An expert's point of view on a current event.

Sunnis vs. Shiites, Abadi vs. Maliki, Kurds vs. Everyone

Iraq's military fight against the Islamic State is on the way to victory. Now comes the hard part.


The liberation of Ramadi is now being treated as a fait accompli, though the Iraqi security forces continue to clear Islamic State fighters from some of the city’s suburbs. But the result seems all but assured: The most significant challenges in constructing a post-Islamic State political order in Iraq still lie ahead.

The liberation of Ramadi is now being treated as a fait accompli, though the Iraqi security forces continue to clear Islamic State fighters from some of the city’s suburbs. But the result seems all but assured: The most significant challenges in constructing a post-Islamic State political order in Iraq still lie ahead.

There is much to celebrate in the recapture of Ramadi. By the grisly standards of modern urban combat, the seizure appears to have been relatively clean, free from the sort of abuses that could tar a military victory. It certainly helps that Ramadi sits in a 100 percent Sunni Arab area, meaning that there were no ethno-sectarian challenges (read: attempts of ethnic cleansing or score-settling) in the aftermath of the fighting. No one dreams that Ramadi will ever become Shiite or Kurdish, and therefore no groups will try to force such an outcome. Iraq could still witness both inter- and intratribal fighting among local Sunni residents, and those who are rightly or wrongly perceived as having aided and abetted the Islamic State may experience persecution at the hands of their fellow Sunni Arabs. But it appears that sufficient Sunni tribal units are on hand — many of them trained by U.S. forces in their two Anbar province outposts — to hold the city once the assembled force moves on to its next mission.

Despite all the caveats, the recapture of Ramadi is a significant victory for the Iraqi security forces, the anti-Islamic State coalition strategy, and the two chief executives involved — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and U.S. President Barack Obama. Both Abadi and Obama had been feeling considerable political heat over the perceived lack of progress in liberating terrain from the Islamic State, and this victory gives both a political win and deprives their opponents of a weapon to use against them.

Initial reports indicate that two forces conducted the bulk of the fighting: the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (often known as the Golden Division) and units in the Interior Ministry’s Federal Police. The Iraqi Army and Sunni tribal units played significant supporting roles in and around the city, while the other Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), often referred to as “Shiite militias,” appear to have kept a respectful distance from the city, at U.S. insistence, and were limited to performing support functions. While some of the PMUs have been fighting in Anbar for months, some factions within Anbar’s often divided Sunni community view their participation as a sectarian threat.

Having wrested a large urban area from the Islamic State, this combined force must now be considered the most reliable partner in the region, one that can conduct significant combat operations in conjunction with U.S. air power. Yes, the bulk of the fighting was done by forces other than the Iraqi Army. But the Army was still able to play a significant supporting role — most notably by constructing portable floating bridges that allowed combat units to reach the city center after all the other bridges had been destroyed. In any case, recapturing Ramadi after the inglorious defeat in May 2015 removes a significant stain on the reputation of all of Iraq’s security forces.

The seizure of Ramadi is also a significant victory for the anti-Islamic State strategy of the past year. Despite issues with implementation, the strategy now seems to be picking up speed, and those who claimed that the defeat of the Islamic State required U.S. troops or a large Sunni-only army have been proved incorrect. Of course, it would be better for the effort on the ground to move faster, but the combination of Iraqi land power augmented with U.S. air power, intelligence, training, and equipping has proved to be a winning formula.

We should expect the aftermath of Ramadi to look similar to the aftermath after the recapture of Tikrit from the Islamic State earlier in 2015. The most immediate concern will be Sunni-on-Sunni violence: While a significant minority of Sunni Arabs cooperated in ways great and small with the Islamic State, an even larger number suffered significantly under the group’s rule. For example, when Ramadi was captured by the Islamic State, 12 relatives of the prominent government-affiliated Sheikh Majid Ali al-Suleiman were executed, including his 2-year-old granddaughter, Noorhan. Re-establishing order and the rule of law must become immediate priorities of the Sunni tribal units that are expected to be the “hold” force in Ramadi, though given Iraq’s tribal culture, if members of these units are relatives of this sheikh or others who suffered similar crimes at the hands of the Islamic State, a retributive mood may be in place for a time.

An outcome not unlike that in Tikrit would also be a step in the right direction for Iraq. The central Iraqi city was reclaimed from the Islamic State in late March and April 2015, and there were regrettable reports of looting and destruction of property in the immediate aftermath of its recapture. But today, 90 percent of displaced families have returned to Tikrit; also, Tikrit University reopened in December, with 16,000 students attending classes there.

Finally, the military momentum in Ramadi must be translated into further gains. Both the city of Fallujah, which lies less than 30 miles from Ramadi, and the northern city of Mosul must be liberated to complete the removal of the Islamic State from Iraq. There remains little doubt that both cities will eventually fall, but the Iraqi government — with coalition support — must accelerate the process to the maximum extent possible. Each day that the Islamic State is in control of these cities, it can further indoctrinate Iraqi youth with its ideology of hate and steal an ever-greater share of Iraq’s wealth.

But the real question facing Iraq is not a military one. The Iraqi security forces have demonstrated their ability to liberate a large urban area, and whether Mosul falls this spring or next winter, the final outcome is not in doubt.

What is in doubt is the political arrangements that will emerge in Iraq after the military struggle is won — and this is where the U.S. focus should go. For all its failures in Iraq, the United States has endowed the country with democratic institutions — however nascent, immature, and weak — that are worth husbanding. But at least three pending political crises must be closely monitored.

Whither the Sunnis?

It has been a difficult year for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s population. As demonstrated by the story of the Suleiman family in Ramadi, the Sunnis are hardly a unitary actor. Significant numbers of Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere resisted the advances of the Islamic State — and many paid with their lives. However, at least a sizable minority of the community also cooperated with the Islamic State, whatever its later regrets. And in the eyes of their fellow Iraqi citizens — not only the Arab Shiites, but also the Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, and Assyrian Christians — the Sunnis, as a group, have decided twice in the past dozen years to rise up and kill their fellow citizens because they were unhappy with the country’s political order. Whether fair or unfair, this is the perception, and there are now even reports that it is motivating Yazidis to ethnically cleanse Sunni Arabs from their midst.

Coupled with this mistrust is the fact that Iraq’s Arab Sunnis are on a rapid path to becoming the country’s underclass, despite their self-perception as the natural rulers of the country. They have suffered grievously at the hands of the Islamic State: Iraq is estimated to have around 3 million internally displaced people, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Arabs. Sunni cities are either under Islamic State control or have been devastated in their recapture. Businesses, homes, and other property throughout the Sunni areas have largely disintegrated, either due to the Islamic State, the fire that accompanied the areas’ recapture by the Iraqi state, or simple neglect.

Simultaneously, the Sunnis are suffering a crisis of leadership. Long-standing figures such as Osama and Atheel al-Nujaifi have been largely discredited, while newer leadership, such as parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, are largely untested.

In short, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are in the unenviable position of being viewed as disloyal citizens, while simultaneously suffering massive deprivation — inevitably diminishing their ability to generate political power — even as they suffer a crisis of leadership. Yet, as arguably Iraq’s largest minority, they are too large not to be brought back into the fold of Iraqi society.

All factions of the Iraqi government in Baghdad are aware of this and are casting about for answers. How do you reintegrate members of a minority — many of whom believe against all evidence that they are Iraq’s demographic majority — who are not trusted by the bulk of their fellow citizens? This is the kind of situation that calls for a “truth and reconciliation”-like process, but it is unclear that there is leadership with the gravitas to lead the Sunnis through such a process. In the meantime, expect their political power to continue its natural decline as the Sunni population and resources continue to diminish.

Negotiating a New Deal With the Kurds

One of the second-order effects of the Islamic State’s invasion of northern Iraq has been the expansion of the Kurdish Peshmerga into the “disputed territories.” The territories — which are about equal in size to the current territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and encompass parts of the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, and Diyala — are disputed because there are rival claims between the Iraqi Kurds and the Baghdad government. It is important to note that the Shiite Arabs — Iraq’s majority faction — are largely not a party to these disputes.

Iraq’s Kurds have expanded their control in two ways. First, they have occupied territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army in the wake of the Islamic State’s invasion. In Kirkuk, the most notable of these cases, the Peshmerga simply occupied positions that had been abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi Army. The Peshmerga have also acquired new territory by ejecting the Islamic State from areas south of the “green line” — the traditional line separating KRG territory from the rest of Iraq — usually with the assistance of U.S. air power and U.S. special operations forces. The Kurds’ public position is that these newly acquired territories were paid for in blood and cannot be relinquished, though it is unclear whether the Yezidis, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Sunni Arabs who live there wish to be absorbed into the KRG.

The situation is further complicated by the changing demographics of the territory seized by the Peshmerga. There have been allegations that the Peshmerga have pushed out non-Kurdish groups, particularly focusing on purging Arabs from these territories. Of greatest concern is Kirkuk, where the authorities are openly nervous about an influx of Arab refugees that could change the demographics of this contested territory and throw a wrench in any plans to use a referendum to legally complete Kirkuk’s integration into the KRG.

The KRG is also on the cusp of twin political and economic crises that threaten to upset its response to the Islamic State. The two-year extension of KRG President Masoud Barzani’s term expired in August, but Barzani is still in office, putting him in year 11 of an eight-year term. This led to significant protests over his contested continuance in power, throwing the Barzani family and his KDP party into crisis mode as they search for more votes. However, the bulk of the disputed territories — especially Kirkuk — are strongholds of the rival PUK party. Therefore, despite the Kurds’ appearance of military strength, the current government is actually quite politically fragile. Bluster is the order of the day, as the government projects strength in the hopes of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An economic crisis is also brewing in Kurdistan. The combination of political disputes with Baghdad, lower commodity prices, unreliable energy-export channels, and large-scale corruption has created yet another complex problem for the KRG. The traditional arrangement between Baghdad and Erbil, in which the latter exports its product via the country’s North Oil Company in exchange for 17 percent of all government expenditures, has once again broken down. Even with deeply disputed oil revenues from Kirkuk being funneled into Kurdish coffers, the regional government is unable to pay its bills, leading to riots by public employees.

In short, further negotiations must be conducted between Baghdad and the KRG, but the mandate of the regional government’s executive is deeply contested and there is little money to pay for compromises. In this environment, violence cannot be ruled out.

The Struggle for the Shiite Soul

Iraq’s Shiite Arabs comprise between 60 and 70 percent of Iraq’s citizens. It is worth continually reminding Western observers of this fact: Given the democratic constitution bequeathed to Iraq by the U.S. occupation, calling Iraq’s government “Shiite-dominated” is somewhat akin to calling that of the United States “white-dominated.” That the course of Iraq’s future will be charted by its Shiite majority is demographically — and therefore democratically — incontrovertible.

Iraq’s Shiite community can be roughly divided into two camps, though with deep tensions within each. The first, which is currently in power, gives priority to Iraq’s relationship with the United States and the West. Prime Minister Abadi, of the Islamic Dawa Party, best symbolizes this group, together with those members of his party who spent their exile in London or other Western cities. Also in this group are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrists, and the religious leadership in Najaf and Karbala. Arrayed against this group are those who would prioritize Iranian ties and, by extension, an alliance with Russia as well. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become the de facto face of this group, but others aligned include many members of the Dawa Party who spent their exile in Iran and Syria, plus the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous (AAH), and Iraqi Hezbollah (KH).

There has long been concern that the role of these latter factions — most notably Badr and AAH — in defending Baghdad against the Islamic State during the summer of 2014 would greatly increase their political power. However, it appears that the retaking of Ramadi has given Abadi and his faction some breathing room. One analyst believes that the victory in Ramadi, combined with the sidelining of the militia forces, has given the prime minster the political space he needs to defund and therefore defang the military wings of these groups, leaving only the militias under the control of the Najaf and Karbala shrines. While one certainly hopes this is the case, Abadi may have to notch more military victories on his belt before he has the clout to implement such a strategy.

The point, however, is that Baghdad is not currently under Tehran’s orbit — and that in fact the current government is pushing back against such an outcome. Washington is therefore deeply vested in the success of the Abadi government and should do whatever it can to help it

In short, these three political battles are where strategists need to be looking — the remaining military battles in Iraq now fall in the realm of tactics. The United States has committed huge amounts of blood and treasure to support one of the few outposts of democratic institutions in the Middle East, and it is this democracy — not any collection of kingdoms, emirates, or sultanates — that is the natural ally of the United States in the region.

And though the news is dominated by the fight against the Islamic State, it is important to remember that there is much in Iraq to build upon. For example, the recent Arbaeen celebration in Karbala, which involved at least 10 million pilgrims, with almost no security incidents. Or the almost 100,000 new students enrolling in Iraq’s 19 public universities this academic year. Or the fact that — despite the very real problems of sectarianism — the most welcoming home for the Sunni Arab refugees fleeing the Islamic State has been in Iraq’s majority-Shiite southern provinces.

Washington should aid the Iraqi government in working through these three political crises — reintegration of the Sunnis, negotiating the new Kurdish arrangement, and fighting to keep the Shiite bloc Western-oriented. That won’t be easy — it will require sustained attention and creative diplomacy — but it’s the only way to set the conditions for a successful Iraqi state that prevents the next version of extremist terrorism from emerging. As we give at least two cheers for the Ramadi victory, we should keep in mind that the biggest fight for Iraq’s future will not take place on the military battlefield.


Douglas A. Ollivant is a Managing Partner of Mantid International, as well as a Senior Fellow at New America and a national security contributor at Al Jazeera America. Mantid International has business interests in southern Iraq as well as U.S. Aerospace and Defense industry clients.

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