Iraqi government forces and their U.S.-led coalition partners have logged significant military victories in recent months against the Islamic State, or ISIS, from recapturing Ramadi in February to wresting control of Fallujah last month. Preparations are underway for a far larger operation in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, which ISIS seized as it swept across northern Iraq in 2014. But military triumphs are unlikely to lead to an enduring peace without an essential component that isn’t as impossible as it sounds: reconciliation.
The U.S., the counter-ISIS coalition and international civilian agencies supporting Iraq have an opportunity to bolster that element of the strategy when they meet in Washington, DC, starting Wednesday. The Islamic State’s onslaught has shredded Iraq’s social fabric, and the potential for a new cycle of violence is frighteningly high in liberated areas. Indeed, while ISIS has lost up to 50 percent of its territory in Iraq, only 19 percent of displaced people have gone back. A renewed cycle of violence sooner or later risks forcing the U.S. and others to come again to the rescue.
Fallujah is a case in point: the U.S., the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers have fought over the majority-Sunni city three times in the past 13 years. Demands for revenge loom large, and long-festering conflicts lurk at every turn. There are credible reports that Shiite militia fighters assisting the Iraqi military in Fallujah have tortured and executed local Sunnis, accusing them of complicity with ISIS.
It’s that kind of sectarian violence that contributed to the emergence of ISIS in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. At the same time, suspicions about who supports or opposes ISIS have escalated tensions even among Iraq’s Sunnis, whom the militants claim to represent. There are bitter disagreements over who should be allowed to return home, who should make those decisions, and what will be the destiny of those who cannot return.
The liberation of Mosul will leave an even denser thicket of conflicts. Yezidis, Christians and Kurds accuse Arab tribes of collaboration with ISIS. Part of the area also is the subject of territorial disputes between the Kurdistan region and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. And there are rifts among Sunnis and among Kurds.
It might be surprising, then, that a growing body of cases is showing that reconciliation is possible even amid the deepest tragedies of this war. The international community has an opportunity to elevate the role of reconciliation in its strategy during this week’s talks. One of those meetings, co-hosted by the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan, is a pledging conference that seeks financial contributions for the U.N.-administered Fund for Immediate Stabilization in Iraq. The program has helped restore infrastructure in Tikrit, Ramadi, and other cities recaptured from ISIS so that some of the 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced by this conflict can return home.
While it’s obviously critical to provide electricity and water, and to build health clinics and schools, it also is essential that the conflicts underlying the destruction be understood and addressed. In the northern city of Tikrit, for example, after ISIS was driven out in 2015, reconciliation talks facilitated by Iraqi mediators headed off acts of revenge for the militants’ 2014 massacre of 1,700 Shiite cadets at a nearby base called Camp Speicher. The International Organization for Migration reports that more than 158,000 displaced people have returned to Tikrit since ISIS was driven out.
Yet, the reconciliation component of the U.N. stabilization fund has received only $1.55 million from donors. Given the significant U.S. military investment of roughly $11.2 million a day to fight ISIS, it seems only prudent as part of the overall strategy to invest in a low-cost approach that gives military action the greatest chance for a lasting success, so that American forces don’t have to engage in combat again later.
A cadre of dialogue facilitators has emerged from Iraq’s burgeoning civil society and worked with the U.S. Institute of Peace to guide successful negotiations like the one in Tikrit in a half-dozen locations over the past 10 years. In 2007, facilitators in the district of Mahmoudiyah, south of Baghdad in an area known by the American military as the “Triangle of Death” due to the high level of terrorist attacks and sectarian violence at the time, brokered a reconciliation pact between Sunnis and Shiites that still holds today. The tribal council that had been restored through those talks, for instance, continues to function and resolve disputes peacefully before they spiral into sectarian violence.
These results can be replicated. Iraq’s diverse communities must and can learn to live together. An important first step is to provide a credible process for them to talk to each other and agree on practical measures toward reconciliation locally that can then be connected to the national level. Without that, ISIS—or some future manifestation of extremism—will continue to find fertile ground in Iraq and potentially project or inspire violence around the globe.
Nancy Lindborg is the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Sarhang Hamasaeed is the senior program officer for the Middle-East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.