Strug­gle over Iraq’s fu­ture in­ten­si­fies

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

After al­most nine months of fierce fight­ing, the cam­paign to re­cap­ture Mosul from Is­lamic State is draw­ing to a bit­ter end in the ru­ins of the city’s his­toric quar­ter, but the strug­gle for Iraq’s fu­ture is far from over. Aside from Mosul, across the bor­der in Syria a bat­tle is rag­ing to dis­lodge IS from Raqqa, the sec­ond cap­i­tal of its self-de­clared caliphate. Fight­ing will push down the Euphrates val­ley to Deir al-Zour, the ji­hadis’ last big ur­ban strong­hold.

But the fall of Mosul also ex­poses eth­nic and sec­tar­ian frac­tures that have plagued Iraq for more than a decade. The victory risks trig­ger­ing new vi­o­lence be­tween Arabs and Kurds over dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries or be­tween Sun­nis and Shi­ites over claims to power, egged on by out­side pow­ers that have shaped Iraq’s fu­ture since the 2003 US-led in­va­sion top­pled Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Sunni mi­nor­ity-rule and brought the Iran­backed Shi’ite ma­jor­ity to power.

For Iraq, stunned by the blitz on Mosul by Is­lamic State in 2014 and the col­lapse of its army, victory could thus turn out to be as big a prob­lem as de­feat. The fed­eral model de­vised un­der the An­glo-Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion and built on a power-shar­ing agree­ment be­tween Sun­nis, Shi­ites and Kurds col­lapsed into ethno-sec­tar­ian car­nage spawned by the al Qaeda pre­cur­sors of Is­lamic State.

In the three years since the mil­i­tants swept across the bor­der from Syria where they had re­grouped in the chaos of the re­bel­lion against Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad’s rule, IS was the ral­ly­ing point unit­ing a frac­tured Iraq. But now that the group faces mil­i­tary de­feat, the unity that held Iraq to­gether is start­ing to come apart.

No Post-Bat­tle Plan

One chal­lenge is the fu­ture of Mosul it­self, a city trau­ma­tized by Is­lamic State’s bru­tal rule and shat­tered by the lat­est US-backed of­fen­sive, with thou­sands dead and nearly one million peo­ple dis­placed. West­ern, Iraqi and Kur­dish of­fi­cials say they are as­ton­ished that Iraqi author­i­ties ne­glected to pre­pare a post-bat­tle plan for gov­er­nance and se­cu­rity. A high-level com­mit­tee formed by the Kur­dish re­gion, the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment and a US-led mil­i­tary coali­tion to help Mosul lead­ers re­build the city had never con­vened, they said.

“Prime Min­is­ter (Haider) Al-Abadi kept drag­ging his heels. Ev­ery time we raised this is­sue with him, he said, ‘Let’s wait un­til mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions are over’,” said Hosh­yar Ze­bari, an in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected for­mer fi­nance and for­eign min­is­ter. “A whole city is be­ing dec­i­mated. Look how much the gov­ern­ment is con­tribut­ing, as if they don’t care.”

The first in­di­ca­tion of pos­si­ble fu­ture con­flict came when Ma­soud Barzani, pres­i­dent of Iraq’s au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion, an­nounced a Sept 25 ref­er­en­dum for an in­de­pen­dent state. An­other omen was a push by Iran-backed Shi­ite mili­tias, grouped un­der the gov­ern­ment-run Hashid Shaabi, to de­ploy along­side Kur­dish ar­eas and ad­vance to­wards the Syr­ian bor­der, mo­ti­vated by Iran’s de­sire to join Iraq and Syria and es­tab­lish a cor­ri­dor from Tehran to Beirut. “To­day the high­way of re­sis­tance starts in Tehran and reaches Mosul, Damascus and Beirut,” Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati, the top ad­viser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said last week.

Ji­hadi Fight­ers

All this comes against a back­drop of sim­mer­ing ri­val­ries be­tween re­gional pow­ers Iran and Turkey, and above all de­clin­ing US in­flu­ence and Iran’s vig­or­ous at­tempts to con­sol­i­date its con­trol in Iraq. While the ad­min­is­tra­tion of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­gards Syria and Iraq purely in terms of the mil­i­tary cam­paign to de­stroy IS, lo­cal ji­hadi fight­ers will sim­ply melt back into the pop­u­la­tion, and could re­group in a new in­sur­gency.

Sunni and Kur­dish lead­ers in and around Mosul largely agree with this grim prog­no­sis, alarmed that Abadi has re­fused even to discuss the fu­ture gov­er­nance of Mosul, and sus­pect­ing that Iran is calling the shots. The dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries stretch along an eth­ni­cally mixed rib­bon of land di­vid­ing the au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish area in the north of Iraq from the Arab-ma­jor­ity part in the south more a mine­field than a mo­saic - at a time when both the Kurds and Sunni Arabs are giv­ing up on Shi’ite rule in Bagh­dad.

Atheel Al-Nu­jaifi, who was Nin­eveh gov­er­nor when the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Mosul was cap­tured in 2014, says: “We are back to where we were be­fore Mosul fell, (be­cause) there is an idea among the hard­line Shi­ite lead­er­ship to keep the lib­er­ated ar­eas as loose ar­eas, with no (lo­cal) po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, or se­cu­rity or­ga­ni­za­tions, so they can con­trol them”.

Moder­ate Shi­ite lead­ers, among whom he counts Abadi, are wary of a win­ner-take-all logic of victory, fear­ing this “could lead to the cre­ation of rad­i­cal­ism again and they know this would de­stroy not only Iraq but the Shi­ites”. The prob­lem, he be­lieves, is that Iraqi Shi­ism is badly frac­tured, help­ing Iran con­trol al­most all its fac­tions. The for­mer gov­er­nor, a Sunni who now has at his com­mand an armed force trained by Turkey, says he is bow­ing out of of­fice but not pol­i­tics. He ac­knowl­edges there is a lack of main­stream Sunni lead­ers, but blames Bagh­dad for mak­ing sure none emerges.

Whither the Sun­nis?

Talk of Kur­dish se­ces­sion has sparked dis­cus­sion of whether Sunni Arabs should set up a sep­a­rate state, though most of­fi­cials say this is not prac­ti­cal, be­cause: Sunni ter­ri­tory lacks the oil base the Shi­ites and Kurds have; the ex­pe­ri­ence of Is­lamic State would hover like a specter over any new en­tity; and Sun­nis are too in­ter­min­gled across Iraq. Some Sunni and Kur­dish lead­ers be­lieve one so­lu­tion is to make Mosul a self-gov­ern­ing re­gion like Kur­dis­tan, with smaller units of self-rule to ac­com­mo­date the plethora of mi­nori­ties, which they say is per­mit­ted by the con­sti­tu­tion.

“Be­fore, the Sun­nis were very sen­si­tive to be­liev­ing (de­vo­lu­tion) would lead to se­ces­sion, to the breakup of Iraq but now they’re com­ing to terms with it,” says Ze­bari. The Sun­nis are not the only ones who re­pu­di­ate Bagh­dad’s Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment. The north­ern Kur­dish re­gion has called a ref­er­en­dum to move from au­ton­o­mous self-rule to an in­de­pen­dent state. Kur­dish leader Barzani told Reuters tim­ing for in­de­pen­dence after the vote was “flex­i­ble but not open-ended”. Yet there is grow­ing con­cern the real pur­pose of the ref­er­en­dum is not im­me­di­ate se­ces­sion, but to strengthen Kur­dish claims over the dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries, such as the oil-rich re­gion and city of Kirkuk, whose fu­ture has been in play for over a decade.


An Iraqi forces sniper looks on as smoke bil­lows fol­low­ing an airstrike by US-led in­ter­na­tional coali­tion forces tar­get­ing Is­lamic State in the Old City of Mosul yes­ter­day.

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