The end of ISIL could reignite ethnic and sectarian competition across the country. If Iraq’s prime minister doesn’t have an answer, there are others waiting in the wings who do
The destroyed gate of the Al-Nuri Mosque in the Old City of Mosul, during the Iraqi government forces’ offensive to retake the city from ISIL fighters. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
After eight centuries, the hunchback finally fell over. Having withstood wars and sieges, the Grand Mosque of Al Nuri in Mosul was finally blown apart from within the city. That may prove to be a metaphor for Iraq itself.
As the war against ISIL enters its final stretch in Mosul, attention must turn to the aftermath and how Mosul, and Iraq itself, will be rebuilt. The day after Mosul is retaken, a low-level battle will begin, as Sunni and Shia elements across the country – and their supporters beyond Iraq’s borders – restart their jockeying for supremacy. The divisions and rivalries between Iraqis are not readily apparent, but they are there. Under the cover of the battle against ISIL, all sides are preparing for the day after.
Iraq’s Shia-dominated and Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units, having gained legitimacy in the battle for Mosul, will want an outsize role in Iraq’s army, and maybe even in Mosul itself. The Kurdish forces, moving towards independence, will not want their fight against ISIL to have been in vain; they will see any attempt to push them out of the towns they have liberated as a betrayal. The US will want to see Mosul under the control of the Iraqi army that liberated it, but the PMU and Kurdish groups want to carve out more influence inside the city.
Yet both groups have a chequered history when it comes to dealings with the Sunni majority city of Mosul. Human rights groups have noted that both Kurdish forces and Shia militias have detained Sunni men and boys fleeing Mosul. Kurdish groups have conducted revenge killings and house demolitions against Sunnis inside the disputed city of Kirkuk. Any temporary trust between the groups could evaporate if the rebuilding of and relocation to Mosul is not carried out with sensitivity.
What Mosul needs – what Iraq needs – is radical nationalism, a nationalism that can bridge the divide between Sunnis and Shia, and bring the Kurds, even if temporarily, into the fold. That will mean offering Sunnis a real stake in the political process and including many more Iraqi Sunnis in the army – something that will, inevitably, be at the expense of the Shia who now form a majority inside the army.
The Kurds, squeezed between Baghdad and Ankara, will need a grand bargain if they are to stay within the Iraqi family – and the only thing they seek is more autonomy. Sunni Arabs in mixed villages and towns that the Kurds have taken over have complained of being pushed, or forced, out. If Baghdad lets the Kurds keep those towns, the Sunnis will be outraged. If they are forced to give them back, calls for Kurdish independence will rise.
These are tricky political problems and Iraq’s prime minister Haider Al Abadi has so far shown no hint of knowing how to deal with them. He will, when it comes, be quick to claim victory against ISIL. But the hardline rhetoric he has employed against the militant group will need to be tempered when he speaks of the Sunnis and the Kurds. And if he doesn’t know how to be conciliatory, he has a rival who does.
Because, of all people in Iraq, Mr Al Abadi’s rival for moving beyond sectarian lines is a man who once embodied sectarianism and aggression: the firebrand cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.
Mr Al Sadr hasn’t gone away. Although the battle for Mosul has focused the political debate on the city and the battle against ISIL, Mr Al Sadr is still clearly in contention and has Mr Al Abadi in his sights. Piece by piece, he has been sending signals that he, not Mr Al Abadi, is the only person who can heal Iraq’s wounds. And it may be working.
Mr Al Sadr has widespread support among Iraqi Shias, although whenever his supporters take to the streets – which is regularly – they wave the national flag of Iraq. In that, Mr Al Sadr is being canny, seeking support from Sunnis as well. Well aware that the sectarian politics of the Nouri Al Maliki government did not work, Mr Al Sadr is looking to separate himself from other Shia leaders.
In February this year, he expressed sympathy with those inside Mosul who had at first sought refuge with ISIL. He suggested Sunnis across Iraq had reasons to be disaffected. These are powerful words from a man whose Mahdi Army once targeted Americans, Iraqi Sunnis and Christians. Indeed, many of the seeds of fear and discontent among Sunnis can be traced to the actions of the Mahdi Army.
He went further. His call in April this year for Bashar Al Assad to step down was not widely noticed in the West – but it made waves in the Middle East. His intervention mattered not merely because Mr Al Abadi has tried to tread a careful line on Syria and Mr Al Assad, but because here was a Shia leader calling on Mr Al Assad, himself an Alawite Shia, to step down. Many Sunnis in Iraq will have heard those as the words of a man willing to put a country before a sect, even if the country were not his own.
That is a powerful message and it will be needed after Mosul is liberated, more than ever. Whether or not Mr Al Sadr is merely remaking his image to take power, or whether he has seen the outcome of sectarianism and had a genuine shift in political thinking, his statements point to the best, perhaps only, way out of Iraq’s sectarian impasse. But many Sunnis will find to hard to accept that Mr Al Sadr is the man to lead them.
Faisal Al Yafai is a frequent contributor to The National