Iraq's Fight Against ISIS May Only Be Prequel to Greater War

Kurds are pushing to retake Mosul, the premier is struggling with rivals in parliament and the militants who occupied Fallujah are clashing with the city's residents. Iran, Russia and the U.S. all prefer a united Iraq and not one state for four peoples that could be torn to pieces.

Iraqi government forces and allied militias fire weaponry from a position in the northern part of Diyala province, near Tikrit, at ISIS militants, March, 2015.
Younis Al-Bayati, AFP

In a dry and laconic statement, the Kurdish peshmerga command in Iraq reported that two days ago, its forces completed a successful military campaign east of Mosul, in which they liberated 12 villages from ISIS control and killed 126 ISIS fighters. The method of combat, done in cooperation with U.S. Special Forces and Russian aid, is part of the long-term plan to gradually retake the Mosul environs by Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army, until the moment a decision is made to launch an offensive for the big city.

In this way, the Kurds are expanding the area under their control and establishing more territory within Iraq for themselves — territory which will probably become part of the Kurdish province. South of the battle areas, in the capital of Baghdad, another state operates as if it's not concerned with the war against the Islamist militants. The Iraqi parliament is in a complicated political muddle that is preventing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from forming the government he would like. After long weeks of wrangling, this week the parliament agreed to approve five of the six “technocrat” ministers that al-Abadi wished to appoint, but there is still no agreement on the position of defense minister, the person who is supposed to manage the military campaign.

The dispute is not just between Sunnis and Shi'ites, but also among Shi'ites themselves, as well as between them and the Turkmens, who feel discriminated against in the composition of the government, and between everyone else and the Kurds, who make no secret of their aspiration for Iraq to become a divided country, with the Kurdish province becoming an independent state. Outside the capital, in the Sunni Anbar province and in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, liberated from under the control of the Islamic State, another kind of war is going on. In these places, a ruthless settling of scores is taking place, between the Sunnis who opposed ISIS and the civilians and functionaries who cooperated with the militants during the time they ruled these cities, and between them and the Shi'ite militias who fought against ISIS and have now become the occupying force, in the fullest brutal meaning of the term.

More than 19,000 civilians have been arrested by these militia forces. Many are killed or executed after a brief trial, or no trial at all. Tens of thousands have been left homeless — many of their houses have been destroyed, or they are too afraid of the Shi'ite militias to return. These militias are not a single homogenous group. About 20 of them are armed and trained by Iran and do not submit to the government’s orders. When the prime minister wanted to appoint a former top police official to lead one of the militias, the militia commanders rejected the appointment and made it clear that they would not obey anyone whom they didn't appoint. Other militias are loyal to the Shi'ite leader Ali al-Sistani and opposed to the Iranian ideology as well as the Iranian methods of operating, while a third group is aligned with the Shi'ite political parties in Iraq, and operate in coordination with and under the direction of politicians who don’t necessarily see eye to eye with the prime minister regarding battle objectives.

In addition to all of these fighting groups, the Iraqi army is following its own plan: Though it is subject to the government’s authority, in the absence of a defense minister and with political disputes preventing the prime minister from forging any strategic consensus, army units are also coming up with independent agendas. Consequently, the outside collaboration of the coalition countries, primarily the United States, is relying upon units or entities that are operating half-autonomously, like the Kurdish forces or the Sunni tribes, while the Iraqi army is engaged mainly in holding territory and not in significant combat.

Besides the shared aim of retaking Mosul and reining in ISIS, the military strategy is also being influenced by the local forces and their political affiliations, as well as by the effort to prevent the powers involved in the war from gaining the upper hand politically. In this context, Iran is worried that after Russia has seized a measure of military and political control in Syria, it will seek to shape Iraq as a patron state. Saudi Arabia wants to halt the Iranian influence, but lacks effective leverage within Iraq and must rely upon American determination to stop Russia and Iran. And right now that determination appears questionable, given the uncertainty of the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the absence of any clear policy regarding the future of Iraq.

Iran and Russia would prefer a united Iraq and not a federative state that could be torn to pieces, and that is also America’s preference. But these powers are up against the desires not just of the Kurds but also of the Sunnis and Shi'ites, who are openly talking about their wishes to establish autonomous provinces and divide the country and its income between them. Paradoxically, the war against the Islamic State is creating a sort of flimsy common denominator among the major powers, but each one is already looking ahead to the next stage, after ISIS is contained. Iraqi analysts are concerned about the threat that the war against ISIS will ultimately turn out to be the “small war” that is just a precursor to the big war — an Iraqi civil war that will be even worse than the civil war that roiled Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the early 1990s. This threat is not being discussed for now in the West, and no steps are being taken to avert it.