In the next few weeks or months, the Iraqi Army is expected to fight “the mother of all battles” against Islamic State. With American support, it plans to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and IS’s main stronghold since 2014. A victory would deal a decisive blow to IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
For Iraq, however, retaking Mosul could bring a fresh start for its young democracy by restoring the country’s historic harmony between Sunnis and Shiites. For too long, terrorist groups like IS, as well as corrupt Iraqi leaders – and indeed other states in the Middle East – have exploited sectarian differences between Islam’s two main branches. After years of such violence – by Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and now IS – Iraqis may be in a better mood to reconcile.
Those who despair over this possibility happening need to know that about 40 percent of Iraqis were from Sunni-Shia mixed marriages until the 2003 American invasion. (The children of such marriages are dubbed “Sushis.”) And ever since IS took over a third of Iraq’s territory two years ago, the Iraqi Army has made major reforms that have brought more Sunnis into its ranks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to keep a delicate balance of Sunnis and Shiites in his government.
A big test for Iraq will be in how it protects Mosul’s mainly Sunni residents – an estimated 1 million people – both during the battle and in the expected wave of refugees fleeing the city. The United Nations predicts the fighting will produce a “displacement on a scale not seen globally in many years.” With humanitarian support from the rest of the world, Iraqi officials must offer relief and aid to Mosul’s displaced.
Preparations to retake Mosul began in March and the Iraqi Army has since taken a number of smaller cities from IS. With a nod from the United States, it is working with Iran-backed Shiite militias as well as coordinating with ethnic Kurdish forces in the north, known as peshmerga. With US air power, the battle of Mosul could be a turning point for both IS and Iraq.
IS’s brutal reign over mainly Sunni cities has proved to Iraqis that they cannot let religious differences create a vacuum for extremists or those seeking power. The Quran calls on Muslims to “not become divided.” A victory in Mosul will be an opportunity for Iraqis to once again live by that creed.