When the Islamic State (ISIS) took over Iraq’s second-largest city in 2014, one of its first acts was to kill any Mosul resident who merely thought differently. Now compare that murder spree on individual conscience to what has happened since Iraqi forces recaptured the city on July 9.
Civilians are returning, not fleeing or being killed – and they are speaking their mind. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promises to create stability for Mosul and extend the political unity among Iraqi leaders in fighting ISIS. Foreign donors have offered reconstruction aid for the city. On July 15, leaders of the country’s minority Sunnis will meet to discuss ways to reconcile with the majority Shiites. And with Mosul’s liberation, more Iraqis are eager for elections in September.
For all its problems – including the need to suppress remaining ISIS insurgents in smaller cities – Iraq has shown an improved focus on national reconciliation after three years of witnessing the alternative of mass slaughter and undemocratic governance in ISIS-run areas. At its height of power, ISIS controlled 40 percent of Iraqi territory and some 10 million people. Now it is on the run in the face of Iraq’s renewed sense of national identity.
Every country emerging from violent conflict has to find a path to reconciliation. Sometimes the need is for forgiveness, justice for victims, or simply land restitution. For Iraqis, the need is to build on its successes since 2015 in overcoming religious divides in politics, curbing corruption, and creating the kind of trust that allows for differences and the rights and freedoms for minorities.
Sunni parliamentary speaker Saleem al-Jubouri has called on the government to adopt a “well-defined approach to social justice.” Mr. Abadi admits that corruption is as harmful as terrorist groups or sectarian distrust. And almost every Iraqi leader speaks of reducing foreign influence, especially by Iran in its support of Shiite militias.
The most remarkable restoration of unity has been in the Iraqi security forces since their defeat by ISIS three years ago. More officers are being promoted by merit than political affiliation. And even though Shiites dominated Iraqi forces, they have generally treated Sunnis well in liberated areas.
Iraq may have finally learned that it cannot afford to ignore its minorities or leave a political vacuum. ISIS, like Al Qaeda before it, was adept at playing on Sunni grievances. While military action was needed to retake Mosul, what is needed even more is the rebuilding and reintegrating of Iraq. In a word, reconciliation.