Three years of war against the extremists created a national sense of urgency which overcame regional, ethnic and sectarian disputes. But with Daesh now on the back foot, and deprived of most of the territory it once held throughout western Iraq, old tensions could resume.
One of these deep-seated Iraqi problems has clearly worsened since Daesh emerged to capture Mosul in 2014. In the early months of the struggle to prevent the group from moving on to seize Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government, Kurdish resistance forces occupied vast areas of the Nineveh plain east of Mosul which had long been disputed between Arabs and Kurds. The same happened in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.Under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, the fate of these areas was supposed to be decided in a referendum which has been repeatedly postponed. New facts have now been created on the ground. Whereas up to 2014 it was Baghdad that controlled the disputed areas and had an incentive to delay any change, the Kurds are now the occupiers and in the dominant position.
The issue will only exacerbate already existing divisions over how Iraq is to share its oil revenues and the federal budget between the Kurdish region and the rest. Added to that will be the independence referendum the Kurds are holding in September.
The second major issue is the risk of violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In 2014 Daesh was able to seize Mosul relatively easily because the city’s largely Sunni population felt neglected by Baghdad. Some even felt that the new post-Saddam Iraqi army, largely made up of Shiites, was behaving like an occupying power.
The challenge now is to ensure that a new local government is chosen for Mosul which takes Sunnis’ interests into full account and ends their sense of alienation. Baghdad must also quickly find the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised civilians. Thousands were killed in the struggle to retake it, in which the US-led coalition — like the Russian and Syrian air forces in Aleppo — enjoyed total air supremacy and used massive bombs to eliminate snipers.
Repairing the damage will be a huge task. The government’s record in other liberated cities is at best patchy. Fallujah and Ramadi were both freed from Daesh rule more than a year ago, yet visiting these cities this spring I could see huge swaths of ruined districts with little sign of reconstruction. The mayor of Fallujah was still living in Arbil, where he had taken refuge from Daesh. He made only occasional forays into the city he was meant to be running.
The good news is that most of Iraq’s leaders recognise the challenges. The prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive than his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki. Statesmanlike noises have also been coming from at least one of Iraq’s other Shiite power brokers. Earlier this year Moqtada Al Sadr told me in his Najaf home: “I’m afraid the defeat of Daesh is only the start of a new phase. I am very proud of Iraq’s diversity but my fear is that we may see a genocide of some ethnic or sectarian groups.”
To counter the danger, he has been proposing a series of visits by Shiitr community leaders to Sunni areas and vice versa to start a dialogue on reconstruction. More cogently, he has publicly warned members of the militia force that he mobilised when Daesh emerged that any abuse of Sunni civilians will be ruthlessly punished. He also promised to disband the force once the war ended.
The test of his sincerity comes now. Other militia leaders have been more vague about the future of the private armies, the so-called popular mobilisation units, which they sent into battle against Daesh. They too will have to come clean — either by disbanding their militias altogether or sending individual members to enlist in the regular army.
Restoring intercommunal trust is no easy task. It is barely a decade since Baghdad was torn apart by Al Qaida-inspired sectarian murders. The scars have yet to heal. Since then the arrival of hundreds of Iranian military advisers in the fight against Daesh has launched a wave of anti-Iran hysteria among Iraqi Sunnis.
Many Sunnis have a feeling of victimhood now that there is a shift in the political charge. But some Sunni leaders are willing to accept a new status for their communities and are working with Al Abadi. They should be encouraged. With Daesh out of the picture, Iraqi Arabs need to go back to the values of not so long ago when Sunni or Shiite identities were politically irrelevant.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd