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A war without end: Is the Iraqi government setting itself up for the return of ISIS?

The Guardian’s recent long read alleges that the Iraqi Army perpetrated numerous atrocities and war crimes in the final days of the battle for Mosul in June. According to the report, military units routinely detained, tortured and subsequently executed young men suspected of belonging to ISIS although this was often based on little more than them being of fighting age or having sustained an injury. It was also alleged that soldiers raped female detainees.

In a piece written for BICOM’s After ISIS series, Craig Whiteside argued that if the Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilisation Units allied to it continue to pursue brutal measures in recently liberated Sunni Arab territories, then ISIS’ military defeat and loss of its territory will likely only be a temporary setback for the organisation.

In order to fully understand why, it is necessary to place the current situation in Iraq in the context of the spiral into sectarian war and inter-communal violence that accelerated after the US invasion in 2003.

Sowing the wind

Iraqi history has been defined by a politics of patrimonialism that has encouraged different ethnic groups to capture resources and the mechanisms of governance at the expense of others. This system – first established during the British Mandate – has traditionally favoured the Sunni minority.

This has led to explosive bouts of intercommunal violence throughout Iraqi history, such as the uprisings in 1991 by Shi’a and Kurds against Saddam’s largely Sunni (minority) regime. Each of these incidents has deepened the rift between communities and created a list of grievances decades old. The US invasion in 2003 interfered with this historic situation in a way that its planners had little understanding for and no appreciation of. The governing Coalition Provisional Authority proceeded to dismantle the Saddamist state that was part of the Sunni’s long patrimony over Iraq, inadvertently enthroning the Shi’a as Iraq’s privileged group in the process.

Shi’a politicians spent no time in securing positions of power and privilege traditionally enjoyed by Sunnis, in the process deliberately locking Sunnis out of them. The mass of young army recruits who had been demobilised and left unemployed were now also aggrieved, which ultimately led to a burgeoning Sunni insurgency. In 2006 ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, blew up the holiest site in Iraq Shi’a Islam; the Golden Mosque in Samarra. This act is widely credited as igniting a bloody sectarian civil war that was only brought under control by the 2008 surge in US troops that provided an impartial and effective security apparatus that the government could not.

However, as the US gradually withdrew Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to govern in an increasingly sectarian manner, freezing Sunnis out of the government, federal police and the military. Without large numbers of troops in the country to ensure a stable security environment, sectarian tensions once again began to spiral out of control, ultimately resulting in ISIS’s 2014 capture of vast swathes of northern Iraq and the proclamation of the caliphate in Mosul.

Reaping the whirlwind?

The main problem now facing a post-ISIS Iraq is how to de-toxify relations between the different sectarian groups after more than a decade of internecine violence. Allegations of atrocities perpetrated by Shi’a security forces and military against Sunni civilians indicate that these institutions have learned little from the Maliki years and what facilitated ISIS’ rapid victory in 2014. If true, the allegations of atrocities risk deepening inter-communal grievances and reinforcing the cycle of sectarian conflict that Iraq has been stuck in since 2003.

The most alarming prospect may be that the bloody years spent fighting ISIS will only serve to reset the situation to 2014, yet this time in the absence of a force such as the US that can provide security while standing outside the framework of sectarian grievance.

As Whiteside pointed out, this situation also makes it doubtful that the territorial defeat of ISIS will result in the group’s actual destruction. Rather, as long as the Shi’a government is seen to act against the Sunnis, they will likely view any group – no matter how radical or violent – that stands up for them as preferable,.

If the Iraqi security forces continue on their current path, this will only exacerbate the current situation and extend the conflict. It also reflects a recurring pattern in post-invasion Iraq, where on the surface an ISIS-like group is stamped out, only for the army and central government to attempt to impose their sectarian interests by monopolising power vis-à-vis the Sunni population. This will inevitably lead to reactionary and exclusivist movements capturing popular support.

Jack Agnew is Research and Communications Intern at BICOM.