A common Iraqi saying goes: ‘the bad is behind us and the worst is yet to come.’ This adage has developed from the cyclical violence which has torn the country apart both before and since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Over the last fifteen years conservative estimates number 200,000 Iraqi civilians killed and 2.6 million people internally displaced. After the US invasion sparked a renewed cycle of violence in 2003 there was a welcome period of relative tranquillity in 2008 and 2009.
However, soon the militant Islamist group known as Islamic State began to reassert itself, plunging the country back into conflict. By 2014, when Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was elected, Islamic State held a third of Iraq and threatened to break apart the fragile sovereignty of the nation. After three years of fierce warfare, al-Abadi jubilantly declared the defeat of Islamic State on the 9th December 2017, and incidents across Iraq reached near-record lows. Elections are now just three days away and many Iraqis hope that the war-torn country will be returned to some semblance of normality.
For others, al-Abadi’s celebration held little reassurance of sustained peace in the future. Despite advances, the prospect of peace remains crippled by polarising foreign influence, the central state’s weakness and lack of legitimacy, political marginalisation and the ongoing resilience of extremist groups. The enduring failure to address these structural problems may mean the apparent calm of 2018 merely precedes future conflict.
Although Saddam’s reign was far from bloodless, foreign intervention in the form of US invasion in 2003 sparked a new era of violence and worsened pre-existing issues. As well as the destabilising brutality and lawlessness that came with the occupation, the policies of the Constitutional Provisional Authority that oversaw the transition of Iraq to a democratic state exacerbated sectarian divides over ethnic and religious identity. The Constitutional Provisional Authority marginalised Sunnis in one fell swoop by prohibiting all 500,000 ex-Baathist Party members from public office.
Furthermore, since Iraq was granted self-rule in 2005, the (nonetheless US-brokered) government has been dominated by the Shia majority. Only Shias have held the role of Prime Minister and political misrepresentation and marginalisation have been recurring themes of the administration. Fanar Haddad, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, explains how Iraq’s Sunni minority have been treated as second class citizens, describing the attitude of the state between 2003 and 2014 as ‘Shia-centric state-building and Sunni rejection’. Baghdad’s legitimacy was undermined from the beginning, as it was clear not all Iraqis benefited from the new democratic system and American patronage.
The ignominy caused by the US invasion combined with polarising policies provided ‘fertile territory’ for extremist groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (which later morphed into Islamic State in Iraq in 2006 and Islamic State in Iraq & Syria in 2013) embraced many Iraqi Sunnis who felt disregarded by the Shia-led central government in Baghdad and anger at American occupation. These groups have remained remarkably resilient by using a ‘carrot and stick approach,’ rewarding tribes who cooperate with them and eliminating those who challenge their leadership. This ensures that Sunnis remain under their control rather than central state authority.
The tide of violence was finally stemmed in 2008. While partly the result of the increased effectiveness of (Shia dominated) Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and a 2007 US troop surge, the creation of the Sahwa (Awakening) Movement was also crucial to military success over extremist groups. The Sahwa Movement was a Sunni tribal alliance that mobilised to purge Islamic State from their own neighbourhoods. This collaboration between different communities was powerful and Renad Mansour, a Research Fellow at Chatham House, notes that in 2008 and 2009 there was a ‘period of peace and greater popular participation in politics’.
However, the political establishment failed to capitalise on this opportunity to reconcile. Nuri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister from 2006 to 2014, followed a strategy of ‘blatant sectarianism, undermining state institutions’ and throwing away any hopes for national unity. Under al-Maliki, the Sahwa units were not fully integrated into the ISF as promised and these vital Sunni groups were instead ‘dismissed without compensation and for overtly sectarian reasons’.
Additionally, hated foreign influence did not cease after the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Instead, al-Maliki increasingly depended on Iranian support, thus handing Tehran sway in Iraqi policy. Al-Maliki’s decision to send Iraqi fighters to support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, including establishing militias in Syria, closely followed Iranian interests, undermining any conception of national unity for both Arab and Kurdish Sunnis.
Islamic State was never fully exorcised and after 2009 they smoothly transitioned into insurgency tactics, biding their time and gradually breaking the Sahwa Movement apart. Simultaneously, al-Maliki’s divisive approach proved to be a useful recruiting tool for extremists. Despite hopes for peace, the same underlying factors remained to sow seeds for the violence that re-emerged in 2013 and 2014.
A brighter future…
The resounding late-2017 military victory over Islamic State has brought the Iraqi government newfound strength and legitimacy. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is riding a renewed wave of Iraqi nationalism and as of April 2017, 59% of Iraqis approved of his actions compared to 33% in January 2016. Unlike his predecessor, al-Abadi has not pursued sectarian policies and evidence of his commitment to reconciliation can be seen in his passing of the broad General Amnesty Law in August 2016, which addressed some of the injustices committed under Nuri al- Maliki.
Parliamentary elections will be held on 12th May 2018, and al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance, which enjoys cross-sectarian support including from some Sunni politicians, has an excellent chance of forming a broad coalition. Furthermore, parties now garner support by focusing on civic life and national unity in contrast to before, when ‘monolithic ethno-sectarian alliances’ defined voting patterns.
The proportion of parties explicitly mentioning Islam within their name has fallen from around 50% in previous elections to 5% in the run up to the May election. The influence of newfound Iraqi nationalism coupled with a spike in political secularism are responsible for this shift, as demonstrated by an August 2017 poll finding that secular/civic candidates received 24.2% support from the electorate compared to 4% for religious candidates.
However, despite the rise in shared Iraqi nationalism, many people still feel disenfranchised. Distrust in the government will continue as long as corruption remains, with Iraq currently ranked 169th of 180 in the 2017 Corruption Perception Index. Despite al-Abadi’s efforts to broaden political engagement beyond Shia heartlands, many Sunnis and minority groups feel detached from Baghdad. Some Sunni groups demand greater devolution and semi-autonomous regions, and others are considering boycotting the election until 2.6million internally displaced people – mostly Sunnis – have returned home, due to fears that voting may otherwise be limited.
Unlike his predecessors, al-Abadi has done well at eliminating dependence on only one other foreign state. Iraq now draws support from both the US and Iran, and recently has improved relations with Saudi Arabia. Prominent Shia figures such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, who once glorified Iranian proxies, are increasingly independent, now preaching Iraqi nationalism and emphasising cross-sectarian movements.
However, foreign influence continues to debilitate the unifying efforts of the federal government, with 28% of Iraqis blaming it for rise of Islamic State. Many militias do not want to demobilise, instead seeking a greater role in politics. Some have organised under umbrella groups such as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), formed in 2014, which now links at least 60 militias including factions seen as Iranian proxies (Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah being the most notable examples).
As well as delegitimising the state, the PMF has also ‘deepened ethno-sectarian and partisan fault lines’ because of the abuses committed by pro-Iranian Shia militias in Sunni majority areas like Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul. Political coalitions such as the new Fatah Alliance include many of these militias and are preparing for the May election, meaning the spectre of Iran will continue to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.
…or a return to violence?
Following the latest rout of ISIS, greater positivity towards the ISF has damaged the recruiting efforts of extremist groups. National security forces are no longer perceived as ‘Safavid’ (serving Iranian interests) as they were under Nuri al-Maliki, with 77% of Iraqis now believing the ISF represents the country as a whole.
However, despite cautious optimism, resurgence of extremist groups is still an existential threat. Just as after 2009, Islamic State is transitioning from a conventional fighting force to an insurgency. After the fall of the caliphate many Islamic State members have been freed up to engage in insurgent attacks, as seen by recent increases in violent incidents in Diyala, Salahiddin and Baghdad. Fundamentally, the conditions that foster Islamic radicalism have not been dealt with.
Movements towards unity have also been tempered by accounts of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, forced displacement and torture committed by militias and even state forces in principally Sunni areas. These injustices only bolster extremist propaganda that the Iraqi state does not protect all of its citizens equally. The widespread devastation has left behind a bill of $100billion for reconstruction, yet only $392million has been procured and significant international support is not forthcoming, with Iraq’s $120billion debt compounding these economic woes. Comprehensive reconstruction is unlikely, and the potential for mismatched investment in Shia and Sunni areas could leave many Iraqis resentful of a government that appears more comfortable with bombing than building.
Iraq has come a long way since 2003 and 2008. The new administration has made steps towards defeating extremist groups, dealing with the lack of political representation, and delicately balancing foreign influence. However, many past mistakes have already been repeated, as demonstrated by the indiscriminate violence waged in West Mosul. Despite recent celebration, Islamic State continues to undermine the government while corruption runs rampant. The state is being forced to share legitimacy and power with militias and Iran retains strong influence on Iraqi policy. Recent events in Syria and news of a US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal only serve to further muddy the waters of any nascent peace in the region.
Against the backdrop of these ongoing issues, it is unlikely that the May election alone will make the future of Iraq any clearer – however, although a later collapse into violence seems probable, the unifying efforts of al-Abadi may be the best hope for the country.
A version of this article has previously appeared in print in The Leviathan Journal of Politics and International Relations, and has been reproduced with kind permission.