On July 21, 2016, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) organized a panel discussion on the political and social challenges for Iraq after the defeat of the so called Islamic State (ISIS). The dynamics of the intra-Kurdish politics and Baghdad-KRG relations, challenges of governance and rehabilitation in liberated areas, poor state of the oil economy, as well as the possibilities of new political deals and power sharing were discussed at the event. The speakers on the panel included AUIS faculty and board members.
What about Mosul?
Mina al Oraibi, member of the AUIS Board of Trustees and senior fellow at the Institute of State Effectiveness, discussed the humanitarian angle of the conflict, beyond counter-terrorism considerations. Oraibi, originally from Mosul herself, stressed the strategic importance of the city for Iraq, ISIS, the U.S., as well as the neighboring region. She argued that finding solutions to the political crisis will be key to ensuring lasting military success and a peaceful future of the city and its inhabitants. Highlighting the importance of strengthening state-civil society relations and citizenship, she claimed: “It is not only the Yezidis, Turkmen, Christians as minorities who are underrepresented; the Iraqi government has been failing to represent and support all of its citizens.”
Oraibi also talked about the tribal links between Kurds and Arabs within the province. Building trust and reorganizing communities, Oraibi argued, is the most important factor for the long term success of the Mosul liberation operation. The other strategic dynamic is the relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad, and the composition and co-ordination of the military forces to retake Mosul.
Regional dynamics also play into strategic planning for the Mosul operations, Oraibi stated, referring to Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Most directly, the unravelling of the war against ISIS within Iraq heavily impacts the crisis in Syria. Turkey also has historical ties to Mosul, and President Erdogan has expressed his government’s will to play a role in the liberation operation, perhaps to deflect from Turkey’s own internal problems. There is also the Iranian component, whereby some active and effective militias within Iraq are supported and guided by Tehran.
Oraibi stressed the importance of reconstruction and humanitarian support following the liberation of Mosul for returning communities, “In the first hundred days there should be immediate support for the stabilization and the long-term recovery of the city. Ensuring security, creating jobs, and rebuilding trust between communities will be essential post-ISIS.”
Identity Conflicts and Narratives
AUIS Professor Akeel Abbas, speaking next, presented a new narrative for the conflict. “It was a dramatic moment for the Shi’a political elite in Iraq when Mosul fell under ISIS control: an exclusively Shi’a-led Iraq would collapse.” Abbas argued that a compromise could arise out of the acknowledgement by political elite that the pre-ISIS model is no longer possible for Iraq. He also however warned that, when it comes to the actual details of the new political arrangement, “nothing concrete is currently being seriously discussed.”
Abbas also shed light on the ethno-sectarian divisions within Iraq. He brought a new perspective to the discussion, saying, “the primary conflict that has organized Iraq’s political and cultural life throughout history is the urban-rural divide. It has not been the Sunni versus Shi’a divide.” This Iraqi Sunni-Shi’a dichotomy currently prevailing in discourse and analysis is in fact, according to him, a constructed concept that started to surface in the late 1950s in Islamist parties’ political literature.
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, during the aftermath of sanction years that saw the rise of religious rhetoric in mainstream politics, two forms of identities in Iraq emerged: the Iraqi identity, and the religious identity. Abbas argued, “when the debate is removed from the Sunni-Shia narrative setting, and framed in terms of state-citizen relations, one finds a different kind of dynamic; there is a lot more understanding and sympathy among Iraqis than public discourse would lead to think.”
Kurdistan and post-ISIS Iraq
AUIS Professor Bilal Wahab mainly focused on the role of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and the dynamics of Kurdish politics in the conflict. He shed light on the economic aspect of the conflict, which he argued does not get enough attention. “Post-ISIS stability and reconciliation requires economic reforms: reducing the grip of the government on the economy, justice in oil revenue sharing schemes, and the translation of oil wealth into sustainable economic development.”
The KRG followed the Gulf countries model of heavy public sector employment supported by oil revenue, argued Wahab, which seriously hindered private sector growth. “It is difficult for the private sector to hire locals. The majority of the companies hire international and imported labor because there is a higher incentive for the locals to work for the government.” He estimates that about 75 percent of KRI labor is employed by the government, and a large portion of the budget goes into paying for those salaries.
Wahab also expanded on the central role of oil revenue in the KRG’s economic development strategy. The KRG has been producing more than half a million barrels per day, and this production is expected to increase in the future. A memorandum of understanding has recently been signed between the KRG and the Iranian government for the construction of a second pipeline, through which crude oil will be flowing eastward to feed Iranian refineries.
Wahab concluded his discussion with comments on alleged land grabs by Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) following the liberation of some areas from ISIS, adjacent to the KRI. The Kurds currently have de facto control over Kirkuk and its oil fields, but the city’s de jure status has yet to be determined. These situations lead to more instability and tension, which at times result in violence, among the different factions present on the ground. The big question is: how will the different political groups negotiate and settle the question of “disputed areas,” once ISIS is defeated?
Localized Conflict and Iraq’s Disputed Areas
IRIS Director Christine van den Toorn discussed some of the local dynamics and drivers of conflict in areas liberated from ISIS, highlighting the importance of political deal-making at the grassroots level. Social cohesion and community reconciliation will be crucial, as the work of organizations such as USIP and UNDP has recently shown, for communities to return to the liberated areas.
Most importantly, she emphasized the ways through which intra-community dynamics can drive “local conflict” and impact prospects for reconciliation. She mentioned the intra-Kurdish power struggles in the disputed areas of Diyala, Sinjar, and Tuz Khurmatu, that has led to constant challenging of local authorities, in a manner that is counter-productive to stabilization. Similar patterns can also be observed among Shi’a militias, who have different allegiances and try to assert themselves as legitimate governing powers where they control territory. Van den Toorn also touched upon inter-tribal dynamics within the broader Sunni community in Iraq. Who should return, and who should authorize that return? Such contentious questions have created serious local tensions in Salahaddin, Anbar, and Diyala, for example.
Finally, addressing the case of Sinjar, she discussed the danger of a security and political vacuum, which has in this instance been filled by local forces that challenge the state authority. Foreign forces, she claimed, also fuel local conflicts in critical ways, and that is tangible in Sinjar, where both the PKK and Iran are exerting influence. Foreign actors pushing for a particular political agenda can complicate deal-making on ground between local communities.
She concluded by arguing that political compromise, to be achieved through dialogue at the local level, is the best way to avoid the resurgence of violence in post-ISIS areas. Given the multitude of security actors and political groups active in the country, bottom-up, grassroot-supported agreements including cooperative efforts for stabilization and reconstruction seem to be the most effective tools in the short run.
The panel was moderated by Henri Barkey, member of the AUIS Board of Trustees and director of the Wilson Center's Middle East Program.
Professor, American University of Iraq, Sulaimani
Mina al Oraibi
Senior Fellow, Institute of State Effectiveness
Member, AUIS Board of Trustees
Christine van den Toorn
Director, Institute of Regional and International Studies
American University of Iraq, Sulaimani
Professor, International Studies, American University of Iraq, Sulaimani
Director, Center for Development and Natural Resources
Henri J. Barkey
Director, Middle East Program, Wilson Center
Member, AUIS Board of Trustees