Despite complacent “mission accomplished” statements about Daesh having been defeated, glaring indicators of future regional conflict centered on Iraq are all too obvious. Daesh has been pushed out of urban areas, but elsewhere it is staging a comeback, benefiting from strategic depth afforded by the anarchy in neighboring Syria, while capitalizing on the anger felt by ordinary Iraqis about abuses and indignities heaped upon them by their supposed liberators.
Daesh’s rise in 2014 was facilitated by a collapse in trust between Iraqis and their leadership following years of sectarian misrule. Throughout 2013, Daesh discreetly gained strength among a critical mass of disenfranchised groups committed to opposing the state through various means. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, meanwhile, cultivated Iran-sponsored militias for deployment against political enemies and Sunnis.
Similar factors are in play in 2018, with Shiite militants set to be the strongest performers in the May elections, opening the door for a restoration of governance rooted in paramilitary supremacy. These Iran-backed elements see the elections as their ideal opportunity to consolidate power, having filled the vacuum created by Daesh’s expulsion. In truth, these Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitaries played a marginal role in set-piece battles against Daesh; firstly because they proved ineffective at urban conflict, and secondly because of their proclivity for perpetrating war crimes wherever they went.
The warning signs are most visible in Iraq’s demographically mixed central provinces, where Sunnis historically constituted a majority. These provinces bore the brunt of the violence, with up to three million Iraqis displaced. Al-Hashd militants wield military control in these areas and block the return of Sunni citizens or terrorize returnees back into exile. Provinces like Salahuddin and Diyala lost around half their Sunni residents, thus silencing their voices in the coming elections. Tens of thousands of families whose documents were destroyed under Daesh have faced bureaucratic obstructions, preventing them from receiving ID papers that would allow them to travel, access services and vote.
A new Amnesty International report documents how entire communities have been wrongfully stigmatized as Daesh sympathizers, with campaigns of sexual violence perpetrated by militants against vulnerable displaced women, often after their spouses were rounded up to face an uncertain fate. “Women are being subjected to dehumanizing and discriminatory treatment by armed men operating in the camps for their alleged affiliation with (Daesh)” warns Amnesty. “The very people who are supposed to be protecting them are turning into predators.”
Deep and lasting grievances will ultimately manifest themselves in a furious backlash against Baghdad’s sectarian leadership.
Meanwhile, hundreds of women experienced summary ten-minute trials before being handed down death sentences, based on tenuous claims of links to Daesh. The New York Times witnessed one two-hour court sitting during which 14 women, one after the other, were sentenced to death, in what it described as “assembly-line” justice.
Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has warned of widespread attempts at electoral fraud. With campaigning just beginning, reports have emerged about tens of thousands of fake voting documents being offered for sale. Salahuddin officials cite examples of deals that would allow communities to return home on condition of voting a certain way. They question why many communities lack polling stations, while elsewhere stations are situated in remote areas vulnerable to voting fraud. The paramilitary intimidation that marred the 2014 elections is repeating itself; with an upsurge in tensions between Basra’s rival militias, terrorized candidates refraining from campaigning, and two assassination attempts in just one day.
In past years, Western states were intimately involved in Iraq’s political process to prevent it from going off the rails. The gutting of the State Department — where senior diplomatic roles mostly lie vacant — exemplifies how effective diplomacy has been substituted for token gestures and empty rhetoric. The strike against Syrian chemical weapons sites is a perfect example; allowing posturing leaders to boast of decisive action, while shirking obligations to exert a meaningful impact on the ground. Not to mention the shameful demise of the UN Security Council as a viable arbitrator for conflict resolution and international justice. Even if US President Donald Trump has temporarily restrained his instincts to immediately withdraw from Syria, permanent damage has already been done to Western prestige among the Kurds and their allies, while Tehran’s proxies lick their lips and await their opportunity to pounce.
If real international leadership existed, it wouldn’t be too late to address Iraq’s problems, including an urgent campaign to assist displaced communities in returning home to participate in the elections. International judicial support could ensure that the butchers of Daesh received stiff punishments, without persecuting thousands of innocent victims of its misrule. Baghdad could be assisted in restoring security to all regions, without franchising responsibility out to Iran-backed militias whose real agenda is a naked power grab.
Iraqi culture is rooted in an intense sense of tribal and personal honor. When families are displaced, womenfolk are raped, thousands are handed death sentences by kangaroo courts, and entire communities are disenfranchised — these deep and lasting grievances will ultimately manifest themselves in a furious backlash against Baghdad’s sectarian leadership. The thousands killed during 2017 airstrikes against Mosul, along with the cover-up of hundreds of summary executions in the battle’s aftermath, will likewise leave a deep mark in this great city’s subconscious.
Terrorism loves a vacuum. Far from eradicating Daesh, we have cultivated the optimum environment for militancy and terrorism to flourish. An Iraqi governing coalition dominated by paramilitary factions would furthermore be the opportunity Iran needs to consolidate its dominance over its western neighbor as a springboard for confronting its international enemies.
God forbid, if Iraq does once again disintegrate, we will ask ourselves why we failed to anticipate this. Can’t we just for once have the foresight and intelligence to act against emerging manifestations of terrorism and militancy before they mutate into an unstoppable global threat?
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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