The collapse of Islamic State (ISIS) strongholds in Iraq is proving to be more than a military victory over terrorists. The two-year battle against the militant sectarian group has also awakened Iraqi leaders to the need to mend relations between Sunnis and Shiites – and not only in Iraq. With a renewed drive for national unity, Iraq also now sees itself as a possible mediator between the region’s rival powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In recent weeks, Iraqi leaders have visited Saudi Arabia, mainly to gain economic support in rebuilding Iraqi cities destroyed by ISIS. The mainly Shiite government in Baghdad needs Saudi help to rebuild Sunni areas such as the city of Mosul. But Iraq also wants to reduce the influence of Iran, which has supported Iraqi Shiite militias involved in the anti-ISIS fighting. To reconstruct their country, in other words, Iraqi leaders need a rapprochement between its giant neighbors. This explains reports of Iraq offering to be a go-between.
Iraq has learned the hard way from its war with ISIS that domestic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites will not bring jobs for young people and other necessities of running a democracy. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, too, a new crop of reformist leaders is moving to play down religious extremism in favor of economic growth and freedoms demanded by rising youth populations. Such efforts rely on political inclusion over the kind of religious exclusion behind so many conflicts in the Middle East.
Saudi assistance has started to flow to Iraq after a visit by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and a prominent Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. The border has been opened for trade 27 years after it was closed. And a joint trade council has been formed. Iraqi politicians are also deciding how to either disband the Iran-backed militias or blend them into the Iraqi Army.
The Saudi-Iran rivalry needs a mediator if the region is to know peace. From Yemen to Lebanon, the two oil giants are involved in a dead-end contest over their competing claims to dominance of the Muslim world. With its history of suffering from Sunni-Shiite conflict, Iraq may be in a position to help the two countries understand that cooperation based on national identities must replace conflict over religious identities.
Out of the ashes of the war with ISIS could arise a wider peace.