Iraq after the Islamic State: Politics Rule


The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – known by most people in the Middle East as Daesh – will lose its battle to hold territory in Iraq. It may well take one to two years to reduce their defenses in cities like Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah, but the ultimate outcome is no longer in serious doubt. This does not mean there will not be sizeable battles — and perhaps ISIL tactical victories — in the coming months. This does not mean that ISIL will be eliminated as a cell-based terrorist group in Iraq. This does not mean that groups from Afghanistan to Libya may not decide to affiliate themselves with ISIL. And above all, it does not mean that there is a plan to eject ISIL from Syria. But the outcome in Iraq is now clear to most serious analysts.

However, the occupation of about one-third of Iraq’s territory by ISIL has changed the fabric and politics of Iraqi society, perhaps forever. Politics will, as always, remain primary. All three major ethno-sectarian groups in Iraq have been shifted by the ISIL earthquake, but too few are thinking at this macro political level. Instead most analysts tend to focus on the latest micro-level event, but good analysis must look beyond day-to-day headlines and, indeed, beyond the horizon. Changes at Iraq’s macro-level, combined with older trends, provide reason for both pessimism and optimism for the future of Iraq.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs

Any discussion of ISIL and its impact has to begin with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, roughly one-sixth of the population. There is no sugarcoating their situation. The occupation of the Sunni regions of Iraq by ISIL is a cataclysm from which the Sunni will not recover for a generation or more.

While many — probably most — of Iraq’s Sunni citizens are appalled by the ascendance of ISIL, the stubborn fact remains that a significant proportion of this population cooperated and collaborated, some to the point of being co-belligerents, with ISIL. It has become fashionable, even commonplace, to blame this sympathy for ISIL with the abuses of the Maliki government, but the root causes are far deeper. While the security forces of the last government did act harshly in Sunni areas, these actions were very much in line with the reaction of almost all non-Western governments (and some Western ones) to terrorism and insurgency. Of course, not all, nor even most, Sunni Iraqis were complicit in terrorism, but both Islamist terrorist networks and Ba’athist insurgents had considerable bases of support in places like Tikrit, Jurf al-Sukr, and Fallujah. As the scholar and analyst Fanar Haddad notes, this support for revolutionary movements was less about the rejection of the Maliki government and far more about rejection of the entire post-2003 political order, in which leaders are selected democratically, rather than chosen from among the Sunni elite. For many Sunni, the core grievance with the Baghdad government is that they are not the ones running it. This is a grievance that cannot be settled and ISIL’s leadership of this cause has been a debacle for the Sunni. To understand the scope of the disaster for Iraq’s Sunni, think through the best case scenario for this community in the near future. In the very best case, once Mosul, Anbar, and Tikrit are liberated from the control of ISIL, the Sunni can hope to gain some limited quasi-autonomy over a group of provinces (Anbar, Ninewah, Salah al-Din) in which the culture and heritage has been destroyed (temples demolished, books burned…) and the wealth carted away. The cities will have, by this point, been ransacked if not leveled. A significant minority, perhaps in the neighborhood of 20 to 40 percent, of the Sunni population are internal or external refugees today, a number we can expect to increase as the Iraqi Security Forces launch large-scale urban combat operations. The infrastructure in these areas will suffer from a mixture of sabotage, looting, and neglect. There are no real resources, or at least none developed, from which to they can directly draw wealth. A significant portion, probably most, of the disputed territories (it is overwhelmingly competition between Sunni Arabs and Kurds that makes the disputed territories, most notably Kirkuk, but also parts of Ninewah and Diyala provinces, “disputed”) will be under Kurdish Peshmerga occupation. And the Sunni population must respond to this situation with old leadership that has been largely discredited or new leadership that has yet to attain sufficient gravitas to be truly effective. Because of all this, in the very best case, Sunnis will be economically, geographically, and politically disempowered for a generation.

Cooperation with ISIL, whether best characterized as active participation or reluctant passive support — has been catastrophic for Iraq’s Sunni. While some talk of enhanced power for Sunni groups, it is difficult to see how this could be implemented against the trend in which they are so weakened relative to Iraq’s other ethno-sectarian communities. It may well take decades to return Iraq’s Sunni to the wealth, power, and status they enjoyed last year. Further over-representation is often recommended by the West, but this ignores the disproportionate share of power that the Sunni already enjoy — a fact usually elided over by Western commentators but very much part of the Iraqi dialogue. In this past election, the roughly 19 to 20 percent vote share won by Sunni (and nationalist) affiliated parties has translated into 32 percent (8 of 25) of the Ministerial slots, including plum posts such as Defense, Agriculture, Education, Electricity, and Trade, plus speaker of the Parliament, a vice president, and a deputy prime minister. It is unclear what further steps could be taken at the federal level, and a further devolution of power remains problematic in a centralized petro-state.

Iraq’s Kurds

Speaking of devolved power, Iraq’s (mostly Sunni) Kurds — also about one-sixth of the Iraqi population — lived a “best of times; worst of times” in 2014. In the chaos following ISIL’s summer offensive into Mosul, the Kurds expanded their de facto control into Kirkuk, from which they have launched assaults into other ISIL-held areas on which they have territorial designs. A subtlety largely lost on the rest of the world is that the Kurds are now, de facto, establishing control in the rest of the disputed territories , often clearing Arab Sunni civilians along with ISIL, all with the help of the United States Air Force. The Kurds, who stood by and watched the ISIL invasion of Arab Iraq, now welcome international support in their own efforts against ISIL which — after some initial embarrassment over the ISIL push towards Irbil — have had impressive successes in Ninewah. Kurdish exuberance about the last year, though occasionally tempered by some harsh lessons about the real capability of the Peshmerga forces and their often-nepotistic leadership, is high.

But the Kurds have also had at least four key setbacks in the past year, with — as in the rest of Iraq — the key political issues often masked by military noise.

First, it appears clear that Erdogan’s Turkey has crushed any talk of formal independence, thus the scramble to repair arrangements with Baghdad. This de facto veto of an independence referendum for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has had two effects. The first and direct result has been to force the Kurdish leadership to rewire its relations with Baghdad with a longer term view. As a corollary of the first, the second effect is the revelation that as the Kurds gain independence from Baghdad, they slip into the orbit and influence of Turkey and the whims of Ankara. This is a hard lesson, patently unfair to the Kurdish people, but a stubborn fact of geography. Since an independent Kurdistan could export oil at scale only through Turkey, Turkey calls the shots. Kurdish oil (absent small-scale smuggling) moves through Turkish pipes, is stored in Turkish tanks, and must leave through Turkish ports, with all monies moving through Turkish banks.

Second, Kurdistan has largely lost its brand. For a decade now, Kurdistan has enjoyed its reputation as “The Other Iraq,” a Monaco-like haven in the Middle East where one can do business, drill for oil, and even ski isolated from the chaos and violence of Iraq’s Arab provinces. But now, with ISIL still able to give at least the impression of threatening Irbil, with a self-admitted count of hundreds (meaning probably thousands) of Kurds in ISIL, and the absorption of the disputed territories promising a terrorism problem for decades to come, Kurdistan is looking like just plain Iraq. And the international companies that have fueled Kurdish growth are reacting, as are — doubtless — their insurance underwriters. In short, the frontier economic bubble around Irbil and the KRG appears to be rapidly shrinking, if not burst.

Third, the illusion of democracy in Kurdistan is beginning to lose its charm. Hopes that the KRG would emerge from two-family tribalism have been crushed, at least for the present. The abuses of the Barzani family are well-documented, while the Taibanis seem to be less corrupt and abusive only because of their waning power. And while monetary corruption is rife throughout the entire Middle East, the oppression of journalists, jailing of opponents, and appointment of utterly unqualified family members to positions of real power — which are all evident in the KRG — are more reflective of the most authoritarian states in the region. The KRG’s refusal to adopt open list elections — unlike the other 15 provinces of Iraq — prevents any democratic accountability or openness in the major parties, making the very high bar of creating a new party (which a brave group of Kurds has, to their credit, accomplished )the only path to democratic reform.

Finally, at least some Kurds seem to be realizing that a major policy of theirs, Kurdish monolingualism, or at least refusal to learn Arabic, is backfiring. For a generation, Kurds have promoted education in Kurdish. It has accomplished its goal of consolidating its regional identity, but at a huge economic cost. If Kurds now no longer speak Arabic, how do they integrate into a largely Arabic-speaking region? Successful small landlocked states are multilingual, able to communicate with all their larger neighbors (think Switzerland, or the Czech Republic). English is good, as a lingua franca, but not sufficient for the region. This leaves the Kurds with few economic options other than to drill for hydrocarbons, burrowing themselves further the political and economic embrace or either Ankara or Baghdad.

In short, the Kurds find themselves stuck with Iraq, despite the leadership having whipped their population into an irrational (if historically understandable) frenzy about independence. And while in some ways their stock has risen with their opposition to ISIL, their army of lobbyists struggles to continue to hide the increasingly authoritarian nature of the regime, as well as the irregular nature of its oil economy and the increased risk of Islamic violence. The Kurds certainly have cards to play, but they will need to keep their eye more on current relationships with their fellow Iraqis (while attempting to find better leadership), and less on future independence, in order to best safeguard the interests of the Kurdish population.

Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs

Iraq’s roughly two-thirds majority Shi’a have been the least immediately impacted by the events of last summer, though the mass attacks by car bombs have continued their murderous tempo as in past years, but they have suffered. Those few that have fallen into ISIL’s hands have been immediately executed by the apocalyptic group — a fact that gives particular urgency to the Shi’a, even if they are largely protected by their geography. Last June’s execution of 1700 Shi’a military cadets by ISIL fighters — aided by, in some reports, local tribes with Ba’ath party ties — remains a very salient rallying cry in Iraqi politics , even if largely forgotten by the West. The impressive ISIL offensives of last June never truly threatened Shi’a core communities, so their losses are largely those of the “martyrs” of the security forces and militias (though these are sufficient to keep a steady drumbeat of burials in Najaf cemetery), as they push the fight north and west towards Mosul and Anbar. Nonetheless, being confronted by a force explicitly dedicated to sectarian genocide does focus the mind, and this attack against Iraqi Shi’a is seen as being in continuity with other such acts both in time (e.g., the Wahhabi sacking of the Iraqi holy city of Karbala in 1802) and space (e.g., the governmental oppression of Bahraini and Saudi Shi’a, and the murderous campaign against the Shi’a of Pakistan).

There has been a great and frequent concern expressed over the role of the Shi’a militias (or volunteers), some of it justified, some of it overstated, reflecting entrenched Washington biases in the region. But we should remain relatively unconcerned about the militias in a military sense for at least three reasons. First, while there have been documented abuses by the militias, in a very cold sense, they appear to be relatively proportional to those committed by other groups fighting in Iraq, not to mention when fighting an opponent openly and proudly committed to genocide of your kind. While abuses of all kinds must be condemned, investigated, and those responsible punished, not all volunteers/militiamen are abusive, any more than all Sunni fighters are ISIL. But Grand Ayatollah Sistani recently released a fatwa intended to curb abuses, and his authority should at least significantly reduce them. Second, both Sunni tribes and Kurdish Peshmerga appear able and willing to coordinate with the militias, at least on occasion and as shock troops. This coordination indicates that these groups are less concerned about militia abuses than are we — and certainly gives lie to the frequent comparison in the West that the militias are equivalent to ISIL itself. Third, we have every indication that the militias intend — upon completion of their fight with ISIL — to either return home or be regularized by the central government in some way. The government needs volunteers at the moment, but seems intent on restoring the government monopoly on force at the earliest opportunity — with no objection from the militias themselves. This is, after all, what happened after 2008, albeit with Maliki’s spring 2008 attack on the Sadrists accelerating the trend.

This does not mean that there should not be concern about the militias, simply that concerns of a military nature are overly weighted. Again, the real concerns should be political — specifically electoral. Iraq will have elections again in early 2017 and 2018; the first of these just months after a new U.S. president is sworn in, so it is far from too early to think about. And the question facing that election (from a U.S. perspective) is this: Assuming ISIL is largely defeated by early 2017, who will the Iraqi electorate, or at least the 60 to 70 percent of it that is Iraqi Shi’a, see as responsible for ISIL’s defeat? Given their prominence in the fighting, it is very possible that the political wings of Asaab al-Haq and the Badr Corps could greatly, even exponentially, increase their vote share. And what happens to Iraqi politics when the power inside the majority Shi’a block is reallocated from the more Western-oriented Dawa and the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq to the more Eastern-looking Badr and Asaab al-Haq? Further, what would be the U.S. response to such a shift, in which Iran would surely increase its influence in Iraq?

Iraq turns to Iran not because they love them (in fact, the opposite is true, for the most part), but because they are there and they always will be, at least next door. Among the Shi’a of southern Iraq, people are quick to note that ISIL invaded Mosul in June, but U.S. airstrikes did not begin until August (correlated with, if perhaps not caused by, the ISIL threat to Irbil), while the Iranians were there with advisors and weapons virtually the next day, a response they replicated for the Kurds two months later.

Further, it is commonly believed in southern Iraq that the United States not only refused to help Iraq against ISIL, but is in fact ISIL’s patron and sponsor. This belief is largely a product of conspiracy and paranoia, but does have a strong element of believability at its core from an Iraqi Shi’a perspective. When pressed on this belief, pushing aside rumors of direct aid by the United States, southern Shi’a ask how can the United States permit its allies — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are usually named — to provide aid and comfort to ISIL as they do? Their explanation is that these states are the middle-men, or proxies, used by the United States to empower ISIL for its own purposes.

This analysis is of course wrong, but it is not stupid and it demands an effective response. Of course, the United States does not and has never supported ISIL, but Washington has been willing to turn a blind eye to the support — money, bodies, and, above all, ideology — that ISIL draws, at least indirectly, from our “allies” in the region. Perhaps the U.S. leaders do not care about the impression this creates in Iraq’s south. But they should.

Sectarianism: Hopes and Fears

Sectarianism in Iraq remains a primary concern of the United States and other actors. Sectarianism in Iraq is alive and well, but often overstated. Religious identity clearly exists, but it competes and sometimes clashes with a host of other identities and self-concepts. These competing identities — Arab, Muslim, tribal, Iraqi — lead to some of the activities in Iraq that complicate a narrative of pure sectarian tension and cleansing. These events — the aforementioned cooperation between the Shi’a militias and Sunni tribes, the more moderate tones within the Iraqi government, the under-reported acceptance of displaced Sunni families in the Shi’a provinces — should temper the monolithic sectarian narrative often reported, though abuses should still be treated as such.

So what causes are there for hope that Iraq will push through its post-ISIL crisis and move successfully into another decade? First, better and more moderate leaders are emerging. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is certainly more moderate in tone, if perhaps not in policy positions, than was his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. Similarly, Dr. Salim al-Jabouri, the new (Sunni) Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, is much more moderate (again, at least in tone) than earlier opposition figures such as Tariq al-Hashemi, Ayad Allawi, or Osama al-Nujayfi. And new leadership is clearly needed, at least among the Sunni. The sooner the exile-era leadership departs from the political scene — taking all their exile pettiness with them — the sooner a more prudent, moderate politics may emerge.

And in Iraq, prudential politics is based around oil revenues and the distribution thereof. Oil revenues — the bulk of them generated in Iraq’s southern provinces for the foreseeable future — tie Iraq together, with Baghdad continuing to insist that all Iraq’s resources belong to all Iraqis. These revenues will become more important in the future, despite the current decline in prices. With the Kurds’ independence hopes, and therefore regularized independent oil exports, crushed (in reality, if not in rhetoric) by Turkey, and with the Sunni areas about to become a war zone, subsidies of the Sunni and Kurds from the oil fields of Basra will become even more critical.

However, this overwhelming rational interest lives in the shadow of growing fear and distrust. Uncomfortably, the non-Sunni Arab populations of Iraq are truly beginning to wonder if their Sunni co-nationals can be trusted as neighbors, or whether they will — given motive and opportunity — collaborate with or at least accede to Islamic terrorism. We see this sentiment expressed not only by the major Shi’a Arab and Kurdish blocks, but also by the (few remaining) Christians and Yezidi. There has been excellent coverage of the understandable resentment by the Yezidi of the Sunni who — at least the Yezidi claim and presumably believe — assisted and collaborated with ISIL in the destruction of their communities. While similar Shi’a and Kurdish pronouncements often have more overt political overtones, the core of the sentiment is real with them as well. These other communities in Iraq believe — correctly — that at least a minority of Iraq’s Sunni citizens have provided and will provide shelter to ISIL because, as discussed earlier, they fundamentally reject the post-2003 political order in which Sunni Arabs have only the power their demographics can democratically generate. This remains the key issue for Iraq’s future. If the entire concept of a non-Sunni controlled regime remains illegitimate to a sizeable portion of the Sunni population (and, not incidentally, to other Sunni governments in the region), and if this population is therefore willing to accept any allies — ISIL included — to overthrow this regime, then only the most authoritarian measures can be adopted with regard to this population to hold the state together.

Nonetheless, the United States remains vested in Iraq. It belongs in a small group — along with Lebanon and Tunisia — of deeply flawed and frustrating but nonetheless democratic Arab states. And it is from among this group that America must find its regional allies, despite occasional — or frequent — policy disagreements. Again, to repeat, democracy in Iraq is weak, immature, flawed, problematic, and fragile. But any reading of the literature on states emerging from authoritarian rule would tell us this is the best we can hope for a mere decade after Iraq’s first election, as building accountable, transparent, and legitimate institutions is a monumental undertaking, full of uncertainty and ambiguity. Dealing with Iraq is a frustrating experience. But it nonetheless remains our best hope for the region, one of a very few islands of parliamentary democracy in a sea of abusive, medieval, and authoritarian states.


Dr. Douglas A. OIlivant is a Managing Partner and the Senior Vice President of Mantid International, a global consulting firm with offices in Beirut, Baghdad and Washington D.C., which has financial interests in Baghdad and southern Iraq. He is also an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America. Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.


Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond