The global campaign to defeat Islamic State and end its influence over lone-wolf terrorists depends to a large degree on a grand moral reckoning inside Iraq. Can the country’s majority Shiite Muslims ever treat Sunnis as equal citizens rather them drive them to rely on IS for protection?
A possible answer to that question came with the recent retaking of the city of Fallujah from the militant group by Iraqi forces. This battle for a key Sunni stronghold, led by Shiite-dominated forces, showed progress for Iraq in becoming a civic state in which democracy and national pride help quell sectarian divisions.
Let’s start with the battle’s aftermath. Some 80,000 people fled Fallujah during the fighting – one more wave of displaced persons in Middle Eastern wars. While many of them had to be screened as possible IS supporters, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi joined with international groups in providing aid to the displaced Sunnis.
This compassion by his Shiite-dominated regime follows a pattern in which fleeing Iraqi Sunnis, driven from their homeland by IS since 2014, have found refuge in mainly Shiite areas. This inclusiveness may help the government in its planned retaking of an even larger city, Mosul, which is still under IS control.
As for the battle for Fallujah itself, the Iraqi Army made sure to include Sunni tribal forces and to restrain the private Shiite militias, many of which are under the influence of Shiite-run Iran. The prime minister also made many visits to the Fallujah area, bringing Sunni leaders along with him.
In addition, the leading Shiite religious figure in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a call for the Iraqi forces to show restraint against the civilian residents of Fallujah and avoid any human rights violations. “Don’t be extreme ... don’t be treacherous,” he said. During a 2015 battle to retake the city of Tikrit from IS, many abuses were committed against fleeing Sunni civilians, mainly by the Iran-back militias.
Mr. Sistani, who decries Iran’s system of clerical rule, explained the key moral basis for this battle: “Saving an innocent human being from the dangers around him is much more important than targeting and eliminating the enemy.”
If Iraqi politics can continue to be more inclusive of Sunni interests, this will help unite the Army and win Sunni support for retaking more territory from IS. If IS can be defeated in Iraq, and perhaps Syria soon, then its self-proclaimed caliphate and its violent ideology can be replaced by a democratic Iraq that treats all citizens with equality and compassion.