The news sounded just as good this week as it did in 2007: With U.S. backing, Iraqi forces have pushed savage extremists out of key territories in what seems to be a turning point in the campaign to rout the insurgency.
The lesson of 2007, however, was that such victories can be fleeting. The jihadist movement that today is known as the Islamic State found fertile ground in areas the U.S. government thought had been pacified.
Now, diplomats and analysts warn, the same toxic mix of a security vacuum and sectarian governance could threaten the gains against the Islamic State that the Obama administration touted this week at gatherings in Washington of officials from the anti-Islamic State coalition.
Missing, the diplomats and analysts say: a Sunni Muslim authority that can hold and govern the newly reclaimed territories.
Iraq specialists say that plans to stabilize Iraq when – or if – the Islamic State is defeated are doomed if there’s no international effort to address the Sunni minority’s grievances over sectarian policies of the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad and the disarray of the Sunni political class.
We have to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of the past.
Maria Fantappie, International Crisis Group
Frustrated with trying to nudge Shiite leaders into meaningful outreach to Sunnis, the United States and other nations are again dumping resources into local Sunni coffers, a tactic used during the U.S.-led occupation that created an unpopular patronage system while it worked, and led to bloodshed when the money stopped.
“What’s at stake is re-establishing the same sort of political order that actually led to the rise of ISIS,” said Maria Fantappie, senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, which studies conflicts around the world, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “We have to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of the past.”
The intense focus on the military campaign, she said, “disregards the risk” that reconstruction funds pose in creating the same conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL.
At this week’s diplomatic and defense summits overseen by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, public remarks focused on celebrating the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces’ recapture of nearly half of the Iraqi territories that had been under Islamic State control. While Kerry and Carter acknowledged serious challenges to the fight to dismantle the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, there was no talk about what has been the Achilles’ heel of every project to stabilize the country since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
“The Iraqi government cannot guarantee its long-term stability as long as Sunni populations do not feel protected or represented by their government and are possibly more inclined to welcome extremist ideology,” Patrick Martin, an Iraq analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, warned in a report last month.
The lack of credible Sunni representation has plagued all U.S. efforts to shape Iraq into the pluralistic democracy envisioned by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war. On the security front, the idea for a National Guard-style force for Sunni areas has stagnated because Shiite leaders can’t swallow the idea of a Sunni-dominated paramilitary – even though there are dozens of Shiite militias with varying degrees of loyalty to Baghdad.
On the political front, Iraq’s deep sectarian divisions, institutionalized by U.S. occupation-era policies, leave potential Sunni leaders with a no-win choice: Ally with the Baghdad government at risk of being labeled a sellout or push independently for Sunni interests at risk of government retaliation.
“There is no middle ground where you can be independent but cooperate sometimes, like some Shiite parties,” said a Baghdad-based diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the sensitive topic. “The Sunnis don’t have that. Either you are anti-government or you’re totally in bed with the government.”
This arrangement, the diplomat said, has grave implications for the campaign the Obama administration claims is gaining momentum: “In the absence of clear Sunni leadership, we cannot fight ISIL. You can fight ISIL here and there, but you cannot defeat them.”
Fantappie said Prime Minister Haider Abadi had the political will for reforms to empower Sunnis, but might not be strong enough to implement them without robust international support. She said there must be plans to win over the overwhelmingly young population in the western and northern areas where Sunnis are concentrated. That won’t work, she said, unless Baghdad gives political space to fresh voices instead of going back to elites who are “already delegitimized.”
The unrest in Sunni areas, Fantappie said, “was not just about denouncing the policies of the Shiite-dominated central government but also a struggle against the shortcomings of their own Sunni leadership.”
About the only thing rival Sunni factions agree on is that the central government in Baghdad cannot be relied upon to give Sunnis their share of coalition-provided funds and weapons to secure themselves. Beyond that, it’s a free-for-all over reconstruction funds and control of armed tribal militias for populations that consider both the Islamic State and the Baghdad government anathema.
The tug-of-war over aid dollars is likely only to intensify now that an Iraq donor conference this week yielded more than $2 billion, earmarked for humanitarian and stabilization efforts as the coalition gains ground against the extremists.
The State Department acknowledges concerns about the slow pace of reforms from Baghdad and the possibility of the new funds being diverted from needy areas by corruption or cronyism.
“That’s one of the conversations that we continue to have with U.S. aid regardless of where it goes in the world,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said Friday.
Earlier this month, an Iraqi journalist for Al-Monitor, a web-based publication specializing in Middle East analysis, showed how Sunni infighting already has begun over control of reconstruction projects for areas that have been recently liberated.
The governor of Sunni-majority Anbar province, home to the ever-volatile cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, was ousted by the provincial council; his supporters responded by asking Parliament to approve a breakaway governorate. Other Sunni factions – the Iraqi Islamic Party, the national Sunni Endowment and Iraqi Front for National Dialogue – are all publicly feuding.
“The conflict that is specifically expected within the Sunni areas, once liberated from IS, may result in the emergence of new armed groups that could work against the Iraqi government and attempt to control those areas,” the Al-Monitor report said. “All of these indications show that a Sunni-Sunni conflict is looming.”