Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Battle for Mosul has just begun: Reconstruction and National Reconciliation in post-ISIS Iraq

Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi arrives in Mosul to declare its liberation-July 9, 2017
It is ironic that a sectarian and corrupt prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was responsible for Mosul’s seizure by the so-called Islamic State, but that an anti-sectarian, non-corrupt prime minister, Dr. Hayder al-Abadi, brought about its liberation from the Dacish.
Damage to Mosul during November 2016-June 2017 battle
Now that Mosul is no longer under Dacish control, most prognosticators argue that the terrorist group is down but not out, and that it will continue its activities in the form of suicide bombings and assassinations in Iraq, Europe and elsewhere.  Further, they rightly point out that much of the money designated for Mosul’s reconstruction will go instead into the pockets of powerful politicians. Experts estimate the cost for rebuilding the city at $700 million (

Should the post-Mosul reconstruction process really be viewed in such negative terms?  Should analysts limit themselves to viewing Iraqi politics as a “spectator sport”?  Or should analysts become more proactive and begin to think of ways to address Iraq’s problems rather than simply focus on a supposed bleak future?

I would argue that the key variable in addressing both the successful rebuilding of Mosul and reintegrating Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces culturally, politically and economically is national reconciliation.  National reconciliation (al-masaliha al-wataniya/المصالحة الوطنية) involves first and foremost creating a sense of trust among Iraqis.  Here the manner in which the Iraqi Army – the Counter-Terrorism Forces and Federal Police – defeated the Dacish provides an excellent starting point. 
Tent city for displaced Mosul residents
For the most part, Iraq’s armed forces acted very professionally in Mosul during their military campaign against the Dacish.  Civilians were treated with respect and given food, shelter (in tent camps) and medicine where needed.  The gratitude that most Moslawis have shown Iraqi officers and enlisted men provides strong evidence that initial bonds have developed between the local population and the Iraqi military (

Based on the Mosul experience, where can the Iraqi government go from here? If Prime Minister    al-Abadi would follow up his tour of Mosul with some innovative policies, such actions could well serve to promote national reconciliation.  For example, the Iraqi government could make an effort to interview groups of Iraqi military and Mosul citizens together and broadcast these joint interviews on television and radio as well as on social media platforms such as Vimeo.
The UK distributes food to residents displaced from Mosul 
Such programs and visual imagery would send an important message to Iraqis that their government is serious about national reconciliation.  Iraqi civil society organizations, youth groups and local news media outlets would no doubt be pleased to participate in this effort. The activities just suggested would not require extensive funding. 

Another proactive measure that Prime Minister al-Abadi could take would be to invite Sunni clerics from the provinces most adversely affected by Dacish terrorism – Ninawa, Salah ad-Din, al-Anbar and al-Diyala – together with Shica clerics to participate in panels where they both condemn extremist attitudes and behavior.  Of course, Iraqi clerics would run circles around the Dacish showing how their so-called “fatwas,” or religious decrees, are either bogus or “cherry picked” interpretations of Islamic doctrine designed to validate terrorist behavior.

An important tradition - both religious and political - is for Shica and Sunnis to pray together as a sign of national unity and solidarity when Iraq faces sectarian violence.  This tradition finds its origins in the June through October 1920 Revolution against colonial rule when the British treid to pit the two sects against one another in an effort at "divide and conquer."  In July 2016, after the Dacish killed 250 Iraqis in a car bombing, Shica and Sunni Baghdadis came once more to pray together (

Iraqi troops assist an elderly women in Mosul
Many observers, both Iraqi and non-Iraqi, have pointed to the problem of corruption in the reconstruction process.  For some time, residents of al-Anbar Province have complained that funds allocated by Baghdad have not been received to help rebuild their cities and towns, such as Falluja and Ramadi.  This has not only created great resentment, but further undermined trust in the central government.

As former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, has correctly observed, the most trusted person in Iraq is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Iraqi government would be well served by appointing a trusted member of al-Sayyid Sistani’s Office as an Ombudsman to oversee Iraq’s reconstruction process. 

Mosul children free of the Dacish
If that Ombudsman would share authority with a respected cleric from the Sunni Awqaf (religious endowments), and a respected Christian cleric, then the population in the provinces of the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle would have much more confidence in the reconstruction process. Such an institutional arrangement would promote cross-ethnic and religious cooperation and expand trust as well.

The role of Iran and affiliated Shica militias in the battle against the Dacish is also an issue that must be addressed as part of the process of national reconciliation. The expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq’s domestic politics was given a boost - “shot in the arm” - after Mosul’s fall.  When the Iraqi Army collapsed in June 2014, after its betrayal by then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the local army high command, al-Sayyid Sistani called on the Iraqi people to arm themselves to protect again the Dacish which began to move south towards Baghdad after seizing Mosul.

The subsequent formation of militias in Baghdad and the south were primarily composed of Shica fighters.  Iran quickly sought to dominate the militia movement by providing funds, arms and training  to those militias which supported its interests in Iraq, namely the three most powerful groups controlled by Hadi al-Amiri, Abu Mahdi Muhandis and Qais Khazzali respectively.

There is little doubt that the militias played an important supporting role in defeating the Dacish, even if the bulk of the fighting in Mosul was done by the Iraqi Army, especially the Counter-Terrorism Forces and the Federal Police.  However, the 3 militias supportive of Iran have sought to politically exploit the struggle against the Dacish by seeking to be officially recognized as part of Iraq’s armed forces.  Clearly, they serve as a “Trojan Horse” for Iranian political interests in Iraq.

Efforts to prevent Iran from using the struggle against the Dacish to expand its political interests in Iraq requires a subtle response on the part of Prime Minister al-Abadi, and those cabinet ministers and politicians who are supportive of efforts to curtail Iranian interference in Iraq’s internal affairs.

The Iraqi government has been effusive in thanking Iran for its military assistance in fighting the Dacish and should continue to do so.  At the same time, the Iraqi government should begin a campaign in parliament and the media which emphasizes that, having expunged the influence of foreign fighters from Mosul and other Iraqi cities and towns, it now wants to prevent any future incursions by external political forces.  

This message should remain an on-going mantra without explicit mention of Iran.  The implicit message here would not be lost on Iraqis – Iraq want to pursue its political future without the interference of Iran.

The Iraqi government should try and integrate a portion of the Shica militiamen who have excellent combat skills into the Iraqi Army.  They should be offered positions in separate units, rather than being allowed to form a unit of their own.  Thus the Iraqi Army would benefit from skilled fighters who are battel tested, and provide employment for them, a key incentive for many men who joined the irregular militias.

Beyond these efforts, the Iraqi government should continue to work with the US and its coalition partners from the EU and the MENA region to train Iraq’s armed forces.  The strongest bulwark against politicization of the military is one which promotes a vision of  itself as a professional institution designed to defend the nation but not to interfere in politics.

Iraq’s conscript army, which the US very foolishly disbanded in 2003, was comprised of an ethnically integrated office corps.  I have conducted numerous interviews with Shica, Sunni and Kurdish officers who all stressed the good relations which existed among all three ethnoconfessional groups in the conscript army.  To develop once again an officer corps and military units which contain troops from all Iraq’s ethnic groups will serve Iraq well in the future, not just to prevent attempts at a coup d’état, but to resist foreign interference in Iraq’s military and domestic politics.

Finally, there is the problem of the Kurds.  The KRG referendum on declaring an independent state will occur on September 25, 2017.  Undoubtedly, it will be approved by a majority vote.  Whether the referendum will mean the separation of Iraq’s three majority Kurdish provinces from Iraq and the formation of a new nation-state is another question all together.

A serious effort in Baghdad to use the military victory over the Dacish to sustain some form of political relationship between Baghdad and the KRG might work to prevent separation.  It should be remembered that the Pesh Merga, like the Iraqi Army, suffered many casualties protecting the KRG from the Dacish following the fall of Mosul in 2014. 

The Pesh also fought with the Iraqi Army against the Dacish in the north suffering many casualties.  At present the KRG is providing refuge for a large number of Moslawis and other DPIs from north central Iraq as a result of Dacish terrorism which drove them from their homes. The number of DPIs in the KRG and elsewhere has dramatically increased following the 9 month battle for Mosul.

While a topic for another post, an effort to create a truly federal Iraq, which would benefit both Arabs, Kurds and other minorities, such as Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis, is a precondition for creating a durable political system acceptable to all ethnoconfessional groups.  For those who argue that federalism is alien to the MENA region, the UAE belies that argument, given its 45 year history as a successful federal nation-state.    

As I have argued before, Iraqis should examine the Canadian model where Quebec was convinced not to succeed from Canada once it felt a meaningful federalism had been established by the central government.  Language and cultural rights were established which placed French speaking Canada on par with English speaking Canada.  For example, a Canadian university student of French heritage can submit examinations and research papers in French anywhere in Canada and the educational institution which that student attends must accommodate her or him.

At the end of the day, Iraq’s national reconciliation and reconstruction – in its cultural-political as well as material dimensions – must come from Iraqis themselves.  Iraqi youth – 70% of the population under the age of 30 – have already begun the post-Mosul reconstruction process.  They are in the forefront of organizing meetings between Moslawis and other Sunni Arab residents in the north with Shica in the south. (

Mosul Library destroyed by  Da'ish
These meetings are designed to show Sunnis that the Shica welcome good relations with them and do not harbor hostile feelings towards them.  Youth are also actively involved in restocking the Mosul libraries destroyed by Dacish terrorists (

Iraq is a resilient country with a remarkable people who represent a rich and diverse cultural heritage.  Over the past half century, Iraq suffered a military coup d’état in 1958, a vicious Bacthist putsch in February 1963, 35 years of brutal rule under Saddam Husayn and the Bacth Party, a highly destructive war with Iran from 1980-1988, the Gulf War of 1991, followed the March 1991 uprising (al-Intifada), the US invasion of 2003 followed by 5 years of civil strife, and then 3 years of control of Mosul and other towns in the Sunni majority provinces of the north by Dacish terrorists.

In the final analysis, does Iraq have the political will – both on the part of its citizenry and politicians – to seize the moment and finally realize its potential as a nation-state?

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