Over the course of the past three years, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have liberated all Iraqi land that was once under the control of the militants. The group no longer presents an open security challenge against the Iraqi state. However, the group’s defeat does not mean an end to the challenges Iraq is facing. Many post-liberation challenges remain and the need to address them has become ever-more pressing in light of ISIS’ defeat. It is to this end that the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has compiled a list of priorities for post-ISIS Iraq.
Reconstruction and rehabilitation of liberated areas and the return of displaced people remains a top priority. Although liberated, many cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Mosul remain devastated. ISIS’ scorched earth tactics, heavy entrenchment and use of rigged explosives have left many of the areas in which they were defeated virtually uninhabitable. Although in a number of regions, reconstruction has taken off, progress in other cities has been slow, prompting criticism. Furthermore, while displaced people in these areas have been returning, others remain reliant on aid groups and are homeless due to the destruction of their homes. Given that ISIS was able to use a mixture of financial incentives and sentiments of marginalisation to recruit, UNAMI believes that providing care and reconstruction remains vital for stability. Thus, it is imperative that the Iraqi Government procures funding for the reconstruction and the funding already provided is used for positive ends.
The improvement of humanitarian conditions will need to come alongside a comprehensive program for reconciliation and community integration. The sectarian (and to a lesser extent, ethnic) nature of the conflict shattered the already-fragile trust between Iraq’s many communities. To be sure, the past three years have seen many examples of interfaith cooperation and civil society activism that raises hopes for the future. Such efforts need to be sustained through a legal framework that recognises citizenship based on equality and protects vulnerable sections of society.
It is not just Iraqi communities that need reconciling but relations between the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as well. Conflict between the two sides has picked up since the independence referendum in the KRG in September, resulting in numerous clashes between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the ISF. Although the ISF has accomplished many of its goals including the capture of the disputed city of Kirkuk, tensions between Erbil and Baghdad remain high. These include in mixed-cities such as Tuz Khurmatu that continue to be a source of concern. An unstable security environment could allow ISIS to make a return or other militant groups to emerge.
Elections are another priority highlighted by UNAMI. Iraq’s last election in 2014 took place against a turbulent backdrop on the eve of ISIS’ rise. Many parties boycotted the election amidst polarisation, brinkmanship and accusations of electoral irregularities. The next election is set for 12th May 2018. The election will represent an opportunity for the Iraqi Government to re-legitimise its governance across all parts of Iraq and solidify its tarnished diplomatic credentials. It is therefore imperative that they are conducted in a safe and stable environment and without meddling or irregularities.
A related issue is the matter of corruption. Since 2003, Iraq has ranked near the top of the global corruption indexes. Corrupt practices not only reduce faith and support towards the state, but they can hamper reconstruction and utility projects, cause funds to be wasted on useless projects and breed resentment. ISIS’ propaganda frequently highlighted its rule as strict but just as opposed to the Iraqi Government which it portrayed as brutal, corrupt, unjust and ineffective. Sunni marginalisation, however, isn’t the only concern. Despite the Shia-majority governance, the Shia regions, including the oil-rich Basra, remain some of the poorest in Iraq. UNAMI stipulates that fighting corruption, enabling transparency and managing finances will be vital towards legitimising the Iraqi Government. The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has already launched a series of campaigns to fight corruption, but more work is needed.
Iraq has overcome a tremendous challenge in defeating ISIS, defying many expectations along the way. The achievements so far are certainly a cause for celebration. Indeed, the defeat of ISIS coincided with the completion of all provisions for the UN’s oil-for-food programme, allowing the country to launch the post-ISIS era with a clear slate. There is no denying that the road ahead is challenging and will be beset with difficulties, but the prize for success is certainly worth it: Lasting peace and prosperity in Iraq.