The battle for Mosul is won. But can Iraq survive?
Tensions between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds could now flare up —and prime minister Haider al-Abadi knows it
• Jonathan Steele is a former Guardian correspondent
It is widely accepted that Islamic State’s defeat in Mosul, declared this weekend, ends a battle but not a war, and that the group’s thousands of jihadi supporters could turn in revenge to targeted suicide bombings in the west as well as in cities in Iraq and Syria. What has been less often predicted is the risk of mass violence from a different quarter. Iraqis themselves may slip back into fraternal conflict now that their temporary need to unite against Isis is almost over.
Three years of war against the Islamist extremists created a national sense of urgency which overcame regional, ethnic and sectarian disputes. But with Isis now on the back foot, and deprived of most of the territory it once held throughout western Iraq, old tensions could resume.
One of these deep-seated Iraqi problems has clearly worsened since Isis emerged to capture Mosul in 2014. In the early months of the struggle to prevent the group from moving on to seize Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government, Kurdish resistance forces occupied vast areas of the Nineveh plain east of Mosul which had long been disputed between Arabs and Kurds. The same happened in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, the fate of these areas was supposed to be decided in a referendum which has been repeatedly postponed. New facts have now been created on the ground. Whereas up to 2014 it was Baghdad that controlled the disputed areas and had an incentive to delay any change, the Kurds are now the occupiers and in the dominant position.
The issue will only exacerbate already existing divisions over how Iraq is to share its oil revenues and the federal budget between the Kurdish region and the rest. Added to that will be the independence referendum the Kurds are holding in September.
The second major issue is the risk of violence between Arab Sunnis and Shias. In 2014 Isis was able to seize Mosul relatively easily because the city’s largely Sunni population felt neglected by Baghdad. Some even felt that the new post-Saddam Iraqi army, largely made up of Shias, was behaving like an occupying power.
The challenge now is to ensure that a new local government is chosen for Mosul which takes Sunnis’ interests into full account and ends their sense of alienation. Baghdad must also quickly find the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised civilians. Thousands were killed in the struggle to retake it, in which the US-led coalition – like the Russian and Syrian air forces in Aleppo – enjoyed total air supremacy and used massive bombs to eliminate snipers.
To counter the danger, he has been proposing a series of visits by Shia community leaders to Sunni areas and vice versa to start a dialogue on reconstruction. More cogently, he has publicly warned members of the militia force that he mobilised when Isis emerged that any abuse of Sunni civilians will be ruthlessly punished. He also promised to disband the force once the war ended.
The test of his sincerity comes now. Other militia leaders have been more vague about the future of the private armies, the so-called popular mobilisation units, which they sent into battle against Isis. They too will have to come clean – either by disbanding their militias altogether or sending individual members to enlist in the regular army.
Restoring intercommunal trust is no easy task. It is barely a decade since Baghdad was torn apart by al-Qaida-inspired sectarian murders. The scars have yet to heal. Since then the arrival of hundreds of Iranian military advisers in the fight against Isis has launched a wave of anti-Iran hysteria among Iraqi Sunnis, even to the extent of claiming that Iraq is now run by Iran. Saudi Arabia’s virulent anti-Iranian policies only add fuel to the fire.
Many Sunnis have an unjustified feeling of victimhood now that the Shia majority is in political charge. But some Sunni leaders are willing to accept a new status for their communities and are working with al-Abadi. They should be encouraged. With Isis out of the picture, Iraqi Arabs need to go back to the values of not so long ago when Sunni or Shia identities were politically irrelevant.