Analysis

In Iraq, the U.S. Invests, ISIS Loses and Iran Gains

In the liberated parts of Mosul, signs of normal life are reappearing. But ISIS' loss of Iraq foothold is an opportunity for Iran to expand its influence.

A family walks next to an Iraqi tank during a fight with Islamic State militants in Rashidiya, North of Mosul, Iraq, January 30, 2017.
MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS

“My beloved Maha, we’ll meet again soon, God willing”; “My dear brother, I miss you very much, may God be with you and keep you from harm. Your brother Sa’ad from al-Arabi neighborhood”; “My beloved mother, I miss you and my brother and our neighbors. I’m now in a safe place awaiting your release, Mohammed from the green houses neighborhood.”

These are a few excerpts from letters sent from the eastern part of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was liberated by the Iraqi army and American air force, to the western part still under ISIS rule. The letters are dropped by Iraqi air force planes and collected randomly by the people below, who deliver them to their addresses to the extent they can under the ISIS forces’ watchful eyes.

Mosul may no longer occupy the Western media’s main headlines, but the war on the city is not over and the preparations for taking over its western part are in high gear. On the east of the Tigris River dividing the city in two, life is slowly returning to normal. This week the first public wedding ceremony was held in the city, after the couple had waited a year to get married.

Tom Westkott, a journalist of the British newspaper Daily Mail who attended the wedding, posted delightful pictures of dancing and music, shots fired in the air by Iraqi soldiers who came as guests, men and women dancing together, some of the latter daring to appear without head covering.

The Iraqi education minister reported that more than 250,000 students returned to some 190 schools, after charity organizations bought notebooks and pens for them and some 17,000 teachers returned to work. Large police forces are safeguarding the eastern city, with the help of neighborhood committees looking for people who may have collaborated with ISIS during the years of its rule.

On the streets lie the rotting bodies of ISIS fighters, which the Iraqi soldiers refuse to bury. “Those bodies will remain in the streets to show anyone who still supports ISIS what his fate will be,” an Iraqi soldier said in a newspaper interview. Some 3,300 ISIS combatants were killed in the battle to liberate the city’s eastern part, but an estimated 7,000 of them are continuing with brutal murders of civilians. This week 20 men and women were burned alive on suspicion of collaborating with the “enemy” and passing information to the Iraqi forces on mobile phones.

The organization has recently taken to using a satanic device called “iron jaws,” which is operated by ISIS female combatants against women. It is made of iron teeth-like pincers smeared with poison, which clamp down on women and girls found “straying from the straight and narrow.” Before the poison kills them, the victims die of blood loss.

But although life in the eastern part is safer, it is still far from normal. One example is the distress of tens of thousands of students who studied at Mosul University. During ISIS’ rule many courses were shut down because of the study material. Law lecturers were arrested or murdered because “the law is only in Allah’s hands” and there can be no other. Segregation between male and female students was self-evident and anyone violating it was severely punished. The central library was set on fire and its 8,000 books and some 100,000 manuscripts destroyed. Many of the faculties were closed and only the medicine faculty remained active until the city’s liberation.

The university president estimated that some 40 percent of the students fled from the city and many of them continued their studies in other cities or in the Kurdish region. But those who stayed have a problem. The Iraqi government refuses to recognize the course they took over the past two years, although they were given by the same lecturers who worked there before ISIS took over. Close to 15,000 students don’t know how and where they can complete their studies, or whether they’ll be forced to take the last two years’ courses over again. They also don’t know when the university will be rehabilitated and at present no funds have been allocated for rebuilding the destroyed buildings.

Tenants who haven’t paid rent for the past two years because their landlords fled the city or because they couldn’t pay, are now required to pay retroactively to their returned landlords. These are only the “small” problems. The large ones will emerge when the entire city is liberated, when the liberating forces – Kurds, Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi government and army – will have to determine the city’s future rule.

The Kurds haven’t entered the city but control the suburbs and farming areas north and east of it. The Shi’ite militias are concentrating on the battles and ruling in the western region of the Nineveh district. The Iraqi government is demanding that Mosul return to its complete control and is expected to wage political and perhaps also violent battles with the Kurds and Sunni tribes in the district.

The main problem with liberating the large cities from ISIS in Iraq or Syria is the absence of strategy. Unlike Syria, where a patron power like Russia rules and can shape the political map at the end of the war, in Iraq no power has such a privilege. Trump may have announced he intends to help Iraq (although it’s not clear with what sums and means), but he has already gotten into a quarrel with Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi when he said the United States should have taken over Iraq’s oil fields back in 2003.

As far as Trump is concerned, if the United States controled the Iraqi oil, it would have denied ISIS’s main source of income and prevented its growth. Al-Abadi responded angrily that “Iraq’s oil belongs to Iraq’s citizens, not to anyone else.” This bitter exchange was followed by Trump’s including Iraq in the seven states whose citizens are banned from entering the United States.

Russia has important trade agreements with Iraq but does not have a significant political presence there and cannot dictate political decisions to its government, which is influenced mainly by Iran. Iran is financing and training the strong Shi’ite militias and is Iraq’s most important trade partner (some $6 billion worth of goods, not including oil, moved from Iran to Iraq). Iran has a presence and influence in the Kurdish region, especially in its eastern part that shares a border with it and sees in Iraq a bridge to Syria and a vital trade pass to other Arab states.

Although Iran’s forces are taking part in the fighting against ISIS, the main foreign military burden is shouldered by the Western coalition and especially the American air force, which has begun a new round of shelling along the Iraq-Syria border to cut off the two states. But after the fighting stage, it is doubtful if the U.S. can gain any strategic or economic dividends from the war.

If the expected civil war in Iraq between the Sunnis and the Shi’ite government takes place, it will be up to the Iraqi government and army to put things in order. But these two don’t always see the national interest eye to eye. While al-Abadi’s government is having difficulty in functioning due to political differences and the state has an estimated $26 billion deficit for 2017, the Iraqi army is displaying unity leaning on its military victories against ISIS.

But without a serious political move leading to reconciliation between the Sunni tribes, Shi’ite government and the Kurds, the military unity could also break up into ethnic parts. Much will then depend on Iran’s strategy, which in principle supports reconciliation and unity to prevent violent civilian battles that could challenge its influence in Iraq. Meanwhile it seems that like after the second Iraq war, in the war against ISIS, Iran will again be the one to profit from the Iraqi and American investment.