Long road to so­cial co­he­sion

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If Iraq is to move be­yond its cy­cle of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, it will have to ad­dress the con­cerns of mi­nori­ties

Shan­non Ebrahim is the For­eign Edi­tor for In­de­pen­dent Me­dia

THE LAST rem­nants of Is­lamic State are about to be forced out of Mo­sul, but what then? Get­ting rid of IS was but one crit­i­cal step to­wards the sta­bil­i­sa­tion of Iraq, but the frac­tured so­cial fab­ric of the coun­try is a recipe for fu­ture in­sur­gen­cies and in­sta­bil­ity.

What the govern­ment of Iraq needs to do is de­velop a com­pre­hen­sive roadmap to so­cial co­he­sion that ad­dresses the root causes that led to the rise of IS in the first place.

When it swept through Iraq, it did so with light­ning speed – the rea­son be­ing that there were large swathes of the coun­try that felt po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally marginalised and dis­crim­i­nated against by the cen­tral govern­ment. They were pri­mar­ily Sun­nis and be­came soft tar­gets for an ex­trem­ist group that sought to cap­i­talise on their marginal­i­sa­tion and frus­tra­tion, as well as their need for an in­come.

Those un­der­ly­ing con­di­tions in Iraq still ex­ist, and even with IS routed from its strongholds, there is al­ways the po­ten­tial for an­other in­sur­gent move­ment to emerge in a dif­fer­ent form, given the ex­ist­ing disil­lu­sion­ment within seg­ments of the so­ci­ety.

If Iraq is to move be­yond its per­pet­ual cy­cle of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence it will need to find a way to ad­dress the con­cerns of the Sunni com­mu­nity, as well as those of other mi­nori­ties. Fail­ure to do this will lead to fur­ther blood­shed and cy­cles of re­venge.

One of the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges will be to trans­form the im­age of the Iraqi mil­i­tary as be­ing a par­ti­san one which has dis­crim­i­nated against Sun­nis. There is enough ev­i­dence that seg­ments of the mil­i­tary have been sec­tar­ian since 2003, of­ten hu­mil­i­at­ing people at check­points, en­gag­ing in ar­bi­trary ar­rests and de­mand­ing bribes. All these fac­tors pushed Sun­nis into the arms of IS. There have also been a num­ber of Shia para­mil­i­tary groups backed by Iran which are feared by the Sun­nis.

Some of these para­mil­i­tary groups, such as the Hashd al-Sha’abi, have played a key role in the bat­tle of the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces against IS. In this last push against IS in Mo­sul, it is the Hashd al-Sha’abi which ef­fec­tively sev­ered its sup­ply lines to Syria and drove it out. Out of recognition of Hashd al-Sha’abi’s con­tri­bu­tion, its forces were in­cor­po­rated into the Iraqi army in Novem­ber, but this has also brought its own com­pli­ca­tions.

There were nu­mer­ous re­ports of mem­bers of Hashd al-Sha’abi hav­ing bru­tally in­ter­ro­gated res­i­dents, beat­ings, killings, kid­nap­pings and the re­cruit­ment of child sol­diers. But due to their in­stru­men­tal role in cap­tur­ing An­bar, Diyala, Tikrit, Baij and Mo­sul, these hu­man rights abuses were over­looked. Now with these un­re­formed mem­bers as part of the na­tional army, it is un­der­stand­able that Sunni com­mu­ni­ties are fear­ful that their rights will again be vi­o­lated.

Iraq has al­ways been a kalei­do­scope of var­i­ous eth­nic­i­ties and re­li­gious sects, and for as long as it is per­ceived that one group is ex­ert­ing its hege­mony over the others, there will never be peace. But in the his­tory of Iraq, these com­mu­ni­ties had peace­fully co­ex­isted, but the legacy of colo­nial­ism was to prop up cer­tain groups at the ex­pense of others. This has led to a trail of tears.

Nin­eveh, the se­cond largest prov­ince in Iraq, is a per­fect ex­am­ple of Iraq’s plu­ral­ist his­tory. Nin­eveh used to see Chris­tians, Jews, Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Turk­men and Yazidis liv­ing rel­a­tively peace­fully to­gether through­out the re­gion’s his­tory. When TE Lawrence had made his map ex­plor­ing colo­nial partition of the Mid­dle East based on eth­nic­i­ties, he had two ques­tion marks over Nin­eveh. That is a tes­ta­ment to the type of plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety it was in those times.

But given the dy­nam­ics of Iraq’s more re­cent his­tory which saw Sad­dam Hus­sein cre­at­ing Sunni dom­i­nance over other groups, and then the post-Sad­dam govern­ment be­ing more Shia in char­ac­ter, the fault lines in Iraqi so­ci­ety have be­come in­creas­ingly toxic and vi­o­lent.

It is per­haps the great­est chal­lenge fac­ing the govern­ment to make all groups feel in­cluded as the coun­try moves for­ward, whether in terms of the com­po­si­tion of the mil­i­tary, the pub­lic ser­vice or the dis­tri­bu­tion of re­sources.

Through its bru­tal cam­paign of re­pres­sion, IS had be­come the en­emy of all Iraqis, and most will wel­come its demise. But now that the com­mon en­emy has faded into the wood­work, there is al­ways the dan­ger that Iraqis could turn on one an­other in or­gies of re­venge.

De­spite the fact that in Fe­bru­ary, Shia leader Muq­tada al-Sadr had put for­ward a plan for so­cial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mit­tees have been es­tab­lished, these ef­forts have been largely dis­missed by Iraqis. This makes the job of the cen­tral govern­ment that much harder.

For the sake of Iraq’s sta­bil­ity and en­sur­ing its ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity, it is im­per­a­tive that a roadmap be de­vel­oped with­out de­lay.

PREPA­RA­TION: Fight­ers from pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni Arab forces take part in a train­ing ses­sion be­fore the bat­tle to re­cap­ture Mo­sul from Is­lamic State.

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