After Mosul: How to Save Iraq?


2017-03-03 By Amatzia Baram and Lazar Aleksandrov*

The military operation to liberate Mosul is very slow and costly in blood and treasure but victory is certain.

What next?

Important political and religious circles in Baghdad and Najaf are aware that, even more than keeping Iran and Turkey out, resolving the domestic Sunni-Shi’i-Kurdish conflicts is the crucial guarantee for Iraq’s survival.

Without European, Gulf Arab and UN but, in the first place American support, though, Iraq will fail to meet these two formidable challenges.

The result of disintegration will be dire for Iraq, the Middle East and the West.

Iraqi forces enter Mosul. Credit: CNN, January 21, 2017.

In Iraq ISIS feeds on Iraqi-Sunni frustration.

A second failure of the Iraqi state will be worse that the first. ISIS is a desert power.

As it did once already in 2010-2014, like a Phoenix an ISIS 2.0 will rise again from its ashes. If past strategy is a guide, ISIS is already planting sleeper cells along the Euphrates.

There is no telling which shape will such ISIS resurrection in Iraq and Syria assume and how long it will take it to regroup, but the car-bombs exploding almost every day in Baghdad and Diyala and continued recruitment may serve as indications.

Whatever its shape it will pour new fuel on the blaze of radical Islam and create a new wave of terror and despairing refugees.

This is the time, therefore, to set in train an effective civil and diplomatic American, Arab and European engagement.

The need for urgent post-conflict reconciliation in the diverse and neuralgic area of Mosul and Kirkuk is more acute than in any other part of Iraq. In this article we can only relate to the main trends within the Arab Shi’i and Sunni communities.

The June 2014 fall of Mosul into the hands of ISIS was the result of Baghdad’s policy of anti-Sunni marginalization and violence. This fact is reflected in ISIS personnel. Most of the rank and file ISIS in Iraq (as different from ISIS-Syria) are Iraqis. Many commanders had served in Saddam’s army. “Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” is the product of Saddam’s Islamized education system from the late 1980s. ISIS is assisted by independent Iraqi groups like the JRTN (the Naqshbandis) and the Islamic Army.

They all represent a profound Iraqi structural crisis.

Without a beginning of national reconciliation this crisis will persist.

Modest efforts at reconciliation on the local level have already begun in Huweija (Kirkuk province) with tribal shaykhs, provincial officials and American (USIP) involvement. This is an important beginning.

The government of Iraq (GOI) needs to get involved now on the national level. It must relate to Sunni expectations for legislative, social and economic reforms as time is running against them.

There are indications that, in the face of an Iranian objection, the most influential cleric in Shi’i Iraq Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his senior colleagues in Najaf are supportive of such reforms because they believe that otherwise Iraq will collapse.

First, the GOI must return to the program proclaimed by Prime Minister Haydar al Abbadi in late 2014. This program, designed to help restore Sunni-Shi’i trust and based on a set of UN recommendations, includes three laws. One was to establish a locally-recruited National Guard, deployed at each Sunni province. Another proposed an amendment of the Justice and Accountability (“de-Baathification”) law, and a third one introduced amnesty legislation.

By now only the latter was passed, in itself a good omen. All these laws were presented by PM Abbadi in 2014 but rejected by Parliament mainly due to Iranian objection.

They must be passed. On November, 26 last Iraq’s Parliament voted to recognize the controversial Shi’i-majority Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) as a semi-autonomous part of the country’s armed forces.

This scared the Sunnis.

Paradoxically, this law can serve Sunni-Shi’i reconciliation if used to create also the Sunni National Gard and impose effective government supervision on both.

 Next: Mosul is the heart of Sunni Iraq and lies at the centre of a region with numerous religious and ethnic groups.

It has the potential of becoming a symbol of national unity.

Its liberation will result with massive destruction. Many will be left homeless in the winter. The experience of previously-liberated Iraqi cities is depressing.

Even if Baghdad is committed to bring the internally-displaced back from the cold, due to low oil prices it will need the support of the international community.

Here American persuasion has a very good chance to convince the Arab Gulf states to make a contribution.

They too are interested in an Iraq free of Iranian domination.

Last but not least, presently central Sunni and Shi’i figures are conducting low-key discussions designed to create a centralized, yet truly inclusive political system.

This deserves encouragement but it has less than 50% chance to succeed.

If they fail, to achieve reconciliation Baghdad will need to consider the Sunni (constitutional) demand for an autonomous status.

In 2012-2013 PM Maliki killed it. Baghdad should be able to agree at least to some de-centralization.

Such metamorphosis will require strong American and international support under a UN umbrella.

The new American administration could have a central role to play in supporting reconciliation.

A stable, independent and peaceful Iraq is an Arab, American and European interest.

*Dr. Amatzia Baram is a professor of Middle East History at the University of Haifa

He has published four books and some 70 articles in professional magazines. In December 2010 Professor Baram and two colleagues published a book titled Iraq between Occupations: Perspectives from 1920 to the Present (edited by Palgrave MacMillan).

In 2014 Professor Baram completed his latest book: Saddam Husayn and Islam 1968-2003: Baathi Iraq from Secularism to Faith.”

Lazar Aleksandrov (a pseudonym) is a diplomat, working in the Middle East.