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Sunni fears will not end with Mosul’s liberation

Iraq’s efforts to liberate the majority Sunni population of the country’s second-largest city from the talons of a bestial terrorist group are long overdue. This military operation should have been launched in the summer of 2014 in response to the storming of Mosul by a few thousand Daesh fighters whose ferocity sent ill-prepared Iraqi troops fleeing.
If it had, there would be no budding “caliphate” with its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and the elusive Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would have struggled to attract foreign recruits such as those who have massacred civilians in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Istanbul and elsewhere.
In short, Daesh would have been one of history’s blips, whose very existence would have merited nothing more than a footnote in historical tomes. Of course, the soil that bred this curse on civilization was the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq that led to the oppression and marginalization of Sunni communities under democracy’s fake banner. Effectively, then-US President George W. Bush exchanged one tyrant for hordes of others.
The delay in eradicating Daesh was primarily due to US rejection of then-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s frantic appeals for help. President Barack Obama displayed a serious lack of judgment.
He held back as leverage to “persuade” Iran’s puppet Al-Maliki to step down, while comparing the threat from Daesh as no greater than that from a Junior Varsity team. Obama’s unwillingness to enter the fray left a void for Tehran to exploit, in the same way that his hands-off approach to the Syrian crisis was an invitation to Russia to step in.
Daesh has shamefully been permitted two and a half years to consolidate its defenses with legions of suicide bombers, booby-trapped buildings, underground tunnels, improvised explosive devices, snipers and bomb-attached drones. Nevertheless, given the firepower ranged against it, it is only a matter of time before Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi can confidently declare victory.
The initial relief and joy of civilians who have escaped Daesh’s clutches have been dampened by fears of mistreatment at the hands of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi — formed in response to a call by Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani — which has recently been awarded the same rights as the Iraqi Army for “shedding their blood” in defense of the country.
With memories still fresh of the PMF — an Iranian-supported Shiite paramilitary organization — burning Sunnis alive and demolishing homes and businesses, their worries are realistic.
There have been numerous first-hand accounts of Sunnis being “imprisoned” in camps after being abandoned for days suffering from hunger and biting cold while their credentials are checked, ostensibly to weed out Daesh sympathizers. Some say they were beaten to confess non-existent affiliations with the group.
Many claim Shiite militias are barring them from returning to their homes. As exposed by the Los Angeles Times last month, these militias are being trained and armed by the US, and according to Amnesty International they have used American-manufactured weapons to commit war crimes.
Worse, even though numerous PMF members have been designated “terrorist” by the US, they were recently praised by a senior US commander, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who told the Daily Beast that they have been “remarkably disciplined allies” that abide by government orders.
Put simply, militias with allegiance to Iran have been legitimized by both the Iraqi government and the Obama administration, which does not bode well for Sunnis and other minorities. Whether President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to take a hard line with Iran, will adopt a different stance is yet to be seen.
Unless Iraq’s government ends its sectarian bias and keeps Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and other armed groups in check, the suffering of civilians from Mosul and neighboring towns will continue igniting resentments that will undoubtedly provide fodder for Daesh clones, impacting the lives of generations to come.
Sunnis, who make up almost 40 percent of Iraq’s population, will not accept to be treated in perpetuity as third-class citizens within a virtual Iranian domain, peppered with posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei.
If Iraq is unable to reclaim its former Saddam-era, non-sectarian Arab identity that entails wresting itself from under the Persian shoe, it will likely self-destruct into toothless sectarian cantons, to the glee of Israel and its American neoconservative friends. In a worst-case scenario, tranches will be subsumed by its neighbor as a new Iranian province.
Either way would signify a tragic end to “the cradle of civilization,” and a once powerful Arab heartland buffering the Arab world from predators. Al-Abadi should look closely at the big picture; Iraq’s future rests on his shoulders.
• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.