To watch the war against Islamic State from afar, it might be easy to measure progress by military triumphs. Indeed, the retaking of the city of Ramadi by Iraqi forces this week is a significant territorial victory. It helps break the illusion that an IS “caliphate” is inevitable or that terrorism can ever win hearts and minds. In losing its first major city, IS thus loses a major part of its allure to many Muslims.
Yet it must be remembered that the jihadist group’s rapid advances on the ground in 2014-15 were possible only because of a moral and political vacuum in both Iraq and Syria. In both states, leaders have failed to listen to democratic voices or the views of religious and ethnic minorities. The disaffected, especially the Sunni minority in Iraq, fell easily into the hands of IS fighters.
In Syria, the void is still a long way from being filled. But the Ramadi victory hints at progress for Iraq in the healing of old divisions. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the victory on television by noting the cooperation of “different affiliations and religions and sects” among various Iraqi forces (Sunni, Shiite, and tribal). He said Sunni police forces will now patrol the mainly Sunni city, alleviating fears that Shiite militias might harm residents. And he promised to build on the newly found cohesion of Iraqi security forces and retake the even larger city of Mosul in 2016.
Iraq’s Army is only effective if all Iraqis feel welcome in their country, a requirement for any constitutional democracy in which equality is a prerequisite. Sunnis are not the only ones to complain of discrimination by the largely Shiite ruling elite. Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and many others need to be included in Iraqi democracy. Mr. Abadi, who took power in late 2014, has so far had limited success in achieving that essential goal.
Where does the prime minister go for support? He often looks to the holiest city in Iraq for Shiites, Najaf, and to the advice of leading imams, such as the current grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani. The highly respected Mr. Sistani has long sought to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide. He is also wary of Iran’s tendency to exploit that divide in Iraq. But he and other clerics in Najaf have lately gone even further. The city has become known for its interfaith seminars and studies, all aimed at building trust between Iraq’s many religions and minorities.
In 2013, a famed cleric, Jawad al-Khoei, began building a major complex for what is called the Interfaith Communication and Interfaith Dialogue. In addition, the University of Kufa, Najaf’s largest college, has also become a meeting place for leaders of major faiths to find ways to overcome sectarian differences.
These are small but essential steps by Iraq’s key Shiite religious leaders to help form a secular and inclusive political environment for the country. Outside forces, such as the United States and especially Iran, cannot do this. But Iraq’s moderate religious leaders can.
The victories against IS may require military means. But they are only possible when Iraqis find what they have in common through faith. The victories in Najaf will help ensure military victories in other cities.