international analysis and commentary

The Iraqi conundrum beyond ISIS

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With the mentioning of Iraq these days, one immediately thinks of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). It was in Iraq that more than ten years ago the primary structure of what would become ISIS was born, and it was in Iraq that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” was proclaimed. With all things considered, even if Al-Baghdadi’s organization is defeated and stripped of its conquered Iraqi cities, Iraq will not be able to restore its stability and security.

In recent years, the country has piled on a series of political, sectarian, and socio-economic problems that if not managed effectively, will render the country yet again an easy target for ISIS. The sectarian-political rift in the country has triggered a severe economic crisis and contributed to the spread of economic and political corruption that has subsequently weakened the military and, inevitably, the anti-ISIS campaign.

As a result, the Iraqi people have lost their sense of security and their trust in their institutions. In this regard, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, recently affirmed that the current political crisis is the biggest hurdle in the fight against ISIS, especially in light of the latest bloody suicide attacks in Baghdad – in Mid-May, when the biggest explosions since the beginning of 2016 were set off by Islamic State operatives on the Shiite districts of Baghdad with a death toll of 300 in less than one week. The political parties continue to impede the proposed ministerial changes that aim to stop the spread of political and economic corruption, and that has essentially crippled the current government.

Part of this political turmoil is the political campaign led by the Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who in recent months initiated a new wave of anti-government protests demanding wide-ranging reforms and the formation of a technocrat government that could put an end to the corruption sweeping the country. On May 20, violent clashes broke out in Baghdad between the Iraqi police and angry protesters, most of whom were supporters of the Sadrist Movement. The violence that left one dead drove the government to impose a curfew.

The protest was sparked by the latest brutal attacks. But an anti-government atmosphere had already been brewing over the previous few weeks due to the apathy of the parliament and its inability to appoint a new technocratic government. For his part, Al-Sadr warned of dire consequences if the people’s uprising was met with a crackdown: “No one has the right to prohibit the protests. The revolution will otherwise take on different forms.” With this statement he effectively threatened a serious escalation that could drag the country into a new civil war.

While these events transpire, the Iraqi armed forces continue to focus on battling ISIS. In recent days, the Iraqi military announced having recaptured Al-Karma from the grip of ISIS, a city in the center of Iraq 16km northeast of Fallujah in the Anbar province. The Iraqi Minister of Defense, Khaled al-Obeidi, declared his optimism that the liberation of Fallujah will be achieved in the near future,  before his forces proceed to liberate Mosul, the “capital” of Al-Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”. According to Iraqi official sources quoted on Al-Arabiya TV, in order for the Iraqi military to wage a successful operation and liberate Fallujah, they plan to first conquer Al-Na’imiyya, an area south of the city. The army also counts on receiving air coverage from the air force that in recent days has been intensifying raids against ISIS positions in the area.

In this context, what worries the international community is the humanitarian situation in Fallujah, a city under siege. In an interview with Russia Today, journalist and political activity Hisham al-‘Iqabi declared that the military operation to liberate Fallujah, which has received much international media attention, is nothing more than a political response to pressure imposed by the protests that ended with demonstrators storming into the Green Zone and raiding Iraq’s Prime Minister’s office. Al-‘Iqabi believes that the decision to launch this military operation was actually taken by the US in an effort to contain the anger of the Iraqi people following the string of deadly attacks that recently struck several Iraqi cities. In this interpretation, the US has thus increased the scale of its air raids in Iraq in order to facilitate the liberation of the ISIS-controlled city by Iraqi forces.

The wider crisis in the region (tohugh focused mostly on Syria) and the sectarian strife between the two major players, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, has also transformed Iraq into an arena in which each player strives to prove his dominance. Against this backdrop, the scenario of Iraq’s possible division becomes more likely. If the reform that is being demanded by the people is not attained and the political agreement is not achieved, Iraq’s eventual division may become a certainty. Such fears are growing in the international community. In a Security Council meeting on May 6, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq, Ján Kubiš, declared that the political crisis in Iraq has been aggravated by the participation of Al-Sadr supporters in the recent protests in Baghdad, which brought the reform phase that was requested by the people to a standstill.

An analysis published by Al-Jazeera on May 15 highlighted that the liberation of Mosul and the expulsion of ISIS could be the less complex phase in the Iraqi conflict due to the fact that a strong central government is needed to run the city. A competent government, which does not currently exist, would need to obtain the full support of the Sunni population in Mosul and other Iraqi cities. The government must also ensure that the Iraqi-Sunni community does not fall under the influence of Sunni extremists who find solace in Al-Baghdadi’s organization.  A similar scenario already occurred in several phases following the fall of Saddam Hussein when the Sunni community suffered tremendous frustration due to government failures, economic crises and a Shiite-Iranian grip on power.

With the support of the anti-ISIS coalition, the Iraqi forces will continue to deliver results by gradually liberating the cities and areas that are still under the control of Al-Baghdadi’s followers. However, in order to capitalize on the military gains and stabilize the country, new and more inclusive formulas are needed in Baghdad to ensure that all the components and sects of the Iraqi society are fairly represented and feel that the country’s resources are shared equitably. With the recent past in mind, this seems like an even harder challenge.