As the campaign to retake Mosul continues, Iraqis are celebrating it as an embodiment of national unity. The offensive has brought together the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and paramilitary groups, including the Popular Mobilization Forces (Al-Hashd al-Shaabi), or PMF, as well as Sunni tribal fighters. Early on this heightened expectations of a swift military victory.
In recognition of this, both Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, stated after the Mosul offensive began that it was the first time in Iraq’s history that the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army were cooperating militarily. Abadi declared, “All peoples are here to fight with us, Kurd with Arabs, Shia with Sunnis, and all the minorities are here with us—Christians, Yezidis, and Turkmen all fighting shoulder-to-shoulder.” His comments were echoed by Jan Kubiš, the United Nations’ special representative to Iraq, who stated in a briefing to the Security Council, “We witness the birth of a new Iraq and its security forces, who are welcomed by civilians as liberators.”
Such optimism aside, even if the Islamic State is defeated, which seems likely even though progress is slow, Iraq will face several key challenges. They include a crisis of confidence between the state and citizens, a crisis of trust among Iraqis, a struggle for political leadership within the main ethno-sectarian communities, the financing of reconstruction, and the future of Iraq’s disputed territories.
A GAP BETWEEN THE STATE AND COMMUNITIES
The crisis of confidence between the state and Iraqi citizens is the result of decades of exclusionary practices and violent repression as the central authorities targeted specific ethnic and sectarian communities.
The fierce repression of the Sunni community under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was a key trigger in the transition from the 2012–2013 protests in Sunni-majority provinces towards a violent jihadi insurgency. The ease with which large swaths of Iraqi territory fell to the so-called Islamic State in June 2014, like the abandonment by the Iraqi Army of key areas, further widened a preexisting rift between many Iraqis and their state.
Preventing the return of the Islamic State means addressing the principle demands of Sunnis—including political inclusion, reform of the counterterrorism law, and amnesty for the tens of thousands of Sunnis who have been imprisoned under the law, often without appropriate judicial review. Government cooperation with the Sunnis, particularly Sunni tribes, will also be an important factor in reassuring the community.
At stake in a post-Islamic State Iraq are changes in the power structures governing Baghdad’s relations with the provinces and sectarian and ethnic communities. Three separate entities now coexist within Iraq’s borders: Iraqi state-controlled areas where Shia factions mainly hold sway; the Kurdistan Regional Government; and the territory ruled by the Islamic State. Each of these areas has developed specific forms of governance, against a backdrop of escalating regional competition for power and external interventions by Iran and the Western-led coalition.
In this context, the relationship between Baghdad and the different regions is at the heart of discussions of what comes next after Mosul. While both the Kurds and the Sunnis would prefer to limit the central government’s role in Mosul and other liberated provinces, the Shia-dominated leadership seeks to maintain such authority. A non-inclusive political process in a post-Islamic State environment and a refusal to decentralize power to the governorates as enshrined in the constitution are likely to spur more communal violence.
At best, the presence of the PMF in mainly Sunni areas may fuel support for the Islamic State—whose legacy will linger in Iraqi society—or for other extremists.
THE CRISIS BETWEEN IRAQIS
A crisis of trust exists not only between Iraqi citizens and their state but also between Iraqi communities themselves. In the last two years, Iraq has witnessed the increasing militarization of ethnic and sectarian communities seeking protection. Following the advances of the Islamic State in 2014, the rapid growth of the Shia-dominated PMF to some 50 groups and around 150,000 fighting men is one aspect of this, as is the establishment of militias composed of minorities, including Christians and Yezidis. The latter are operating under the auspices of the PMF or the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Even though many Sunnis did not support the Islamic State, and the Sunni community has suffered considerably at its hands, members of Iraq’s other sectarian groups felt betrayed by how some of their former Arab Sunni neighbors compromised with the group. A Yezidi mother who escaped with her family remarked, “We don’t cry only for ourselves, but for all Yezidis. They tortured us, attacked our honor, our religion. We have lived together with our Muslim Arab neighbors during the Iran-Iraq War [and] during the first Gulf War. We protected each other. Now they became our enemies.”
An activist working in the refugee camps of Dohuk told me last February, “Yezidis are refusing to go back to areas liberated from the [Islamic State] until they know how they will be governed. They want to have a say in the running of their own affairs.”
Meanwhile, the actions of the Islamic State and the cycle of sectarian blame and distrust have led to revenge killings of Arab Sunnis by Shia militias. These militias have been accused of slaughtering Sunnis with impunity, as have Yezidi militias. In other areas, Kurdish militias have been blamed for massacring and expelling Arab citizens, under the pretext that they collaborated with the Islamic State. In reality, the Kurds are also driven by an attempt to consolidate their control over disputed territories.
Such actions will drive further wedges into Iraqi society. Without an overhaul of communal relations through the adoption of more inclusionary policies, the potential for peace in a post-Islamic State Iraq will be in doubt.
THE DANGERS OF INTRA-SECTARIAN CONFLICT
However, communal tensions are not limited to contestation between the Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis. There are also worrying signs of increasing intra-sectarian conflict, particularly in the Shia and Kurdish communities. Among the Shia, rivalries have increased, accentuating conflicts within the Dawa Party, Iraq’s largest, which has effectively ruled the country since 2005 and is split into two feuding camps.
While political strife and internal divisions are not new to Dawa, the removal of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014 and his replacement by another Dawa official, Haidar al-Abadi, has given these divisions a harder edge. The Mosul offensive allows Abadi to appear as a strong national leader, while Maliki’s control over a portion of the PMF has given him additional leverage on the ground to challenge his political rivals in ways that were not possible before. He is using the groups affiliated with him to both undermine Abadi and strengthen himself before provincial council elections in 2017 and parliamentary elections in 2018.
This intra-Shia struggle will also be shaped by the rising power of the PMF. Parliament’s recent passing of a law officially recognizing the coalition of armed groups as a part of Iraq’s armed forces had a number of objectives. Not only was it an attempt to acknowledge the PMF’s efforts in fighting the Islamic State, it was also designed to place its forces more squarely under the authority of the state and impede the political ambitions of its leaders.
Yet many PMF leaders are connected to political parties, and are unlikely to lay down their arms quietly. They have become powerful warlords, commanding large numbers of troops, exploiting considerable resources, and enjoying political clout. These leaders’ growing ambitions mean that it is not inconceivable that rivalries will emerge leading to conflicts among some of the PMF’s armed groups themselves.
The Kurdish region is not faring much better. The mandate of Masoud Barzani, Kurdistan’s president, which had already been extended for two years by the Kurdish parliament, expired in August 2015. Parliament has been inactive since then and the government is dysfunctional. The historic struggle between the two principle Kurdish political dynasties—the Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the city of Irbil, and the Talabani-led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), based in Suleimaniyya—is giving way to feuds within the ruling families of both areas, and between them and other influential Kurdish officials. These low-level partisan tensions could spill over into renewed conflict between the KDP and PUK.
Meanwhile, the salaries of Kurdish civil servants have not been paid for months, triggering multiple demonstrations across the different cities of the Kurdistan Region by the civil servants and police. These grievances are driving a broader sentiment of support among Kurds for remaining within the Iraqi state, which would at least guarantee payment of their salaries.
RECONSTRUCTION AND DISPUTED TERRITORIES
The realities of the Mosul battle are generating a third challenge for the Iraqi government, namely rebuilding cities and towns liberated from the Islamic State at a time when state coffers are empty.
The 2017 budget, ratified recently by parliament, highlighted a budget deficit equivalent to $18 billion. In April, the World Bank forecast that the deficit would represent around 14.2 percent of GDP. Moreover, around 22 percent of budget spending is financed by borrowing or financial assistance. Around 25 percent of spending has been allocated to military activities, including funding for the PMF. Meanwhile, disagreements have emerged among Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish politicians over what share of this money would go to their respective armed groups.
This deficit raised questions about the government’s ability to undertake reconstruction activities, estimated to be anywhere between $14 billion and $25 billion. Areas previously liberated from the Islamic States have yet to be rebuilt or their services restored. The slow pace of reconstruction efforts will prolong the suffering of Iraqi displaced by the Islamic State, making it impossible for them to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Popular anger at the lack of services may, with time, provoke new insurgencies.
A fourth challenge will be what happens with regard to territories liberated from the Islamic State and that are disputed by the Iraqi state and the Kurds. Haidar al-Abadi has affirmed that an agreement exists for the Peshmerga to withdraw from such areas once the Islamic State is defeated. However, Masoud Barzani and other Kurdish officials have suggested that they would not implement such withdrawals.
The tense situation could pave the way for open conflict between the Kurds and Baghdad, belying the optimism that surrounded the start of the Mosul offensive. This will only further complicate the process of reconstruction and the future of any potential political settlement for a post-Islamic State governance system in Iraq.
AN OPENING FOR A HOLISTIC VISION OF IRAQ
With the Iraqi state facing multiple challenges, civil society actors who have organized protests during the past year and a half across Iraqi cities and provinces, including Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Erbil, and Suleimaniyya, have an opportunity to present a holistic vision for Iraq’s future. United by their demands for a reform of governance mechanisms and an end to corruption, among others issues, these actors can look towards the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections to advance an inclusive platform of change.
In light of Iraq’s powerful political and military realities, this may be an uphill battle. However, it is one that is urgently needed to create a framework for national reconciliation between the country’s diverse communities.
To help do so, civil society actors, divided until now by ethnic and sectarian belonging, must offer a vision that addresses several requirements. They must recognize that discussions over the redistribution of resources are fundamental for addressing power inequalities among sects and ethnicities, for rebuilding the bonds of trust between Iraqis, and for addressing the traumas inflicted on Iraqis by the Islamic State.
This process of healing would also include mechanisms for working with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, who, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, have been brainwashed by the Islamic State. It includes the challenge of reintegrating women who have been violated by the Islamic State’s militants, as well as their offspring, into conservative Iraqi society. In addition, improving the prospects for transitional justice mechanisms would permit further healing. If left unaddressed, such a situation could lead to a new incarnation of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State may have unified the Iraqis, but it has not created a consensus over Iraq’s future. As the prominent Shia cleric Sayyed Jawad al-Khoei put it, “We do not have one Iraq, we have an Iraq of the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, as well as the Iraq of persecuted minorities of Yezidis, Sabians, and Mandaeans.” The opportunity to create a broader vision is now and it is up to civil society groups and others invested in Iraq’s future to attempt to do so.