In push for post-ISIS reconciliation, Iraqi leaders still a sticking point

As Iraqi security forces push ISIS out of each village or city, peacemakers establish mechanisms of reconciliation. But they say too few lessons have been learned by politicians about inclusive rule and compromise.

Balint Szlanko/AP
A Belgian special forces soldier looks through his binoculars near the frontline, east of Tal Afar, Iraq, on Aug. 20, 2017. Iraqi forces launched a multi-pronged assault to retake the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, during the country's war on the Islamic State group. Tal Afar and the surrounding area were among the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq after victory was declared in July in Mosul, the country's second-largest city.

Pity the Iraqi peacemaker.

As the dark cloud of Islamic State occupation is forced to recede from northern Iraq, it is leaving behind a complex array of tensions over sectarian divides, security, and governance that require immediate attention if new violence is to be averted.

Already Iraqi peacemakers supported by Western aid groups and the United Nations have been making tangible progress. As Iraqi security forces push ISIS out of one village and city after another, the peacemakers establish mechanisms of reconciliation aimed at preventing revenge attacks.

But the liberation of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in July has highlighted how much more peacemaking work needs to be done – and urgently, from Kirkuk to Tal Afar, from Erbil to Baghdad – if Iraq’s volatile mix of problems is to be at least contained, if not resolved. And still, despite the catastrophic harm caused by ISIS, peacemakers say too few lessons have been learned by politicians about inclusive rule and compromise to prevent more chaos in the future.

Emblematic of the challenge and uncertainties facing Iraqi peacemakers is the recent scene at Qayarrah, 40 miles south of Mosul. At a military pontoon bridge over the Tigris River, two bodies clad in black were pinned by the flow of the green-hued waters to the cables that held the bridge in place.

Were they casualties of the anti-ISIS assault, swept downriver from Mosul? Or civilians killed by ISIS? Or could they be the result of anti-ISIS revenge killings by Shiite militias, which have reportedly conducted frequent summary executions?

Ali Abdul Hassan/AP
In this Tuesday, July 18, 2017, photo, Shiite volunteer fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade, an armed faction with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, train in their camp in Najaf, Iraq. Iraq’s political, religious, and military leaders are debating the future of the country’s powerful Shiite militias after defeating the Islamic State group in Mosul.

The answer may never be known, in the same way that no Iraqi peacemaker can quantify exactly how or how much peace can be achieved at any potential flashpoint, given the ever-changing array of actors, historic animosities, and ISIS impact.

After years of work and lessons learned, though – with notable successes in Tikrit – peacemakers here know they can make a positive difference, even in post-ISIS Iraq.

“This is the peace-building world; there are not guarantees that the process is going to be 100 percent successful,” says Haider al-Ibrahimi, executive director of the Iraqi peacemaker group Sanad. “We have spread these messages: Military operations, it’s a need. But it’s equally important to lay the ground for dialogue and community issues.”

One metric of success is getting all players to sit around one table, discussing contentious issues freely. Others are more quantifiable, such as engineering the signed agreement last January of more than 40 tribal leaders in Hawija, a town southwest of Kirkuk still under ISIS control, to avert post-ISIS acts of revenge.

“It is not a slogan, it is a reality: Peace is possible. Change could happen,” says Mr. Ibrahimi, speaking in Erbil. “We have tested very small [cases], but we are pretty sure that these can be maximized. [Iraqis] are ready for change. They have had enough. They have seen enough.”

Inclusion and compromise

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has couched all anti-ISIS military victories in nationalistic terms, and called on Iraqis to unify.

But analysts and professional peacemakers say that neither Baghdad nor the leaders of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil – whose peshmerga fighters have been instrumental in the anti-ISIS fight – have learned the lessons of inclusion and compromise that can yield reconciliation.

The expected offensive to dislodge ISIS from Hawija, for example, has reportedly been complicated by Baghdad-Erbil mistrust over the fate of Kirkuk and its oil resources, as a Kurdish independence referendum looms Sept. 25. 

Some problems predate the ISIS sweep into northern Iraq in June 2014, such as the power struggle between Baghdad and Erbil, and the territories disputed between them in the Nineveh plain, where minority groups with their own historical animosities have been caught in the middle and neglected. Kurdish forces extended their control far across these disputed areas – including taking complete control of long-contentious Kirkuk – as the Iraqi Army crumbled before the 2014 ISIS advance. 

Militants from the Islamic State parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle on a main street in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014.

Other problems have been exacerbated by the ISIS presence, such as the militarization of ethnic communities – with many fielding their own militias – and the huge economic burden of post-ISIS rebuilding. For example, with more than a quarter of Mosul’s residential districts completely destroyed, the UN estimates that making livable this city alone could cost $700 million.

“Neither Baghdad nor the KRG have a clue about what to do about reconstruction,” says Khogir Wirya, a researcher for the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) in Erbil. “They lack money, they are both in financial crisis, and both in political crisis. And there are too many actors on the ground…. All in all, it’s chaos.”

The Kurdish vote

Limiting that chaos is proving a challenge, complicated by a string of upcoming votes. Kurds are due to vote in the independence referendum later this month – which Washington, Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad have all discouraged, fearing further instability and encouragement of independence actions by other disenfranchised Kurdish populations, especially in Turkey and Iran. Kurds are also to vote in presidential elections Nov. 1.

Across Iraq, provincial elections were expected in 2017, and a full parliament vote in April 2018, but those dates remain in doubt. Pre-election politicking and power structures that may change at the ballot box add to the uncertainty for peacemakers as they try to forge agreements that will stick.

“Where progress is paused is at the political level, the decision-makers’ level in Baghdad and the KRG. They continue to do exactly the opposite” to ease concerns of minorities, and even Sunnis, says Ibrahimi of Sanad.

One example was parliament’s decision last November to legalize the mostly Iranian-backed Shiite militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which have been accused of atrocities in the anti-ISIS fight.

“It could be worked out, and it doesn’t require a genius to do this change – it only requires a will and motivation, and unfortunately these are not there,” says Ibrahimi.

Iraq’s peacemakers have an endless to-do list, each case presenting different challenges that require bespoke solutions. Two examples of works-in-progress – that of post-ISIS Hawija, when it comes, and of minority groups in the Nineveh plain – illustrate the scale and complexities of many of Iraq’s problems.

Preparation is key

Though Hawija is still occupied by ISIS, and is widely chastised as the purported birthplace of Islamic extremism in Iraq, Sanad has been working with Kirkuk and Hawija community leaders since last year to prepare the ground.

“We established principles for peaceful coexistence that govern community behavior,” and they were publicly agreed and signed by key tribal leaders, says Ibrahimi. Sanad then expanded the reach to local officials and security actors, “to help them reflect these principles into more practical and doable actions,” he says.

Tribal laws about revenge were examined in a way that could support the rule of law, instead of competing with it. All sides pledged not to commit acts of revenge. Plans were detailed to resolve disputes in a transparent, evidence-based way.

“We need to make sure the mechanism is established before the liberation,” adds Ibrahimi, noting that similar work was already underway with tribal leaders of Tal Afar, a Turkmen town near Iraq’s border with Syria, where Iraqi forces launched an offensive to oust ISIS on Aug. 20. The town was declared liberated Aug. 31.

“Everyone [in Hawija] is signing on, so they know their responsibility and scope of work,” says Ibrahimi. “So when the liberation kicks off, it is not a new dynamic but is already embedded, it is already becoming routine.”

In the second peacemaker example, along the Nineveh plain, minorities such as Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis, and Turkmen have their own contentious histories with each other, which have been aggravated by the presence of a patchwork of Kurdish, Iraqi, and Shiite militia forces, in addition to, now, their own armed groups.

The top post-ISIS danger is clashes between these militias, such as the Christian and Shabak over land ownership, says Mr. Wirya of MERI, whose most recent report on minority concerns was in August about the Shabak.

“At the moment they are saying, ‘We are fighting ISIS and repelling any possible attacks by ISIS,’” says Wirya. “But I believe in the future there will be some sort of clash, and more, if it’s not addressed by both Baghdad and the KRG. They need to … engage them in a dialogue. This is not happening at the moment.”

Post-ISIS roadmap

MERI is developing a post-ISIS roadmap that integrates reconciliation, reconstruction and repatriation of displaced Iraqis. They hope it will catch the eye of key players in Baghdad, to ease the anxiety of minorities in Ninevah.

The work started last year before the area was freed of ISIS, when MERI brought together Iraqi and KRG military leaders and commanders to talk. Then they brought community leaders to discuss their vision of the future. Finally, they took real decision-makers – local officials, and those from Baghdad – to the Netherlands to provide neutral ground.

The result will soon be a roadmap and, peacemakers hope, action that will ease the anxiety of vulnerable minorities.

“I don’t think in the long-term or even in the short term this will lead to peace, although we are doing our best,” says Wirya.

“We are doing bits here and there, so we believe we can contribute something to peace and stability in this part of the world,” he says. “In Iraq … a lot of laws and procedures and decisions are made, but influence and implementation on the ground is what is lacking,” he says.

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