A window of opportunity opens for Iraq

Published in MEED, 2 August 2017

With the unconfirmed death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), and the collapse of the group’s presence in the city of Mosul, Iraq can now start to look forward to a future without Isis.

In a significant and symbolic development, on 29 June, Iraqi forces captured the largely destroyed Grand Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, where Al-Baghdadi had proclaimed his caliphate on 4 July 2014. “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state,” said Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Twitter that day. “The liberation of Mosul proves that.”

The battle is not entirely won yet. The jihadist group still controls areas around Hawija, Tal Afar and Al-Qaim, but the momentum looks all but unstoppable. Territorial losses have undermined the ability of what is left of Isis to attract and retain fighters in the way it once did and it can no longer function economically either. The group has lost more than 60 per cent of the territory it once held across Iraq and Syria, and 80 per cent of its revenues, according to UK research firm IHS Markit. As of 26 June, the group controlled some 36,200 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Belgium.

“[Isis’] rise and fall has been characterised by rapid inflation, followed by steady decline,” says Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “Three years after the caliphate was declared, it is evident the group’s governance project has failed. [Isis’] remaining caliphate is likely to break up before the end of the year, reducing its governance project to a string of isolated urban areas that will eventually be retaken over the course of 2018.”

Iraq’s politicians and citizens now need to start thinking about how to rebuild the country. A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) suggested the new environment has left Iraqis feeling more optimistic than they have been for a while. Overall, 39 per cent now feel the country is heading in the right direction –  that may sound low, but it is up from just 10 per cent in January 2016. Significantly, it is people in the west of the country, where Isis has been strongest, who are the most positive, with 64 per cent of them saying the country is heading in the right direction.

“What’s really optimistic here is what’s happening in the west,” says John Moreira, president of US-based JPM Strategic Solutions, which has been conducting polling in Iraq for several years and collected the data for the recent NDI survey. “For the first time in our polling, the west has a majority saying the country is going in the right direction.”

Another important finding from the poll is that Iraqis appear to be fairly supportive of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Units, even in the Sunni areas in western Iraq. That suggests there is a window of opportunity for political leaders to develop new alliances and policies that do not rely so heavily on the sectarian politics of the past. Whether they are able to take advantage of that remains to be seen, but Iraqis now seem to be expecting something more from their politicians. With the improving security situation, local concerns are turning away from simply preserving life to other issues – dealing with corruption and unemployment are now the two most frequently cited priorities among Iraqis, ahead of security and sectarianism.

Taking advantage of this new mood may well require international assistance. The appetite among Western governments to pour more money into the country is probably limited, but they could offer important structural support.

“There’s a moment here that people are feeling optimistic and the international community should step in; not necessarily to foot the bill, but to coordinate a response,” says Leslie Campbell, a senior associate at NDI. “But I’m afraid that won’t happen because of [donor] fatigue. If the government can get its act together and be seen to be addressing the concerns of the people then there really is an opening.”

The window of opportunity is not likely to stay open for very long and the chance of developing a new political culture could easily slip through the country’s fingers. Isis emerged from the Sunni-dominated heartlands of the Anbar province, an area that felt left behind by the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister from 2006 to 2014. The chances of a new, more constructive relationship emerging between the west of the country and the capital hinges on politicians developing a less sectarian approach than they had in the past. Parliamentary and provincial elections over the next year will test their abilities in this regard.

“My big concern when it comes to the elections is how the Iraqi political parties have campaigned in the past,” says Moreira. “They’ve used sectarian divides to mobilise their base and get their vote out. If this is the path that parties take in the upcoming elections, a lot of this goodwill, this opportunity will quickly evaporate.”

There is one other potential fly in the ointment: the push for independence by the Kurds. Local authorities there have announced plans to hold a non-binding referendum on 25 September and, from today’s standpoint, there is no doubt what the result would be.

The NDI survey showed that 96 per cent of people in the Kurdish region now favour a formal break from Baghdad (up from 80 per cent two years earlier) and only 2 per cent want to maintain the current status as an autonomous zone within a federal Iraq.

The importance of this is not just the aspiration for Kurdish independence. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government currently holds territory around Kirkuk, which it captured while fighting Isis. Any attempt to include such areas inside an independent Kurdistan is bound to be fiercely resisted by Baghdad and could easily lead to another conflict.

As ever in Iraq, any sense of optimism about a brighter future has to be tempered with a strong dose of realism.