace civilian councils in several provinces further undermined the functioning of state institutions. Remedial steps to rebuild and retrain the army since 2014, led by the United States, focused on select elite units and did little to transform the overall defence and internal security sectors or reform the pattern of civil-military relations that proved so damaging under Maliki.
The second major challenge facing Iraq is the enduring failure of state institutions –and of the political class responsible for running the executive and legislature – to deliver key public goods and services. This is true for all sectors of the Iraqi population. Indeed, the worst rates of deep poverty and unemployment are registered in the three overwhelmingly Shia provinces south of Baghdad, despite the common perception among its detractors that Iraq is ruled by a Shia government. According to Iraqi economists and parliamentarians, not a single new hospital or power plant was built between 2003 and 2013 despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds, and the country’s top finance and oil officials confirm that $300 billion was actually paid to contractors for projects that were never completed. As seriously, the government has failed almost entirely to develop the business sector and diversify economy, and has actually regressed in terms of the overwhelming dependence of public finances on oil revenue.
Last but not least, as many commentators have correctly noted, Iraq faces the challenge of achieving genuine political reconciliation between social communities. But although the focus is commonly on reconciling Sunni Arabs and reintegrating them within the central state under a government they distrust, intra-community divisions are at least as deep and pose no less a threat to the viability of Iraq as a nation-state. Political disagreement among Sunni Arabs or among Shia Arabs is at least as acute as it is between the two denominations over the desired nature and identity of the state: whether it should be Islamic or secular, unitary or federal, closer to Iran or other Arab countries or neutrally balanced between the two. In some respects, Iraq has reverted to the destabilizing linkage between its regional alignments and domestic politics that characterized its turbulent politics up to 1970. The potential for a return to openly adversarial relations between the central and Kurdish regional governments and the opening that provides for external involvement only adds to the risks.
These combined problems fuelled the rise of the Islamic State, as many have noted, but go well beyond the “Sunni question” in Iraq. Yet all attempts to place them squarely on the public agenda and undertake sustained remedial action were defeated from the outset by entrenched resistance within the central government and parliament – despite their formal approval of the reform plan announced by Prime Minister Haidar al-‘Abadi in 2015 – and from influential political parties, powerful militia factions, and interest groups in key state institutions. “No sound above that of the battle:” the phrase coined by then President Gamal Abdul-Nasser to rally Arab support for Egypt during its war of attrition with Israel in 1968-1970, in effect became a means of deflecting attention from the critical challenges facing the Iraqi state after the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014.
More important than the battle for Mosul, therefore, is the coming battle for Baghdad, that is, the seat of state power in Iraq. The threat posed by the Islamic State or other forms of Sunni Arab insurgency remains; there were nearly 1,500 attacks in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria in the few months between their liberation and April 2017 alone. But more consequential is the struggle between predominantly Shia political factions, not least because it takes place within, and for control of, state power institutions. The formalization of the legal status of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Force as a component of the Iraqi armed forces by the Iraqi parliament in November 2016 is a foremost instance of this.
Hopefully, this struggle will not be violent, but the potential is there. Violence has become a medium for the conduct of politics in Iraq, as in numerous other Arab countries, if not its primary form. At the very least, possession of the organized means of force has become a prerequisite that shapes the political arena, enabling smaller armed groups to compete with, or marginalize, much larger parties or electoral lists that have won significant shares of the vote in past elections. With several militias are already represented in parliament, the militarization of Iraqi national politics – enhanced by the renewed prospect of conflict over the future borders of Iraqi Kurdistan and within the autonomous region – is likely to be reflected in the outcome of the general elections scheduled for May 2018. History will not repeat itself, but the factional politics that paralyzed the Iraqi military and drove several coups d’état in the 1950s and 1960s has now spread across the state apparatus and become a general feature.
Ultimately, the risk of armed conflict may be mitigated by the fluidity of the multiple political contests and shifting alignments currently affecting Iraq. Efforts by external actors such as the United States, leading members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey, and even Iran – albeit for widely divergent reasons – can also help contain the risk. But even if armed conflict is avoided, sharp political polarization makes necessary reforms – administrative, economic, or political – very hard, if not impossible. Without them, however, Iraq will remain mired in stasis, unable to provide effective governance or development, and therefore permanently insecure and unstable.