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Iraq’s victory over Daesh must be backed by genuine political reforms

It will take many years for Iraq to fully recover from the deep wounds left by Daesh, the self-proclaimed caliphate whose fighters swept through the country in 2014, wreaking havoc and occupying more than one-third of its territory at one point. On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi declared victory, three years after the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and coalition fighter jets began a massive military operation to push back and defeat the militant group. Exact figures of civilian casualties continue to be revised, but we know that tens of thousands are believed to have been killed and the level of destruction of cities and towns, including Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, is massive. According to the UN, Daesh displaced more than three million Iraqis.
The euphoria surrounding this historic feat notwithstanding, Iraq remains a country engulfed by crisis. Abadi’s victory speech underlined a number of challenges that his country continues to face, including the need to move beyond sectarian politics. The failure of the political establishment in addressing the rights of Sunnis and other minorities helped create a so-called incubator environment for extremist groups such as Daesh. The fact that Daesh was able to recruit thousands of Iraqi Sunnis into its ranks will trouble the country for many years. Unless they succeed in reforming the political system in a way that allows all Iraqis to participate on the basis of citizenship, rather than ethnicity and sectarian identity, the country will continue to be torn apart from the inside. 
It’s a tall order because those who are supposed to embrace these reforms are themselves a by-product of the same dysfunctional system. Abadi is facing challenges from within his own Dawa party, primarily from former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and other pro-Iran politicians. Tehran’s influence over the Baghdad government has increased following the establishment of the PMU, who were led by Iranian military advisers. In order to steer away from Iran’s influence, Abadi will have to join forces with former foes, such as Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and others. How long he can maintain this balancing act remains to be seen.
Iraqi politics is made even more complicated because of allegations of massive corruption in the public sphere. Billions of dollars have apparently been siphoned off by corrupt officials over the last decade, many of whom remain in power. Abadi’s determination to wage an anti-corruption campaign means he will be creating more enemies, but his ability to enforce the law and empower the courts will bolster his credibility.

Unless the system allows all Iraqis to participate on the basis of citizenship, rather than ethnicity and sectarian identity, the country will continue to be torn apart from the inside.

Osama Al Sharif

Abadi’s immediate concern for now is to find a formula to either disband the powerful and heavily armed PMU or incorporate them into Iraq’s regular army. With their loyalty to Iranian-backed Iraqi figures, that task looks daunting. He has to rein in radical Shiite forces that sought to punish Sunnis — to the extent of carrying out ethnic cleansing and mass murder — in liberated towns. In fact, unless Abadi succeeds in this urgent mission, the sectarian divide will continue to widen, making any attempt to launch political reforms and regain the trust of the country’s Sunnis almost impossible.
Since he took over under difficult circumstances, Abadi has managed to present himself as a credible leader. Moving away from his predecessor’s sectarian course, he has managed to mend fences with Iraq’s Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. He is still backed by the Americans, who have 10,000 troops in Iraq, while maintaining good relations with Tehran. He now enjoys the support of the EU, whose role will be instrumental as Iraq seeks to normalize relations with the rest of the world and attract investors.
Such support will be important to Abadi as he faces another enormous challenge: Reconstruction of almost one-third of the war-torn country and facilitating the return of displaced Iraqis. But, before any of these steps are taken, he has to proceed with a campaign for national reconciliation. An all-inclusive meeting of Iraqi leaders, including the Kurds, will send a positive message to a nation that has been suffering since the US invasion of 2003. Iraqis need to believe in a fresh beginning — a new chapter that will restore their confidence and national pride.
But Abadi cannot do all this on his own. Iraq needs the help and support of its Arab neighbors. Helping Iraq recover so that it can assume its role in the region is a strategic goal that should assist in the fight against extremism, sectarianism and foreign intervention. 
Failing to do this will deflate the value of the recent victory over Daesh and will keep the incubator environment that produced that criminal group alive. The human, cultural and economic cost that Iraq was forced to pay over the past few years was massive, and all Iraqis have a duty to make sure that it never happens again.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.