The rise and fall of IS is a case study demonstrating the consequences of not investing in the societal reconciliation, economic development and security measures needed in Iraq.
Along these lines, this week’s liberation of Mosul, while a milestone in the yet unfinished fight against IS, has begun to focus attention again on creating the social and security conditions in Iraq necessary for preventing a future IS from emerging or a return to sectarian violence.
Many of the problems afflicting Iraq continue to stem from the Sunni-Shia divide. The persecuted Shia under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the country’s governing majority since the formation of Iraq’s present government, have spent too much of their time in past years evening scores. Much of this happened under the watchful eye and encouragement of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Shia’s vengeance stoked further enmity and suspicions among the Sunni population towards the national government in Baghdad. As a consequence, Sunni tribes were all too willing to let IS march in on cities like Mosul and Fallujah in 2014.
Complicating matters, the Kurds of Northern Iraq, a separate ethnic group in themselves, resent rule from Baghdad and the Baghdad’s mandates as to how Northern Iraq’s oil revenues ought to be divvied.
Short of adopting former Vice President Joe Biden’s ’06 idea of splitting up the country into a loose federal arrangement of three regions – – Shia Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish – – Iraq and its diverse population of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, Armenians and others will have to learn to live and govern together amid the framework of one national government.
As the fight against IS has worsened sectarian tensions in Iraq, it is paramount that Sunni and Shia begin work on social healing and the building of trust. A failure to do so will likely give rise to another version of IS, just as IS was a successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni terrorist outfit led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that terrorized Iraq from 2003-2006.
Continued painstaking efforts will need to be made towards reconciliation between Sunni and Shia. These steps will involve a long, bumpy road consisting of compromise, attempts at mutual understanding and a commitment to the rule of law.
Sunnis will need to feel that they are being represented by the country’s leadership in Baghdad, and the Shia majority will need to make good faith efforts to demonstrate this on an ongoing basis.
The Kurds will need to be accommodated to some extent, mostly likely with a degree of self-governance not unlike states in the U.S. federal system.
Beyond political solutions, the challenge of providing security in post-IS Iraq remains. In some areas formerly held by IS, mafia-like armed gangs provide cities with essential services, exercising coercion in the process. The Iraqi government needs to put in place stable state administrative institutions and law enforcement to combat against the growing problems of organized crime and competing armed groups.
Iraqi leaders are also faced with the challenge of administering liberated areas from IS while maintaining security in other areas of the country still ravaged by IS and other terrorist entities.
Iraqi citizens are desperate to return to some sense of normalcy after the violent rule of IS. This is complicated by the endemic corruption, unemployment and dearth of economic development. A steady focus on providing security and social services through local institutions are vital for preventing social unrest and for building the trust of local Sunni populations.
Beyond this, cities liberated from IS must be made fit for living again. These areas need to be cleared of booby traps and mines, and schools and hospitals need to get back up and running.
Another key step in Iraq’s road to recovery is the rebuilding of the country. According to UN estimates, rebuilding Mosul could cost over US$1 billion and tens of billions will be needed to reconstruct other areas, namely, Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit.
The pervasive graft in the Iraqi government will undoubtedly squander a considerable amount of these funds, requiring assistance on the international stage for reconstruction.
Despite the tactical victory in Mosul, there remain towns in Iraq occupied by IS. Compounding this problem, other Sunni extremist groups continue to afflict the country – – a majority of terror attacks on Iraqi soil in 2016 were perpetrated by Sunni groups unaffiliated with IS.
Iran-backed Shia militias also operate within Iraq’s borders, presenting a unique set of challenges to the Iraqi government and having implications for the region’s balance of power.
These facts on the ground demonstrate the difficulty of ridding Iraq of Islamic extremism and the need for the U.S. to maintain intelligence and military capabilities in the region. The situation is made all the more serious amid Tehran’s growing influence among the Shia-majority government in Baghdad.
The enormity of challenges facing Iraq shows its dire need for financial aid, military support and political backing by the U.S. and world community in order to improve governance and security. All of this points to the need for “nation building” in Iraq, a term dreaded by American policymakers. Yet, neglecting to provide Iraq such assistance threatens the country’s long-term stability and raises prospects for a tragic resurgence of IS-like organizations.
Ted Gover, Ph.D. is Instructor of Political Science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.