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Iraq’s promising but fragile gains of 2017

The “chamber of horrors” that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where state-sponsored killings, torture and forced disappearances were common practice, is described with chilling detail in “Republic of Fear.” Its author, the controversial British-Iraqi Kanan Makiya, was an influential voice in support of the US invasion.
But not all accounts are as politically charged. In 1988 alone, roughly 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were slaughtered in what became known as the Anfal genocide. Overall, and excluding the casualties of the Iraq-Iran war and the Gulf War of 1990-91, independent estimates place the number of Iraqis killed by the government in the last 25 years of Ba’athist rule at a quarter of a million.
The occasional testimonies of Iraqi citizens evoking with nostalgia the period when they lived under Saddam’s Hussein rule are illustrative of the depth of Iraq’s crisis post-2003. Even if anecdotal and only partially representative, these personal views emphasize the trajectory of chaos and violence that followed the overthrow of the former dictator.
The beginning of the year that now ends seemed to indicate that Iraqis would continue to pay a heavy price for all the mistakes made by the US-led administration in the post-invasion period. At least as damaging was the presidency of Nuri Al-Maliki, who proved to be no more than another version of Saddam, ruling over a deeply vicious, corrupt and sectarian government, often acting as a pawn for Tehran’s agenda.
Entering 2017, Daesh still held substantial chunks of Iraqi territory, including neighborhoods in Mosul. Sectarian tensions reached new heights with the presence of the mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) — some of which were trained and funded by Iran — in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. The long-delayed dream of Kurdish separatism and the formal territorial fragmentation of the Iraqi state looked within reach, with the independence referendum scheduled for September.
But 2017 could in fact prove to be a turning point in the country’s seemingly endless downward trajectory.
Earlier this month, following July’s announcement of Mosul’s full liberation from Daesh, the government of Haider Abadi declared victory over the radical group.
The victories over Daesh and the internal and external pressure for the disbandment of the PMUs is starting to show some results. A decision to disarm these militias is expected over the coming month, while various other militias under the PMUs umbrella, including some of the larger ones, could in the meantime announce their voluntary disbandment. Government authorities will handle the selection and integration of PMU fighters under the command of the Iraqi armed forces.

Solidifying this year’s achievements will be a tall order for Abadi’s government and will require significant regional and international support to achieve, particularly in the crucial reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the worst-hit areas.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

In a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr called on his fighters to return all weapons provided by the government and hand over territory to Iraq’s regular security forces.
The proximity of parliamentary elections, scheduled for May next year, requires interpreting these events with some skepticism. The PMUs’ leaders could step aside to make it to parliament, but maintain their influence over the various militia groups and even pursue an agenda in benefit of those groups.
Partition was also averted, with Iraq’s National Assembly rejecting the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum, but also authorizing the beginning of negotiations between central government and the KRG on key contentious issues such as oil and borders. 
Despite the many critical challenges, Abadi’s government has sent strong messages of independence and moderation, including on the delicate issue of confessional and ethnic tensions. This was rewarded by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) commitments to support the Iraqi government.
In February, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir visited Baghdad — the first senior Saudi official to do so in more than 25 years.
Looking ahead to 2018, solidifying this year’s gains will be a very tall order for Abadi’s government and will require significant regional and international support to achieve. This is particularly the case in the crucial reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the predominantly Sunni areas, whose populations have been the biggest casualties of Iraq’s crisis in recent years.
Failure or neglect in this process will probably lead to the next reincarnation of terrorism in Iraq. Experts have warned about the brewing post-Daesh insurgencies in Sunni provinces following the fall of Mosul, due to insufficient efforts to address the root causes of the problem.
Yet ultimately it is the Iraqis themselves who now hold the keys to the future. If the twin problems of poor governance and endemic corruption in state institutions are not treated as a matter of the greatest urgency, the significant but fragile political and security gains of 2017 will be unsustainable.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida