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After Mosul: Iraq Faces Three Challenges | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Iraqi family walks from ISIS controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Reuters photo

London- Last Thursday, Dressed in battle fatigue and adopting a martial tone, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi entered the remains of the historic al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul to announce the end of ISIS.

“The return of al-Nuri Mosque and al-Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood,” Abadi asserted.

The prime minister took part in a number of photo-ops, including several with the famous al-Hadba (The Hunchback), the 850-year old minaret as background.

Al-Hadba looked like an apt symbol for Iraq today, a nation bent down by decades of tyranny and war.

The question is: will the “hunchback” straighten up its back? In other words, are the Iraqi leaders capable of offering their people a chance to build a better future?

“The liberation of Mosul will be a new birth for Iraq,” Vice President Ayad Allawi told us in conversation last April. “A pluralist, non-sectarian Iraq is possible. We must all work together to make it a reality.”

Abadi’s triumphal speech in Mosul contained no hint of future moves apart from continuing to hunt down ISIS fighters and, presumably, sleeping cells across Iraq and, perhaps, even beyond in Syria.

Abadi is right in telling Iraqis that though the false caliphate is over, the fight against ISIS isn’t. Many Iraqis wonder what ISIS might do?

Citing reports by Iraqi Intelligence, Allawi says that ISIS has already opened “a dialogue” with its original “mother”, Qaeda, about a possible merger or at least coordination at tactical operational levels.

That view is partly shared by US and British intelligence analysts who report “intense debates” within the global Jihadi movement regarding future strategy.

However, though a child of Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS developed its own strategy. Qaeda was not interested in control of territory and had learned to live under the protection of others, the Turabi-dominated government in Sudan in the early 1990s, the Taliban emirate in Afghanistan until 2001, and tribal chiefdoms in South Waziristan after that Qaeda focused its energies on fighting the “distant enemy” including with spectacular attacks on the United States.

In contrast, ISIS, cast itself as a state with a distinct territory, an economy, an army and an administration. ISIS was focused on “eliminating” the “near enemy” including non-Muslim minorities or “deviant Muslims” who had to be massacred. The attacks made in ISIS’ name in Europe and the United Sates were ad-hoc operations, often prompted by copycats and endorsed by ISIS after the fact.

Despite all that it is more than likely that we will witness a realignment of Jihadi movements. In fact, Jihadi movements resemble the Russian Matryushka dolls, one smaller doll being nested in a bigger one. The biggest, outside, doll consists of a militant recasting of Islam that took place in Egypt in the 19th century. The second, smaller doll was also born in Egypt in the 20th century in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Iranian Shi’ite offshoot of Fedayeen Islam of which the late Ayatollah Khomeini was an early member. In the 1960s and 1970s smaller dolls emerged from that one in the shape of Gamaa al-Islamiyah (Islamic Society), al-Takfir wa al-Hijra (Anathema and Withdrawal), and late, Qaeda.

The official Iraqi narrative tends to disregard that historic background and promotes the idea that ISIS is an aberration soon to fade into oblivion.

However, Iraqi leaders would make a big mistake if they underestimated a powerful, though misguided, ideology feeding on real or imagined grievances. One should never forget that ISIS captured Mosul with a couple of hundreds fighters because it attracted a small but significant local constituency.

Because of this inhuman brutality and arrogance, ISIS has lost much of that constituency. But the topos of resentment and sectarian hatred in which that constituency grew is still there. Thus the worst thing to do is to present the liberation of Mosul as a sectarian victory.

A change of narrative and with it a new political vocabulary would help put Iraqi politics on a new trajectory in post-Mosul era.

“The current political discourse in Iraq clearly favors sectarianism,” says Massoud Vaziri, a researcher in Iraqi affairs. “Bona fide political, social and cultural issues are discussed and debated in almost exclusively religious terms. And that, in the case of Iraq which is ridden with sects, means taking a sectarian stance on every subject.”

The way out, he suggests, would be to re-direct the national debate toward “concrete, tangible” issues such as reconstruction of the towns and villages destroyed over the past two decades.

Over the past two years, the Iraqi government has regained control of several cities held by Qaeda and/or ISIS for varying lengths of time. However, almost nothing has been done to help such towns and cities as Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Anah, Tal Afar and even Takrit overcome their trauma and embark on a serious reconstruction project.

In fact, according to several inhabitants, especially in Fallujah, the opposite has happened. Citing security considerations, Baghdad has put these cities in a straitjacket. Draconian bureaucratic rules prevent citizens from obtaining the permits needed to rebuild their home and businesses. Thanks to numerous checkpoints, transit to and from the nearby Baghdad could become a voyage to hell. That prevents the import of goods of daily consumption and materiel needed for reconstruction.

Also according to inhabitants, although there have been few revenge attacks on people suspected of having once sympathized with Qaeda and/or ISIS a fog of suspicion is cast over almost the entire local population. That has prevented the revival of municipal authorities and the sharing of job opportunities.

In some cases, refugees from towns and villages in the so-called Sunni Triangle are still waiting for clearance to be allowed to return to their homes. In some cases, people are asked to produce documents that are impossible to furnish because they have been lost or destroyed in more than a decade of war and violence. Even the distribution of humanitarian aid, much of it provided by foreign nations or NGOs, takes place in ways that reflect sectarian preference and/or suspicion.

According to some inhabitants, in some cases, bribery and other forms of corruption have been woven as filigree in matters involving the central authorities.

The inhabitants we talked to want Baghdad to fast-track bureaucratic procedures to allow people to rebuild their homes and businesses and elect their municipal authorities as soon as possible. More importantly, a clear date must be fixed for internally displaced persons to return to their towns and villages. That would require a scheme under which returning families receive a financial package to help them re-start their lives.

Baghdad would also do well to put an end to operations that local inhabitants regard as provocative. These include the distribution of portraits of Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the flag of the Lebanese branch of “Hezbollah” along with sectarian literature produced in Tehran or Beirut.

At some point Abadi would have to hold a serious talk with the leadership in Tehran to fix the outer contours of Iranian-Iraqi leadership. Many Iraqis resent the fact that at least part of the Iranian establishment treats Iraq as a protectorate of Iran if not an outright colony. For example, Iranian airlines stopped flying to Najaf because they want to be exempted from airport taxes there.

Abadi says he would under no circumstances allow a downgrading of relations with Iran. However, that need not mean carte blanche for Tehran to interfere in Iraqi affairs. That intervention is now being extended even to so sensitive a subject as the establishment of a unified “marjaiyah” structure for Arab Sunni Muslims in Iraq.

Several leading theological, political and tribal Sunni figures plan to hold a conference later this month in Baghdad to forge a mechanism for unified political action within Iraq’s current democratic constitution.

However, Tehran, acting through former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Shi’ite allies, is trying to split Iraqi Sunni ranks by promoting a rival conference.

Tehran’s ambiguous position has led to a split even in the ranks or pro-Iran Shi’ite groups. While Maliki is campaigning to derail the Sunni conference in Baghdad, other Shi’ite leaders, notably Ammar al-Hakim, have adopted a more conciliatory tone. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose closeness to Tehran is seasonal, appears to be less hostile to the creation of a unified Sunni “marjaiyah.”

It is important that sectarian divisions be kept under control rather than allowed to create new divisions within an already divided society.

Both Abadi and Iraqi President Fouad Maasoum have hinted on the need for a general amnesty in the context of a broader scheme of national reconciliation.

Several leading theological, political and tribal Sunni figures plan to hold a conference later this month in Baghdad to forge mechanism for unified political action within Iraq’s current democratic constitution.

Over the past two years, thousands of people from the “liberated” towns and cities have been thrown in prison or kept under virtual arrest in special camps. Baghdad authorities claim that they have to take “precautionary measures” to weed out potential ISIS or Qaeda sympathizers who could form or strengthen “sleeping cells” across the country.

With Mosul liberated, Baghdad needs to come out with a clear position on an issue that affects many families and tribes in the restive provinces.

The most urgent task as far as Mosul is concerned is to keep lynch mobs under control. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has already armed against activities by “shadowy groups” distributing “night letters” in Mosul threatening acts of renege against real or imagined ISIS sympathizers. Of Mosul’s original population of 1.8 million, only around half remain in the city or its environs, including in refugees camps. Since the government has not succeeded in deciding the status of the 400,000 refugees from other Sunni village and towns, the task ahead appears even more complicated.

According to Baghdad sources, the government is studying a plan under which the displaced people will be divided into three categories. The largest of these would consist of people regarded as victims of ISIS and Qaeda before it and helped to rapidly resettle in their homes and rebuild their lives. The second category would consist of a few thousand people who actively cooperated with ISIS out of expediency without having any ideological affinity with it. The idea is not to repeat the mistake of massive de-Ba’athification that negatively affected hundreds of thousands of people, including some badly needed staff, soon after the fall of President Saddam Hussein. In the third and final category would be a few hundred individuals charged with active participation in criminal operations on behalf of ISIS.

However, it is not certain that Abadi’s government, a fragile coalition, would be strong enough to carry out such highly controversial policies. This is why many Iraqis believe that the nation needs early elections to decide its post-Mosul course in both domestic and foreign policy fields.

“A new government with a new mandate for a new beginning would be needed,” Allawi told us.

Iraq needs to develop a new strategy to face a new kind of threat from a possible coalition of Jihadi groups operating in new forms. It also needs policies to heal the sectarian rift while coping with Kurdish plans for an independence referendum. Iraq also needs massive foreign investment and technological and logical support to rebuild its shattered provinces. Restoring minimal public services in Mosul alone will cost over $1 billion, according to UN estimates.

In that context the US, already present in Iraq with a heightened military footprint, would need to raise its political profile as well. The US enjoys strong contacts throughout Iraq and could play the role of confessor, mediator and facilitators among ethnic and religious communities. It could also spearhead an international effort to rebuild Iraq, and later perhaps, Syria as well in the largest reconstruction effort the world has seen since the Second World War.

The “hunched” minaret may never straighten. But the broken Iraq can stand erect once again.