As Liberation Continues, Concerns over Sunnis in Mosul

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Views from the Region

Four months have passed since the start of a sustained Iraqi army offensive against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the city of Mosul. Despite the progress the Iraqis have made, there remains a widespread fear that the liberated Sunni population may find themselves victimized by Shia militias backed by Iran. But political marginalization looms as well, as declarations by Iraqi Shia politicians calling for greater central political control are seen with suspicion by Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom are concerned about missing out politically and economically in an Iraq unified under a pro-Iran regime. This distrust, together with longstanding systemic weakness in the state (including economic and political corruption), is likely to make the post-IS rebuilding phase in Mosul a difficult one.

According to this Khaleej Times editorial, the Mosul offensive may signal the turning point in the fight against IS, especially given the city’s strategic importance: “About a million people are still trapped in the city, somehow living under the shadows of the barbaric regime. They do not have access to bare necessities like food and water. Yet, some of them are more sympathetic to Daesh, and might put up a fierce battle, which could make it harder for the forces to win. Mosul is the last bastion for Daesh in the war-torn country. Freeing it, therefore, would mean the beginning of the end of the extremist group in Iraq. Which is why Daesh will do all that it takes to maintain control of the industrial city. The group has benefitted from the strategic location of the city, which serves as a vital transportation hub for the flow of goods to and from Turkey and Syria. Mosul is also near the oilfields in northern Iraq and a major oil pipeline into Turkey. The US Army’s Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend is optimistic that the city can be retaken from the grip of the extremist group within six months, and so does Iraq’s Prime Minster Haider Al Abadi.”

But Arab News’s Osama Al Sharif does not share that view — not because he doesn’t believe that the Iraqi government will eventually defeat IS in Mosul, but because the local Sunni population will continue to be unhappy about Iran’s meddling in the region: “Bitterness among the predominantly Sunni population of Nineveh remains high. Documented incidents of summary executions, torture and humiliation by members of the notorious Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), comprising Shiites and backed by Tehran, have added to sectarian tensions.….Mosul will be retaken eventually, albeit at a high price, but what follows will be more challenging for Al-Abadi and the people of Iraq. The fall of the city will be a resounding defeat for Daesh, but it will not spell the end of religious radicalism in Iraq. An Iranian-backed sectarian agenda will further alienate the country’s Sunnis, which in turn will radicalize many who could embrace the movement’s ideology.”

That fear has existed all along, which is one of the reasons the preparation to retake Mosul took so long. And judging from a recent report by Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el about a plan proposed by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, such fears may turn out to be justified: “Last week, the separatist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced his plan for stabilizing Mosul after its liberation, thereby forcing the Iraqi government to start examining the questions of the future of the city and surrounding area. In Sadr’s 29-point plan, he stresses the need to preserve the unity of the state; to bring about a national reconciliation between all religious and ethnic groups; and make law and order subject to the authority of the state, not local militias. He also demands that all foreign forces leave after the war ends — not only the Americans, but also the Iranians and others. He also calls for establishing international bodies to supervise the rehabilitation of the city and raise the tremendous amounts of money needed for this….If the retaking of Mosul will, to a large extent, determine the fate of Islamic State, the way the city operates after the war will determine Iraq’s political future. Thus far, apart from Sadr’s document, no orderly plan has been formulated that clarifies the arrangements for rehabilitation, sources of funding and, above all, the division of control within the city. “

Reports, such as those documented by Fazel Hawramy in an article for Al Monitor, provide further evidence that sectarian attacks by Shias against Sunnis have been on the rise in the last few months: “Since the 2003 invasion, Mosul has been the strategic center of gravity for terrorist groups and it’s been in a state of rebellion. Until now, by and large the Iraqi security forces and in particular the CTS have treated the people in east Mosul with dignity and respect. However, in recent days, videos have surfaced on the internet that show individuals accused of collaboration with IS being killed on the spot. Other videos show children and adults accused of IS ties or membership being tortured and humiliated. Abadi has ordered a field investigation. Mosul residents say that peace is possible in Mosul if the government continues its commitment to prevent sectarianism, provide services and increase transparency in a city where the government and corruption have gone hand in hand for years.”

The mounting evidence of sectarian violence in Mosul has prompted various editorials and observers to urge the Iraqi government to protect the Sunni population. The Gulf News editorial, for example, points out that the “rule of law” ought to be observed by all parties involved, including the Iraqi army: “Iraqi government forces must prove to the people of Mosul that they are rebuilding an inclusive Iraq. This message is vital to any immediate military success, and to rebuild any civil administration for the city and the surrounding provinces where Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has held untrammeled sway for two and a half years. This is why the report of gross abuse of civilians by uniformed Iraqi personnel is deeply troubling …..If the inhabitants of Mosul see themselves as about to be liberated, they will covertly help the Iraqis and maybe actively hinder Daesh. But if rumors and social media encourage them to think they are about to swap one occupation for another they will simply hide in their homes and pray that the violence will wash over them, and they will quietly opt out of rebuilding their state[, w]hich would be a tragedy.”

Others, like this National editorial, have expressed concerns about the systemic failures of the Iraqi state, including corruption, that have enabled, in some cases, the rise of IS: “A greater challenge lies deep at the heart of the country’s political and social infrastructure: corruption. Once the militants are flushed from key Iraqi cities, the rampant corruption that they exploited to take over the cities in the first place will still remain. ….There is no easy solution to the problem of corruption in any country, let alone one that has been ripped apart by conflict. But that doesn’t change the fact that militants have successfully taken advantage of the chaotic environment in which Iraqi state institutions are unable to function because of systematic corruption. As the fight for Mosul comes to a close, Iraq must prepare for a much greater battle in which success could be many years in the making. Success in the fight against corruption is one way to ensure the complete destruction of groups such as ISIL.”

No wonder that observers like Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri remain pessimistic about the prospect of a sustainable peace once IS has been ousted. Taheri urges an inclusive national unity plan to bring all Iraqis together: “As things stand today, winning a military victory in Mosul — in the sense of hoisting the Iraqi national flag in place of the black banner of ISIS in the city — may be the easiest part of a complex and dangerous game. Beyond that there are a number of uncertainties that could transform any victory into a temporary triumph if not a pyrrhic exercise. ….The most important uncertainty, even assuming the Iraqi leaders manage the risks entailed in sharing the spoils of victory, concerns what may happen after Mosul. … [A] good segment of the population in Mosul so resented the government in Baghdad that it was prepared to tolerate, if not actually help, ISIS as a lesser of the two evils…. Any ‘after Mosul’ strategy should include a realistic plan to smoke out and expel the non-Iraqi terrorists, many of them citizens of Western European nations and Russia, who have joined ISIS. But it must also include plans to weave Iraq’s Sunni community back into the fabric of national politics by granting them a genuine share of power and a clear vision for a future in dignity. And that, of course, cannot be done if the central power in Baghdad is atrophied by corruption, sectarianism and incompetence.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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