Analysis

Iraq's Fight Against ISIS Is Prologue to Its Next Bloody Civil War

The Islamic State regime in Iraq has been replaced by the anarchy arising from infighting between local tribes and militias.

Villagers welcome soldiers of the Iraqi army after the defeat of ISIS from villages outside Ramadi, Iraq, in October 2016.
AP

Residents of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, which was liberated a year ago from the rule of Islamic State, are enlisting in local militias established after ISIS left – to provide security and prevent the warriors’ return.

Because Ramadi is a “tribal” city, a majority of its residents being Sunni Muslims, every tribe or extended family has its own private militia. The Iraqi media report that setting up a militia is rather simple. You file a request with the central government, note the reason for establishing the militia, and once the request is approved you can then ask for money and weapons.

In comparison, the residents of Ramadi, who are slowly returning to their city, still do not know where the money to rebuild their ruined homes will come from; or how they will be able to make a living in a city that once housed half a million people, but where only 180,000 live today.

So joining a militia is not just to do your duty to provide security; mostly it is a just a job. The hope is that one day the militia will become an integral part of the Iraqi army, and then its members can enjoy a regular salary with fringe benefits. Until then, what those refugees returning home see when they arrive are streets filled with people in all sorts and colors of uniforms, with whatever senior ranks they desire sewn on; who set up roadblocks and checkpoints wherever they feel like, and who harass the public.

The multiplicity of militias may also lead to an outbreak of power struggles between tribes and clans, because the strength of the tribe is measured today by the private military power at its disposal.

The existence of these militias also threatens the Iraqi government’s ability to bring the city back under its control. Ramadi, whose liberation became a symbol of victory over ISIS, was even before the ISIS takeover a center of confrontations between the Sunni tribes and the central government. When Nuri al-Maliki was prime minister, armed civilians prevented him from entering Ramadi.

The Iraqi army is seen by residents of Ramadi, and those of the Anbar province in general, as an enemy army. So much so that ISIS enjoyed the cooperation of many residents who hated the central government even more than they did ISIS.

The IRIN website, which serves as a humanitarian news agency focusing mostly on regions with emergencies around the world, reports that the number of displaced persons who have left Anbar province has passed the half-million mark, and has the highest percentage of displaced persons of anywhere in Iraq, out of an estimated total of 3.2 million refugees for the entire country.

In an interview with Sheikh Rafi al-Fahdawi, a member of Anbar’s provincial council and the head of the coalition of tribes that fought ISIS, he warned of a further deterioration in the situation if the government and local council do not rehabilitate the economy and guarantee security for residents.

Fahdawi says the residents who want to return must go through two screening processes. The first is by the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias, which are under Iranian orders; and the second is by the local neighborhood committees made up of police, security forces, tribal leaders and intelligence.

“It’s like a visa,” Fahdawi told IRIN of the pass returnees receive upon clearance. These committees have “blacklists” that include hundreds of names, out of tens of thousands of residents, who are suspected of having aided ISIS. They are arrested and brutally interrogated.

In a different interview some two months ago, Fahdawi said ISIS supporters jailed in the city have managed to free themselves with bribes, which can even reach amounts of $1 million per person. Even though all the tribes have agreed in advance not to free any of those suspected of collaborating with ISIS, their greed is much more powerful than this agreement.

Civilians in Ramadi say that many of the names on the blacklists are innocent citizens who are paying the price of the settling of accounts between the tribes. The lack of trust between the local residents and the security forces, and the internal rivalries between the tribes – and between them and the Shi’ite militias – has made the reconstruction process almost impossible.

The Iraqi government has a ministry that deals with the reconstruction of areas freed from ISIS and bringing back displaced persons to their homes. The ministry has received only 40 percent of the $108 million the government has allocated for reconstruction, says the chairman of the parliamentary committee dealing with the issue. In comparison, defense expenditures are expected to total some $19 billion, and it is clear it will take many years before Ramadi returns to anything near what it was before the war.

Ramadi is just a preview of what is expected to happen in Mosul once it is freed from ISIS. Mosul had a population three times that of Ramadi, and it also has a much more complicated ethnic composition. The forces fighting for Mosul – Kurds, the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias – all view the fight against ISIS as just the prologue to the fight for control of the city after it is liberated.

Then ISIS may very well consider it has achieved another great victory by leading Iraq into another bloody civil war.