The Caliphate’s defeat: the future of Iraq

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Dlawer Ala’Aldeen

It was 10 June 2014 when the Islamic State (IS) overran Mosul, soon to be followed by most of Iraq’s Sunni-, Yezidi- and Christian-majority cities and towns in the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, Diyala and Anbar. Three weeks later, Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi declared the so-called “Islamic Caliphate”. It took the Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and the international coalition over three years of bloody and highly destructive combat to liberate the country’s IS-occupied territories. Finally, on 9 December 2017, the Iraqi Prime Minister formally declared the end of IS in Iraq, and opened a new chapter towards a more “peaceful, prosperous country”. However, few believed those military victories would be the end of IS.


IS originally grew out of an insurgent movement that started years before they occupied Mosul, and the organisation was well prepared for a return to previous guerrilla tactics even before the fall of their Caliphate. Now, almost a year later, they are believed to have retained an estimated 10,000-15,000 fighters in Iraq alone with significant armoury and fire power. Their sleeper cells have been emerging sporadically in groups, destabilising much of the liberated territories, particularly in the vast countryside between Baaj in the north, Makhmour, Hawija, Riyadh, Daquq, Tuz and Hamrin in the east, and the rural areas of Anbar province in the south. This is the very triangle where Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding. IS fighters are nocturnally active with deadly effects. They target local government officials, tribal elders or members and village chiefs. Dozens, if not hundreds, mainly Sunni Arabs, have so far been abducted and killed or ransomed. They sabotage strategic infrastructure, such as electricity supplies and oil pipelines, hijack trucks or rob travellers, rendering several highways, such as the main Baghdad-Kirkuk, unsafe.


The liberation of Mosul finally created a new environment conducive to establishing longterm security and stability and opened the door for investment in services, reconciliation and ultimate recovery. Much of Nineveh and other liberated territories re-populated faster than expected. Spontaneous and/or assisted return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) promptly started in earnest, and many districts, particularly those that remained intact or only partially destroyed, are crowded again. Small businesses are back on their feet and the provision of basic public services, including education, health, electricity and clean water, have been increasingly restored. The local provincial councils, government offices (including governors, mayors and municipality leaders) have been reinstated and have resumed their legislative and executive activity. Unfortunately, not all IDPs have been able, or willing, to return. Many areas, such as the historic districts of Western Mosul that witnessed some of the worst battles, remain lifeless. In these areas, the scale of destruction and potential hazards has prevented most families from returning to their neighbourhood. Over half of the Mosul’s pre-war population are among the estimated two million persons, who remain in displacement, half of them are living in the Kurdistan Region.

A recent study, carried out by the Middle East Research Institute (MERI), showed that a number of other factors are preventing IDPs from vreturning home, including issues related to the lack of transitional justice (let alone an institutionalised and independent judiciary system); the lack of confidence in local government for security and administration; corruption among the ruling political class; the presence of armed non-state actors; inter and intra communal mistrust; and a distressing sense of prevailing uncertainty.

It is important to remember that a significant proportion of the IDPs, who are unwilling to return to their districts, belong to ethno-religious communities. They have been vulnerable and suffered discrimination, persecution and displacement in the “new Iraq” well before IS emerged. Many of these were already migrating onwards en masse, mainly to Europe, due to a lack of confidence in the future of Iraq. It is unfortunate that over the past 15 years, since the regime change in Iraq, the sectarian, ethnic, and tribal interests have taken precedence over a shared sense of “Iraqiness” and resulted in the polarisation, fragmentation and militarisation of the country’s sub national communities. These ultimately culminated in, or at least significantly contributed to, disastrous consequences, including: the emergence of IS in 2014 in Sunni Arab-majority provinces; the referendum of independence in 2017 in the Kurdish-majority provinces; and the eruption of mass demonstrations in 2018 in Shia-majority provinces, particularly in Basra.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the post-Caliphate IS is still benefiting from the chronic weaknesses of Iraq’s governance system, which are exemplified in the never-ending political crises, inequitable resource allocations, increasingly powerful armed non-state actors that in effect remain outside of the state’s command and control, and the complex and destructive power dynamics that involve the local, regional and global actors which collectively undermine the country’s sovereignty and integrity.


The international community, including the US and European Union members states, played major roles helping the recovery process by providing critically needed military and humanitarian assistance, including emergency food, shelter, medical care and clean water. Moreover, many donor countries recently contributed and/or pledged tens of billions of dollars to rebuild areas damaged in the fight against IS. International players have played important roles in stabilising Iraq, but their engagement alone cannot bring about legitimacy and stability in the long term. In fact, external interventions are often incognisant of local and national complexities and therefore have the potential to ignite competition, not only among the plethora of armed non-state actors seeking popular, religious and legal legitimacy but also between these groups and the state.

As a result, international actors, including the US, EU member states and the UN, have been disappointed as they failed to achieve the desired impact in Iraq despite significant investment. They need to revise their approach to conflict in Iraq, their methods of intervention and their humanitarian assistance provision in a manner that takes into account the various actors’ legitimacy (or lack thereof) and address the issues of trust, participation and power-sharing without perpetuating such divisive identity politics. For as long as the factors that undermined legitimate stability in Iraq remain unaddressed, the security, political and economic crises will continue and may ultimately lead to the failure of the state.


Fifteen years after the regime change, Iraqis are increasingly frustrated by the fact that they live in the world’s second largest oil producing country, but their wealth is squandered by the disappointing ruling elite, their government remains dysfunctional, and the state is increasingly fragile. Thus the key questions are: What has Iraq learned from the series of past crises and near-fatal mistakes? Can Iraq be held together purely through the international community’s determination, while the ruling elite is failing to focus on the country’s top priorities, including the rule-of-law and state- and nation-building? Can Iraq survive the current upheaval between rival regional and global powers? Are the current security and political dynamics inside and outside Iraq conducive to dealing with the root causes of past crises?


Despite its recent traumatic history, Iraq’s latest elections in May 2018 constituted a major turning point for all Iraqi communities, whose focus turned to winning their share of the vote, and thus gain power. For the Kurds, it paved the way for a more constructive Baghdad-Erbil engagement. A new and dynamic Kurdish President, Barham Salih, was elected, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) political leaders have played more active roles in Iraqi politics ever since, with a focus on power- sharing and winning the Kurds’ constitutional rights in Iraq. The Sunnis, on the other hand, reclaimed their constituencies and their political leaders regained confidence in themselves, while engaging in the political process in Baghdad.

Although still highly fragmented, they are increasingly united in their rhetoric and in their demand for greater devolution of power. The Shias, who were previously united in support of an overt sectarian-majority rule, are now divided and differently aligned with various non-Shia parties. A consequence of this division was the protracted process of naming the new Prime Minister Adil Abdil Mahdi and the formation of the new government. There is a palpable move among many Shia groups to dilute the overwhelming influences of Iran over the decision-making process. This may not necessarily lead to Iraq-Iran detachment, but it is likely to focus the mind of the ruling elite on the national priorities a little more than before.


In spite of the Caliphate’s defeat, Iraq remains a fragile country with its sovereignty grossly undermined externally, and its state institutions weakened internally. The situation is unlikely to change in the near future and, if anything, it may actually worsen due to regional US-Iran tensions and their competition over influence in Iraq. Europe, in the meantime, will continue to face the consequences of Iraq’s fragility, including waves of migrants and radicalised networks of young people. It is therefore in the interest of European powers to engage Iraqi leaders more constructively. For example, their future military, humanitarian or financial assistance should be attached to contractual obligations on the Iraqi part, including promotion of good governance, legitimate stability, institutionalisation and state-building. Failing that, Iraq will remain a source of grave concern to EU member states and the rest of the international community.

Published in: Building Trust: The Challenge of Peace and Stability in The Mediterranean. P11-14. Italian Institute for International Political Studies. 22 Nov 2018

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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