Author: Tim Arango
Posted on November 3, 2016
ERBIL, Iraq — As Iraq comes closer to ejecting the Islamic State from its last major stronghold in the country, the question is no longer whether it can succeed.
The question is whether it will all have to be done again someday.
Even a complete military victory over the Sunni extremists in Mosul will not change the reality that there is still no political agreement in place, or even basic trust, that could reconcile Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority with the Shiite-dominated national government.
Not only are there fears that another Sunni insurgency could rise after the Islamic State is beaten, but there also seems to be little beyond this immediate military campaign to unite the profoundly differing factions that have temporarily come together to fight the militants — government forces, Sunni tribesmen, Kurds, local Yazidis and Christians, and Iran-backed militias. Each has a different endgame in mind.
While the fighting has raged near Mosul, diplomats, analysts and tribal sheikhs who oppose the Islamic State have been meeting in hotel ballrooms in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, to start a discussion about reconciliation and political reforms. They agree, at least, that those are critical steps to prevent the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from gaining new footholds in Sunni communities down the line.
“The reasons that created Daesh still exist,” said Mohammed Muhsin, a tribal sheikh from Hawija, an Islamic State-controlled town near Kirkuk, using the Arabic acronym for the group. Speaking at a workshop in Erbil organized by the United States Institute of Peace and an Iraqi organization, Sanad for Peacebuilding, he ticked off the reasons: poverty, injustice, and marginalization.
After years of abuse and exclusion by the government and its Shiite militia allies, some of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs welcomed the Islamic State in 2014 as potential protectors — in part because many of the militants were from those same communities.
Now many Sunnis say they are weary of Islamic State rule, and are ready to welcome even Shiite forces as short-term liberators. But they still fear revenge attacks and more exclusion from the government and its allies, as the forces that clear Mosul also bring in a large swath of the Sunni population under suspicion of being collaborators or hidden Islamic State members.
No one thinks the guns will fall silent for long.
“The problem is, the politics are against us,” said Hassan Nusaif, a Sunni Arab politician from Hawija, who also participated in the recent reconciliation workshop in Erbil. “Let me be honest with you: The bloodshed will continue. This is the reality.”
This critical gap between battlefield successes and political progress reflects a running theme throughout the long American involvement in Iraq: Each military victory seems to further shake loose Iraq’s divisions, leading to more political disagreement and fighting.
Some analysts warn that the Iraqi government and the Obama administration may be risking even more chaos by pushing an all-out military campaign against the Islamic State before any political arrangement to accommodate aggrieved Sunnis is reached.
In a paper published by the Brookings Institution, Ian A. Merritt and Kenneth M. Pollack warned that defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul “will likely expose the deep sectarian tensions and grievances that have been somewhat masked by the common struggle against it.” Ramzy Mardini, of the Atlantic Council, warned of “a new, and perhaps more deadly, civil war.” And Dylan O’Driscoll, of the Middle East Research Institute, based in Erbil, wrote that given the depth of Sunni marginalization, “liberating Mosul under these circumstances will only result in I.S. or another radical entity returning in the future.”
American officials acknowledge that political measures have lagged behind the military progress.
But Brett McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, told reporters recently, “The problem here is that if you try to resolve all of these issues, Daesh will remain in Mosul for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever.”
In the fears expressed over what comes after the Mosul campaign are echoes of the missteps and chaos that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In particular, there is the problem of how to handle the many Islamic State collaborators assumed to be among the million-plus people left in Mosul. As with the controversial policy of de-Baathification imposed by the Americans after the invasion, a debate is underway about a process some are already calling “de-ISISification.”
The worry is that a campaign to purge all who might have collaborated with the Islamic State will go too far by targeting innocents or relatives of the militants, and sowing the seeds of future dissent. To bring order to this process, there is talk of the Iraqi government setting up a special tribunal in Mosul to hear cases, with the Iraqi bar association providing free legal defense to detainees.
On the ground, a critical aim of the central government is to place local Sunnis in charge of security in Mosul after it is cleared. That may help avoid abuses by the Shiite-dominated security forces, whose mistreatment of the local population under the former prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, contributed to the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in 2014.
But even that is no guarantee of security, because of conflicts within the Sunni community between those who supported the Islamic State and those who opposed it, which many worry will lead to rounds of revenge killings.
The landscape of war in Qaraqosh, at the edge of Mosul, is as familiar as it is blighted — collapsed buildings, burned storefronts, church crosses on their sides, the charred chassis left by a car bomb. A slogan painted in red across a crumbling wall is a plea for unity in a fraying country: “All of us are Iraq.”
For the moment, Qaraqosh is home for Staff Gen. Wathiq al-Hamdani, a Sunni Arab who is the commander of Mosul’s police, as he waits to secure his hometown after liberation. It is a deeply personal mission. Smiling, he pulled out his cellphone to show a photograph of his son, a 22-year-old law student wearing a red plaid shirt, killed by the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State three years ago. “He was a great guy, polite, brave,” he said.
Now, he is on Mosul’s doorstep, and justice, or at least revenge, is close at hand.
“We know who everyone is,” he said. “We have a list. I know exactly who killed my son. I will catch him.”
He said his intention is to turn over Islamic State collaborators to the courts, but he was also quick to say he has no confidence in Iraq’s judicial system — it is easy for prisoners to bribe their way out of prison, he noted. And besides, he believes no Islamic State fighter will surrender.
“I think they will resist and we will kill them,” he said.
With no wider framework for reconciliation, Osama Gharizi, the regional program manager at the United States Institute of Peace, has been working at the grass-roots level across Iraq.
He has been bringing tribal sheikhs together to agree on ways to avoid further violence. Some of the ideas include negotiating compensation payments to forestall revenge killings; ending collective punishment by protecting innocent family members of Islamic State militants; and agreeing on timetables for the return of displaced residents.
Mr. Gharizi said the workshops have yielded results in places like Tikrit, where bloody score-settling after a massacre of nearly 1,700 Shiite military recruits by the Islamic State was largely avoided.
Mosul, he said, will be more complicated because of its diversity. The area has been home to numerous minorities — Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Kurds — all of whom have suffered.
“Bottom-up approaches will only get so far, and are in need of a national reconciliation process that will tackle some of the main grievances related to the political system and governance framework,” Mr. Gharizi said.
Others hold out hope for that most Iraqi of solutions: the rise of a powerful figure to bring the country together. Some versions of that longing, at least, picture more of a benign unifier than the kind of authoritarian strongman Iraq has become known for.
“Until now, there is no Mandela in Iraq,” said Mr. Muhsin, the local leader from Hawija. “We need a Mandela in Iraq. We need to push the Iraqis to be like South Africa, and we need to create a Mandela.
“How are we to do this?” he added. “I don’t know.”