In Iraq, the ‘Real Mystery’ Is What Comes After ISIS

Iraqi security force members parade in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 14, 2016.

Hadi Mizban/AP

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Iraqi security force members parade in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 14, 2016.

Even as Iraqi special forces and Shia militias roll back the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Baghdad has done little to address the underlying causes of Sunni militancy, says journalist Ned Parker.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Monday that the United States will deploy 560 more troops to Iraq, bringing the total upwards of 4,600 as preparations get underway to recapture Mosul from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It comes as Iraqi forces and militias, with U.S. backing, have retaken large swaths of territory from the group, but this progress may come to naught if the state cannot extend rule of law to newly liberated areas, says Ned Parker, former Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters. “If there’s no solution for the different sides to live together under a workable governing system, Iraq risks a future in which once again an uprising will take away land from the state,” he says.

This campaign is building up to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Is Baghdad thinking about how to not just defeat ISIS militarily, but also address the underlying circumstances that gave rise to them?

There is no consensus about what the state should look like. Sunnis are in disarray, their population ruined and displaced by war, their political leadership seen as discredited. The Shia elite are fighting each other to control the state. The army has not been rebuilt. Shia paramilitary forces challenge the state. All of that prevents any meaningful discussion of what the social contract should be for Iraqi Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. There is a real mystery hanging over what will come the day after ISIS is defeated.

Another question is, what do we mean by defeated? ISIS fighters are leaving cities, but are still in the deserts of Anbar, Salahuddin province, and the mountains of Diyala [see map]. They can wage an insurgency for years to come. If there’s no solution for the different sides to live together under a workable governing system, Iraq risks a future in which once again an uprising will take away land from the state, just as in June 2014, when cities were swept up in an uprising that ISIS either spearheaded or stole, depending on how you define it. Whether it’s in the name of ISIS or some other radical group, it promises only more violence and bloodshed for the country.

Iraqi forces liberated Fallujah in late June after two-and-a-half years of occupation by the Islamic State. How do you read this operation?

The driving force inside the city was the counterterrorism division. It’s the ace weapon of the state, and it’s been used effectively to take Tikrit, Ramadi, Baiji, and now Fallujah. It is the only efficient part of the Iraqi military and has been trained by U.S. Special Forces. Now, U.S. military officers warn that they could burn out.

When ISIS forces come under fire from U.S. air strikes or Iraqi special forces, they retreat from cities in classic insurgent fashion, leaving to fight another day. Because the special forces are limited in manpower and primarily an offensive force, there is then a power vacuum in these places. Militias have filled that void, becoming the primary force on the ground. Their political influence is a force multiplier.

What does life look like in Sunni-majority cities that have been wrested from the Islamic State’s control?

Around the country, the state has not reestablished the rule of law; there are parallel power structures in places. No one is guaranteed that they will be safe.

Ramadi was recaptured in December. Six months later, people say not enough has been done there for people to live decently and safely. The city is bereft of human services. You can win the battle, but if there’s no funding for credible reconstruction, it doesn’t win the local population over to the Iraqi government.

Some argue Tikrit is a success because most civilians have returned to the city, but internally displaced people were running out of money and had no other place to go. There is a local government and police force there, but any Sunni from that city—in safety, behind closed doors—will say that the ultimate powers there are Shia militias. They worry that they could be detained or kidnapped at any time and no one will be held to account. It’s similar across the rest of Salahuddin province.

“The idea that the state controls the territory of Iraq has been exposed as an illusion.”

The northern area of Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest refinery, is abandoned. The refinery was looted after ISIS’s defeat, and militias now control much of it. The town of Baiji and its refinery were retaken last October in an operation led by Iraqi special forces, supported by U.S. air strikes. But the post-victory reality in Baiji has been defined by the militias, not the state. Places like Baiji or Tikrit are cautionary tales for the U.S. government, which has touted these victories against Islamic State, but appears to ignore or underplay the messy reality on the ground after ISIS’s departure.

In Diyala province, to the east, pictures of Iranian clerics like Supreme Leader Khamenei line the highway, and the Iraqi military division is seen as having been absorbed into the Shia militias. Large parts of Diyala province were taken back in the first half of 2015. According to U.S. military officers and Iraqi officials and locals, Diyala has in effect has been absorbed by Shia militias figures.

Islamic State fighters that have been ousted from major cities have sought refuge in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, from which “they can wage an insurgency for years to come,” says Parker.


The rise of ISIS destroyed the notion in peoples’ minds of a state with a military that enforced the law. In 2014 Iraq was seen as Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki’s authoritarian state. ISIS showed that the state, even though it was seen as brutal, could not protect its own—not just the Sunnis, who felt persecuted by his government, but also the majority Shia population. Since the Iraqi military collapsed, a vast array of Shia militia forces stood up as the Shia population’s defenders and in effect laid claim to a popular legitimacy after the Iraqi military and police retreated in the face of ISIS’s advance in June 2014. They are now imposing their own rule in the places they control, whether neighborhoods in Baghdad or [entire] cities. These groups are not united or cohesive; they are competing among themselves, and once ISIS is defeated, there could be an internal Shia battle for primacy. The idea that the state currently controls the territory of Iraq has been exposed as an illusion.

Does Abadi have the means to restore the primacy of the state, or is that structurally impossible?

When we say the state, who do we mean exactly? Prime Minister Abadi is incredibly weak and just trying to survive. If it’s the army, the troop numbers aren’t there to enforce the writ of the government. Collectively the militia forces are stronger than the army. The army sees itself as weaker than the militias, and most of the militias enjoy the backing of powerful political patrons and Iran.

Abadi came to power in September 2014 after the military had melted away. The interior ministry was handed in the government formation process to the Badr Organization, one of the more powerful Shia militia groups backed by Iran. The Interior Ministry reportedly does not share all its plans with Abadi and is fragmented along lines of loyalty to different Shia militia groups. Meanwhile, Abadi is [competing with his predecessor,] Maliki, a member of his own party. Every other Shia political faction too wants to gain the post of prime minster. Iraq also faces a massive financial crisis; the price of oil has gone so low that the state no longer has the money to secure loyalty through patronage. Those factors are huge strikes against Abadi setting up his own power base and reasserting the will of the state.

There were reports of as many as eighty-five thousand civilians fleeing Fallujah, with fighting-age men detained indefinitely on suspicions of being militants.

Men have been arrested en masse. Some people in the Iraqi security apparatus estimate that 80 percent of the detainees are civilians. That sends a message to, say, male Sunnis in Mosul to be worried that, if they don’t leave the city, they may be detained indefinitely by Shia security forces when ISIS falls there. That has to be terrifying for a civilian male in Mosul just trying to survive. Massive numbers of refugees from the Fallujah campaign, many of them women and children who have been separated from their husbands, are now in desert camps.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says 3.3 million Iraqis are internally displaced (IDP), far more than there were at the height of the civil war in 2006–2007. As military operations against the Islamic State continue, what are the prospects for IDPs to return home?

After the army collapsed in the face of the ISIS offensive and Shia paramilitaries rose up to defend the Shia population and protect Baghdad, we saw the expansion of “Shiastan,” if you will. Shias have consolidated control over mixed areas in central Iraq that they viewed as potential hubs or havens for ISIS to launch future attacks against Baghdad and other strategic areas seen as important to the Shia.

North of Baghdad, Samara, which is primarily a Sunni city, but has a sacred Shia shrine, is now under Shia control. Fallujah was seen as a hub for attacks inside Baghdad, so Shia militias expanded into the areas surrounding Falluja two years ago. There is a strong Shia militia presence now south of Baghdad as well. So in mixed areas that have come under a stronger Shia protective umbrella, it is tough to see the Sunni populations coming home or if they do, it is difficult to imagine them feeling safe as guests not of the state but of Shia paramilitary groups.

Internally displaced people who are from homogeneous, [predominantly Sunni] places like Anbar or Tikrit will probably go back at some point, because many are living in poverty in Kurdistan or Baghdad. But so much will depend on what type of reconstruction funds are available to places like Anbar and whether people feel their personal security is guaranteed by the local government and not determined by other bodies, whether they be Shiite militias or even local Sunni tribal leaders.

What will be the state of Sunni politics going forward?

It’s not clear who leads the Sunnis anymore. The Sunni population in Iraq was stuck with Saddam Hussein before 2003. Many of them hated Saddam. They felt his leadership was disastrous, and that his regime was a police state and oppressive to Sunnis as well as Shia. But because he dominated the Iraqi state, when he fell, the Sunni political world had an identity crisis in a way that the Shia and Kurds did not. The Shia were led by parties that had already formed in exile, and the Kurds have had their autonomous region in the north since 1991. The Sunnis did not have that cohesion.

Any Sunni political figure who takes power is soon accused by the Sunni population of being corrupt and betraying the Sunni people. Some of this is because the policies of [former] Prime Minster Maliki, in his second term, from 2010 to 2014, were often seen as oppressive toward Sunni populations around the country, with indiscriminate arrests, few resources [allocated to Sunni-majority areas], and high-profile arrests or attempts to arrest Sunni politicians. All that left the Sunni political leadership appearing in the eyes of their public as unable to protect them or get real gains within the state.

In 2014, many Sunnis greeted the arrival of ISIS as part of a broader revolt against the Shia-led state and corrupt Sunni leadership. The population was ready for an uprising. Populations in areas like Tikrit, Mosul, Saladin province, and around Kirkuk had loyalties to other armed Sunni groups that were enjoying a resurgence, but ISIS was more ruthless, leaving those other groups in the dust.

This interview has been edited and condensed. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.

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