Jihadist attackers of the Islamic State burned two humvees of Lt. Col. Helan Mahmoud Ali’s unit Friday morning, but did little to dent the Iraqi Army’s methodical advance on Mosul.
Backed up by US airpower, long-range artillery, Kurdish peshmerga forces and, further back, even Shiite militias, the Iraqi Army will inevitably expel the self-declared Islamic State from its last stronghold in Iraq, says Ali, echoing top Iraqi and American commanders.
Thousands of residents are reported to have been rounded up for use as human shields by IS – and some 200 executed for not following IS orders, according to the Associated Press. Jihadi tactics have so far included dozens of suicide car bombs, and booby-trapped towns criss-crossed with underground attack and escape tunnels.
The Iraqi Army has learned the military lessons of successive battles against IS, and is applying them to the Mosul fight – planning to deploy only federal troops inside the Sunni-majority city, for example, while the Kurdish peshmerga tackle outlying villages, and Shiite militias accused of past anti-Sunni abuses are kept well away.
But analysts warn that – in sharp contrast – few political lessons appear to have been absorbed by Iraq’s Shiite ruling elite about the need to resolve issues for Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni minority, such as inclusive governance, that helped feed Sunni anger and the spread of IS in Iraq.
Unless these issues are resolved, analysts say, this disconnect could mean that militarily expelling IS from Mosul may not prevent a new variation of IS from emerging, leeching off continued Sunni bitterness.
“We’ll see the son of Daesh within months of the liberation of Mosul,” says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “Because if you think about all the things we have gone through, the reasons why the Iraqi state is so weak, so illegitimate, so exclusionary of Sunnis, none of those have changed.”
“There is a hardening of sectarian attitudes amongst key influence groups," says Dodge, who notes there are no representative Sunnis in Baghdad. "Not [Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani, not the senior ayatollahs, but beneath that – and the sense that once victory has been delivered in Mosul, we can get back to business as usual. There is no plan for reintegration of Sunni politicians. It’s like discussing [the sport of] cricket in America – people just don’t understand, they don’t care.”
'Our blood was mixed together'
The US-trained Iraqi Army disintegrated and fled in humiliation in the face of the June 2014 IS offensive that swept across the border from Syria and seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, along with one-third of the country, and threatened the capital, Baghdad.
Since then the Iraqi Army – rebuilt and reconfigured to remove senior Shiite officers appointed as political favors by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, among other weaknesses – has sought to better reflect Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian diversity.
Ali, for example, is a Sunni officer who was in Mosul when it fell in 2014, and witnessed the Army’s quick collapse. But today, as commander of Iraq’s 3rd Regiment, 16th Division, south of Mosul, he says that the resurrected, Shiite-majority Army embraces a largely non-sectarian ethos, and the string of anti-IS victories has given it a nationalist unity of purpose that has advanced in conjunction with separate Kurdish and Shiite forces.
All of them “fight to liberate Iraqi land” and in support of the Iraqi Army, says Ali. “We all fought in one trench and gave sacrifices together. Our blood was mixed together.”
He dismisses the fact that some Army units fly the flag of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, who is especially revered by Shiites as the “lord of the martyrs” – and whose 7th-century image is sometimes used as a sectarian rallying cry by Shiites.
“I am Sunni, and Hussein is not for Shiites only … he is a symbol for all Muslims” that is used on the Mosul battlefield to “provoke the [IS] enemy, which used sectarianism to implement its agenda,” says Ali.
No political plan?
But even if anti-IS forces have as much as a 25-to-1 advantage over the militants hunkered down in Mosul, who by some counts number between 4,000 to 8,000 fighters defending a city of more than 1 million, concerns are high about the politics of the day after.
“You have another battle in Iraq, where you have a very clearly defined military plan to remove IS, but without a political plan,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “If you speak to different communities, they are not sure what is going to happen. This type of uncertainty is troubling.”
Now is the “best time” to resolve political issues, “because Iraqis are actually coming together right now” to fight a common enemy – presenting a moment on which leaders can capitalize, and which is crucial to defeating IS in the longer-term.
“Daesh sees them coming without a real plan [for post-Mosul governing] and they can tell this isn’t going to last,” says Mr. Mansour. “Their plan is to go underground – because they are going to lose at the moment – stage an insurgency, and take a gamble that Iraqi leaders aren’t going to get their act together and come up with a sufficient plan, and will create some conditions that will re-invite them back.”
“Without convincing the locals that an alternative is coming that is going to work, and that people have some representation in central government – all the things that were missing before 2014 – it might not be Daesh, because Daesh has a tarnished image, but there will be alternative forms continuously re-emerging until a solution is found to the endemic, inherent problem of governance and [Sunni] representation,” he says.
Finding a new way
Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been a voice for unity, and launched the Mosul offensive 12 days ago with a call for all Iraqis to reject the sectarianism that has torn Iraq’s social fabric since the US invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein.
The military, too, has adjusted it methods as it has pressed the anti-IS campaign since last year. After April 2015, for example, some Shiite militias took part in anti-Sunni revenge attacks during the recapture of Tikrit. By the Fallujah offensive that ended in June 2016, the Shiite militias were kept out of the Sunni city, but were tasked with capturing some outlying towns and oversaw a controversial vetting process of those Sunnis trying to flee for safety, in a bid to catch escaping IS fighters. Around the northern city of Mosul, well-established Kurdish forces are playing a far greater role.
But the proof of sustainability may be in what politics emerges after Mosul falls, and how decentralization plans play out that would place more authority and budgets in the hands of local politicians.
At the very least, that will require recognizing the risk of not easing concerns of the Sunni community.
“I don't think we will see another version of Daesh soon,” says Sajad Jiyad, managing director of the Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a think tank in Baghdad. “Its brutalization of Iraqis, including its Sunni Arab audience, has been so horrific that the violent extremism it practices has been rejected firmly.”
Mr. Abadi’s leadership has been less confrontational than that of his predecessor. But, Mr. Jiyad cautions, Iraqi politics post-2003 are often dysfunctional – and effecting change is complicated by corruption and sectarianism.
“Politics in Iraq has always been difficult, and it is probably a better option to try hard to get good agreements that take time to hash out, rather than speedy accords that unwind quickly,” says Jiyad, referring to the need for structural adjustments that would return Sunnis to the political process in a meaningful way. “I think all sides want to see peace in the country and have had enough of violence. They realize now that zero-sum politics doesn't work and so it is a matter of making acceptable concessions that don't mean any one side is completely isolated.”
Awadh al-Taee contributed reporting from Baghdad.