The colonel is a quintessential Iraqi military man: shaved head, bushy black mustache, and very proud of how the Iraqi Army has rebuilt and “proved it is professional” in the fight to oust the Islamic State from Mosul.
Yet even though he has no doubt that ISIS will soon be crushed in its last urban stronghold in Iraq – the old city warren of western Mosul, where the jihadists first declared their caliphate in 2014 – he lets out a big sigh when asked if he is optimistic about the future.
Like many in Iraq, the colonel is wary that the challenges of reconciliation and winning the peace in Mosul and across the complex ethnic mosaic of Nineveh Province will be harder than winning the war.
That matters, because this symbol of ISIS rule in Iraq was a mixed city with venerable institutions, and is a gauge of Iraq’s ability to recover from its jihadist trauma. The stakes are high, to avoid a repeat of the ethnic and sectarian fighting and Sunni disenfranchisement that helped spawn ISIS and spread its reach in the first place.
“I can’t guess or imagine the next stage, because everyone follows his own decisions, his own sect, his own interests,” says the career officer, who asked not to be named but counts personally killing 35 jihadists in Iraq since 2007. Insurgents back then killed his father.
Military victory in Mosul is “progress for the Army itself, but politicians” create continuing barriers to reconciliation, he says.
Today in Washington, top officials from the US-led, 68-member alliance fighting ISIS, who are meeting for the first time in two years, are hearing a pep talk about the Trump administration’s boosted effort to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts say military defeat of the jihadists in Iraq and eventually Syria may be inevitable. But they warn that the multiple strands of ethnic friction that predate ISIS remain, and have been exacerbated by years of the jihadists’ occupation and their targeting of Christians, Kurds, Shiites, fellow Sunnis, and a host of minorities who inhabit this region of northern Iraq
That means, despite local reconciliation efforts that succeeded in liberated cities like Tikrit – where Sunnis and Shiites made amends despite a massacre in 2014, using a peacekeeping mechanism detailed by the Monitor – the task is far more complicated in and around Mosul.
“There are a lot of problems in Mosul and in Nineveh that have been disguised by IS. These problems are still there,” says Renad Mansour, a fellow at Chatham House, the London think tank.
“Politicians have used [ISIS] as a way to excuse all these other problems, to excuse the economy, land claims, and disputed territories,” says Mr. Mansour. “You do have the traditional inter-sect [problems] – Sunni-Shiite problems, Shiite-Kurdish problems – but you also have intra-sect problems that I think are bigger now than they ever were since 2003.”
Of those intra-sect problems, Shiite factions in Baghdad fight for influence, with some calling for national reconciliation with Sunnis and Kurds, while others don’t. The northern Kurdish regional government also feels political divisions.
Mosul and its mostly Sunni population are still reeling from the shock of nearly three years under brutal ISIS rule. The initial welcome extended to the Islamic State in Mosul in 2014 had been a reaction to the heavy-handed security measures employed by Shiite-led security forces under orders from the Shiite then-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Political plan is lacking
And yet despite conciliatory, nationalist words from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also from Iraq’s majority Shiite sect, there is no plan in Baghdad to step up the minority Sunnis’ representation in government. Nor is there any desire to compromise much with Kurds over disputed territories. And in Mosul and beyond, there are few Sunni leaders who can claim to speak for their people.
“We have a very clear military solution, a clear military victory ahead,” says Mansour. “But there’s not an accompanying actual [political] plan the sides are agreeing on.”
That means the post-ISIS world of Mosul and the region is full of potential flashpoints, as professional peacemakers assess their best means of encouraging reconciliation, working with limited means to quell fires of revenge and anger made worse by the ISIS presence.
Kurdish peshmerga forces in recent weeks, for example, have clashed with a Yazidi militia in Sinjar, near Iraq’s border with Syria, yielding casualties on both sides. Vetting returnees for ISIS collaborators – and separating fact from fiction in neighbors’ accusations – is another challenge.
“Our main objective in this current environment of liberation is to prevent revenge acts of violence,” says Osama Gharizi, Middle East program manager for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an architect of the Tikrit and other reconciliation efforts.
“We view reconciliation as a process, not as an outcome. It’s long term, it has many phases,” says Mr. Gharizi.
Mosul's symbolic value
Iraqi mediators supported by USIP and the UN can recognize potential local disputes and preemptively intervene in a bid to stop them spinning out of control. But strategic reconciliation for Mosul, which includes small but aggrieved minorities like Yazidis, Christians, Shabaks, and Turkmen, needs to be addressed as part of a broader political process that does not yet exist.
“That is where the national reconciliation needs to advance,” says Gharizi.
Success in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is especially symbolic. Every aspect of its liberation has had sectarian overtones. The exception was when Prime Minister Abadi announced the anti-ISIS push on Mosul that began last October, saying all Iraqis would soon be able to unite under the national flag.
“What started with Mosul, it ends with Mosul. … It’s the Shiites and the Kurds liberating the Sunnis from themselves,” says a UN official, noting that the largely Shiite Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces, and Shiite paramilitaries are waging the offensive, with little Sunni Arab input from Mosul.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that dynamic, though welcomed by Mosul's ISIS-occupied Sunnis, did not bode well for Mosul’s future.
“That furthers the notion that either Mosul will be fully under control of Baghdad, by a political elite friendly to Baghdad, or it will be destroyed and left in between the micro-conflicts, that it is not a city that is going to prosper and thrive again,” the UN official says.
“There is no agreed upon process for this, for what reconciliation means,” says the official.
'Vengeance is on their mind'
Indeed, a kaleidoscope of issues remain in Mosul – from big ticket items like Sunni complaints about Shiite-led rule from Baghdad, and the Kurds’ capture of territories, including all of oil-rich Kirkuk, they have long disputed with Baghdad – to a bevy of micro-conflicts with and among minority groups.
Gharizi, of USIP, says even when agreements are reached, mediators need to follow up, monitor, and ensure the parties abide by them. “Otherwise trust is going to be thrown out the window,” he says. “It’s very labor intensive.”
He says USIP and the UN, which provides support, are now assessing disputes between Christian and Shabak minorities. And they are developing a dialogue between Yazidis and Sunni Turkmen, whom the Yazidis viewed as helping facilitate the trafficking of women under ISIS, including as sex slaves.
“Vengeance is on their mind. So we want to address that in a way that it doesn’t spill over into bloodletting,” says Gharizi.
His organization’s research indicates that Yazidis and other minorities recognize that some Sunnis helped them escape ISIS, for example, but “they still have a collective view. So we want to help them differentiate, get rid of that collective view that if you are Sunni, you must be ISIS.”
“Peaceful co-existence is the objective right now, to get communities to live peacefully with each other,” he says. “Then over time, you can get other milestones on the path to reconciliation.”