After months of grinding progress in Mosul, it looks as if Daesh is preparing to flee, heralding the end of the “Islamic State” project in Iraq — in its current form. Good riddance to one of the worst scourges of modern times!
For three years Daesh has been a unifying force. Sunni tribes, Shiite militias, Peshmerga and even Iran and the US could all claim to be fighting on the same side against this menace. What happens when they wake up and realize that this shared threat is gone?
It had been convenient to ignore the issue of Kurdistan’s status, and whether the Kurds are simply looking after Kirkuk. What happens when the government demands its share of Kurdish oil reserves? Northern Iraq hosts minorities with demands for guaranteeing their security and interests, after their government failed to protect them from extermination, mass rape and many other horrors. And what about Turkey’s assertion of its military rights in the area?
Such issues pale in comparison with the potential for conflict between Sunni and Shiite factions. Sectarian Shiite leaders accuse Sunnis of facilitating Daesh. Meanwhile Sunnis have records of thousands of young men detained or summarily executed by militias — systematic war crimes amounting to sectarian cleansing. There are even tensions between Shiite factions over conflicting visions for post-Daesh Iraq.
A new Human Rights Watch report documents mass deportations of hundreds of Sunni families in Salahuddin province in acts of collective punishment, which allow for the expulsion of even distant family members of individuals accused of collaborating with Daesh. In a single incident in Sharqat last year, an entire district of over 1,000 people was evicted after five Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary fighters were killed by Daesh.
With provincial and parliamentary elections coming up, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militants have exploited their role against Daesh to consolidate political power, by preventing displaced Sunnis from voting and relentless propaganda through well-funded media outlets.
Public frustration at massive levels of corruption and sectarianism was a major factor in why Mosul fell so easily to insurgents. In June 2014, Mosul’s security was managed by Gen. Mahdi Al-Gharrawi, who instead of facing charges for torturing inmates in secret prisons prior to 2008, was forgiven and promoted by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The corruption of his administration in Mosul so demoralized his troops that they fled when confronted by Daesh’s tiny force.
Purges by Al-Maliki forced out his rivals and left Sunni tribal forces, who risked their lives against Al-Qaeda, with nothing. Communities have seen young men rounded up like cattle and disappeared. It will take a miracle to convince Sunni communities to re-engage with a leadership unwilling to offer anything more than accusations of collaboration with the enemy.
Daesh has offered a convenient distraction to other disputes in the region — but what happens when this shared threat is gone?
Meanwhile, the insurgent movement will go underground, regain its strength and reappear under new guises. Its strategy again will be reaching out to disenfranchised youth — and Iraq is overflowing with such people, just as it is overflowing with arms, militias and all the ingredients necessary for renewed conflict.
Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr talk about demobilizing paramilitary groups, but militants could not be clearer. Militia leader Qais Al-Khazali said last week: “Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi will remain, will continue to expand and never will be dissolved. Just as the Hashd has been present on the battlefield, it will take its place in politics… Just as we smashed the heads of Daesh fighters, we will smash the heads of politicians who fell short and sold out their nation. We will purge them from Iraq.”
If after 2018 pro-Iran militias guilty of ethnic cleansing are in government, we can say goodbye to any notion that Iraq is a democratic, inclusive and sovereign state. In 2005, 2010 and 2014 there were intense US efforts to prevent pro-Iran figures monopolizing the government. In recent US Senate hearings on Mosul’s future, experts warned of the dangers of losing interest in Iraq and allowing Iran to consolidate the Hashd as a Hezbollah equivalent.
The visit to Iraq by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir drew a response from Hashd media outlets, because they know exactly what this visit means. Tehran installed its puppets in Baghdad because of a lack of GCC engagement. Sectarian thugs even forced the Saudi ambassador out of his post. A strong GCC role would help compensate for a bullying Iran and a negligent US — ensuring a power-sharing formula that puts the interests of Iraqi citizens as its priority.
There has been no serious preparation for the post-Mosul phase. This is not a moment to trust the good faith of the Iraqis themselves — those with a hostile agenda are too powerful. Iraq after Mosul will require even more muscular international support than Iraq prior to Mosul, including Western and GCC states working hand-in-hand.
Only such intervention can prevent the implosion of Iraq, the emergence of new and reinvigorated extremist groups, and Iran as the sole dominant power.
Does this scenario not sound frightening enough to deserve urgent action?
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.