ِThree years and 19 days after the capture of Mosul by the self-described “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), Iraqi forces have liberated the city and officially ended their fictitious caliphate. In this article, I will provide a balance sheet of the gains and losses of the past three years and, more importantly, a look ahead at what must be accomplished to finally turn the page on this catastrophic period of Iraqi history.
The arrival of ISIS in Mosul, on 10 June 2014, exposed the fragile state that was established after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The United States and Iraq’s political elite failed for nine years to build a robust political system and adequate security forces that would defend the country against the horrific threat of terrorism, both domestic and foreign. Iraq’s neighbors from all sides of the border meddled to their hearts’ content in the country’s internal affairs and virtually all Iraqi political blocks, each according to its ethno-sectarian background and respective interests, served as proxies for these regional evil-doers.
After the humiliating fall of Mosul, both Iraqis and Americans started a blame game. The Iraqi leadership blamed their American ‘allies’ for not giving them the military support, training, and weaponry to secure and defend their country, while many Americans who were involved in the re-building of Iraq’s armed forces blamed the Iraqi government, especially former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for weakening the Iraqi military by appointing incompetent and corrupt commanders. The truth is: both arguments were correct. The US has not spent anything close to adequate efforts to build a strong and functional Iraqi military, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies gave the fragile military he received from the Americans a final push into the abyss.
The timing of ISIS advance to Mosul could not have been worse. Iraqi political blocs were fighting with each other over the formation of a new government, with the incumbent Prime Minister, al-Maliki, trying to win a third term, having won the largest number of seats in the Parliament and a healthy personal number of votes in Baghdad (721,000 votes) without a close second. But he was vetoed by everyone outside his political bloc, and later, many within his political bloc. To him, it seems, securing a third term was much more important than worrying about the atrocities ISIS and its allies were committing as they advanced into the Nineveh Province and well into the adjacent Salahuddin Province. The worst of such atrocities was the massacre of 1,700 unarmed Shia cadets (maybe many more) who were stationed at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit. While the massacre was blamed on ISIS, all indicators show that the perpetrators were members from Tikrit tribes, most notorious among them were the tribe of Saddam Hussein. The timeline of ISIS movement into Salahuddin does not place the terrorist group in the area of the massacre when it was committed. The Maliki government initially denied any such massacre, but when they were exposed by video and other clear evidence, including survivor’s testimonies, the government swept it under the ISIS rug, and did what governments often do: forming a committee to investigate the case.
In the following days of the catastrophe, Nouri al-Maliki had no options to face the advancing ISIS terrorists and their local supporters and joiners in the affected provinces, with no Iraqi troops to oppose them. The Obama Administration made it clear that no help was on the way, and all they offered was a preposterous promise to consider providing help if PM Maliki agreed to make considerable political reforms. Iraqis started looking at Iran for some immediate reaction, but Iran was not there as well, except for sending weapons and other equipment. But Iraq’s problem was not the lack of weapons as it was a problem of collapse in morale.
Seeing Iraq collapsing, as he told me weeks later, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued an historic fatwa the like of which was not issued by a leading Shia authority in a full century. He called on all the Iraqi “Citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” Tens of thousand of Iraqi Shia and, later, Sunnis, Christians, and Yazdis joined the fight to stop the advance of ISIS and ultimately defeat it. Some of the volunteers joined the armed forces, others joined existing fighting paramilitary forces, while others formed their own paramilitary units. Those fighters, who operated outside the scope of Iraqi military and Federal Police, but in support of their efforts, were called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs, or al-Hashd al-Sha’bi). For the next three years, the Iraqi military and Federal Police, the PMFs, the Kurdish Peshmerga and military advisers from the US, Iran, and other Western countries began a campaign to fight ISIS for every inch of Iraqi territory they captured and included under their barbarian rule. The airstrikes of the US-led international coalition provided an invaluable support for the Iraqi forces that did all the heavy lifting on the ground.
The coalition of Iraqis and allies did not defeat ISIS alone, but they defeated the army of self-appointed military and political analysts whose pedestrian understanding of the region did not deter them from making brazen predictions (some were required to do so by the policy of their institutions) that Iraq as we know it will no longer exist and the borders were erased for ever. Also, opportunists within Iraq jumped on the ISIS bandwagon, some of them were hoping that the clock was going to turn back to the no-longer-tenable pre-2003 political arrangement and others saw an opportunity to achieve territorial settlement they could not secure through political and constitutional means. All of these actors are now looking back at their follies and wondering how wrong they were.
ISIS has been defeated in Iraq and this military phase, as I have written here before, could be the easy part of Mosul liberation. In addition to the heavy cost in lives and treasure, the lives that were shattered by the medieval practices of taking women captives and selling them in markets, and the ongoing crisis of internally displaced people (IDPs), there are many other challenges that, if not tackled effectively, will make this liberation of Mosul a Pyrrhic victory. Iraq must start an immediate campaign of social and political reform that will alter the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. The post ISIS era in Iraq will have to focus on Two “R”s: Reconciliation and Reconstruction.
Reconciliation in Iraq is not a luxury or a slogan, it is a national interest and a necessity. Iraq needs a true effort of reconciliation to accomplish internal peace and social harmony. But reconciliation has to move past the reconciliation of politicians, which has been a large scheme of corruption and political monopoly of a few parties. The Iraqi government must work toward social reconciliation and must admit that it is part of the problem, therefore it cannot claim a monopoly on the decision making in matters of reconciliation. Iraq needs the help of the international community for mediation and expertise and to legitimate the outcome of reconciliation. There are many successful cases of reconciliation in other countries that can provide valuable lessons and insight for Iraq. All Iraqis, regardless of their ethno-sectarian backgrounds, need to have their grievances included and addressed in the reconciliation process and have their rights restored. This can be made through a combination of compensation for the victims, punishment of transgressors, and an effective mechanism of distribution of justice going into the future.
As far as the reconstruction, Iraq must pursue two forms of reconstruction: the first is to restore the public infrastructure and private property that were destroyed by ISIS or in the fight to liberate the cities, and the second should be a giant program of social and political reconstruction, similar to that of US Reconstruction in the post-Civil War era. Iraq may have survived the past three years, which had been the worst period in its modern history, but it cannot afford another catastrophe of the same magnitude in the near future. The Iraqi government and its international allies would be remiss if they did not take every possible measure to prevent the occurrence of the ISIS crisis in the future. Putting politics ahead of the security of Iraqis and the future of Iraq, as the Iraqi government has done in the past, would be unforgivable. Indeed, Iraqis would do themselves a favor by calling for presenting to trial all the political and military leaders on whose watch ISIS entered the Iraqi territories and committed its heinous atrocities. This can send a clear message to the political class that they are not elected to enrich themselves and be above the law, but their role is to serve their constituents and be accountable. Only then can Iraq declare the mission accomplished.
Abbas Kadhim is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim).