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As the Islamic State (ISIS) is driven out of Mosul, Iraq emerges a deeply divided country with a battered economy, but a relapse into civil war is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. The experience of fighting and winning against ISIS has presented an opportunity for Iraqis to rewrite their social contract by learning from the mistakes committed between 2003-2014. For this opportunity to be fruitful, Iraqi politicians must address the obstacles impeding internal reconciliation, and to re-integrate Iraq into its Arab neighborhood. Meanwhile, the United States must play the role of facilitator and guarantor of these efforts to ensure long-term stability.

Internal Reconciliation

The process of internal reconciliation requires bridging the Sunni-Shiite divide to form a united Arab front that can address Baghdad’s outstanding issues with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Yet, Sunni-Shiite reconciliation is impeded by competing intra-sectarian visions for the country. Moreover, the disagreements over the future of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) — the mostly Shiite anti-ISIS paramilitary — represent the most important long-term security challenge to state cohesion in Iraq.

The Shiites have presented three competing visions for post-ISIS Iraq. The first is championed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a close Iranian ally, who is looking to return to the premiership by creating a pro-Iranian cross-sectarian political majority centered around Iranian-aligned PMU factions. These factions appear determined to turn their military victories into parliamentary seats to block attempts for PMU integration into the army. This independence may give them leeway to pursue Iranian interests in the country. It may also deter any future Iraqi government from taking measures against Tehran’s interests.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who opposes Maliki’s return to power and has distanced himself from Iran’s regional role, presented a plan advocating social reconciliation with the support of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). Sadr, who commands Saraya al-Salam — an integral faction within the paramilitary — also calls for PMU integration within the army, and ending all foreign meddling in Iraq.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has presented himself as a moderate Shiite alternative to Maliki, looks to turn the military victories against ISIS into political capital to win a second term. Abadi supports the 2016 parliamentary law regulating the PMU as a separate entity within the country’s security apparatus, but rejects  its involvement in politics.

Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Citizen Coalition, has advocated a “historical settlement” between the Sunni and Shiite political classes. The plan calls for settling all issues on a non-zero-sum basis with the help of UNAMI.

Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite religious authority, has severed contacts with the political class due to its inaction in combating corruption. Sistani, whose fatwa led to the creation of the PMU, has stressed the voluntary nature of the force, and his loyalists within the paramilitary are expected to eventually return home or join the army.

On the Sunni front, there are splits within the Alliance of Forces, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament. The speaker of parliament, Salim Jobouri, leads a wing that is willing to freeze controversial issues, such as decentralization and the future of the PMU, until a national agreement is reached. Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi’s wing demands that the central government implements confidence-building measures to allay Sunni concerns regarding demographic changes, the PMU, and the Sunni prisoners before the start of reconciliation talks.

The PMU Dilemma

The future role of the paramilitary — an ascending Shiite political force with superior military capabilities — is unclear. This issue depends on what role its leaders want to play, and whether they want to enter the political process. These dynamics are linked to the role that Iran, arguably the most influential regional player in Iraq, envisages for the PMU. The answers to these questions will affect intra-Shiite political dynamics and influence Sunni-Shiite reconciliation.

Rebuilding trust between Iraqi citizens and their government

The trifecta of lack of jobs, rampant corruption, and poor service delivery contribute to the failure of the Iraqi government to win the trust and support of wide swathes of the Iraqi population. One in five Iraqis lives below the poverty line, despite residing in a country with vast oil resources. People need jobs. The problem is not just an Arab Sunni one: people in Basra and Erbil want jobs as well. Every single year, more than half a million Iraqis enter the job market. These economic woes present a huge challenge to Iraqi stability. Iraqi oil production is rising but that will not solve the problem. Some progress has been made on the fiscal front. Iraqi government expenditures were cut 50% between 2013 and 2016. Tax collection is becoming much more efficient and revenue is up by a factor of three. Customs collection is also rising sharply. Still there is no substitute for economic and financial reforms that reduce subsidies, reduce payroll expenditure (9 million Iraqis are directly or indirectly on  the government’s payroll) and diversify the economy (90% of revenues are from the oil sector).

Fighting corruption is key to restoring trust in government institutions. Devolution of reconstruction and development funds and of security management to the provinces and  local communities could be early positive steps in repairing trust between Iraqi citizens and their government.

On the positive side, there is a vibrant Iraqi civil society which has coalesced around calls for better governance, efficient public service delivery and fighting corruption. To-date, this civil society has not been co-opted by any political group and is cross-sectarian. While its public demonstrations have subsided for now, it is a movement that is slated to play an important role in Iraqi politics going forward.

Addressing the Baghdad-KRG Divide

Despite their close military cooperation against ISIS, political trust between Baghdad and Erbil remains alarmingly low. Psychologically, the Kurds have checked out of Iraq. This is evidenced by the nearly unanimous Kurdish agreement to hold a referendum for independence on September 25, despite significant internal conflicts. This referendum, however, is not tantamount to a declaration of independence.

If the Kurds are committed to leaving, they should not be impeded. However, KRG independence should be negotiated with Baghdad. The United States should convene a trilateral dialogue involving Baghdad and Erbil to address the contested issues between the two sides, and set the terms of an amicable divorce, if that is what the parties want.

The status of disputed territories and PMU military activities represent two sticking issues in the Baghdad-KRG relationship. Abadi has said that the disputed areas lying on the borders between federal and Kurdish territories, namely the multiethnic and oil-rich Kirkuk province, “should be turned into agreed upon areas.” Yet the issue remains unresolved and may escalate into a large-scale conflict.

Moreover, the Kurds are fearful that the PMU are readying to fight the peshmerga after defeating ISIS. This comes as the PMU have established a strong presence in disputed territories south of Kirkuk and west of Mosul.

Re-Integrating Iraq into its Arab Neighborhood

Iraq feels isolated and marginalized in the Arab world. Sunnis view this isolation as another sign of Iraq being pushed into Shiite Iran’s arms. The Shiites see themselves as underdogs in a Sunni-majority regional environment. Therefore, restoring political and economic ties between Iraq and its Arab neighbors will reduce Baghdad’s reliance on Iran, and will invest its neighbors in its security and stability.

Furthermore, the Arab region is showing a new willingness to work with Iraq. Recently, Prime Minister Abadi visited Riyadh and Kuwait.  His visit to Riyadh at the invitation of the Saudi king was preceded by visits to Baghdad by the Saudi energy and foreign ministers. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has also urged closer cooperation with the Iraqi state. Recent discussions to promote Iraqi-Arab economic ties include: the resumption of Baghdad-Riyadh flights; re-opening the border post between Saudi Arabia and Iraq; and reactivating trade routes between Jordan and Iraq.

Improved US Ties

A strong US-Iraq relationship is required to resolve outstanding issues facing Iraq. Internally, the United States is the only party that can mediate effectively between the KRG and Baghdad regarding their future relationship. Furthermore, Washington must pursue a long-term mission to advise, train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces. Iraqi security forces won the battle against ISIS with the assistance of the US military. They will need U.S military assistance to secure the peace and prevent a return of the terrorist groups. The 2011 mistake when the US decided to pull its forces out of Iraq should not be repeated again. Regionally, American long-term involvement in Iraq reduces Baghdad’s reliance on Iran and can limit Tehran’s capacity to project power across the Middle East.

In conclusion, Baghdad’s most pressing short-term challenge is the stabilization of liberated territories. This challenge entails undertaking major reconstruction efforts along with preparations for how these cities will be managed post-ISIS. Regional economic powerhouses like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be called upon to contribute toward the rebuilding costs especially in Sunni-majority areas. Provincial-level dialogues involving local stakeholders on how these cities and towns should be managed post-liberation are essential for their long-term stability. Local government and civil society groups have most stakes in the success of these rebuilding projects and have the know-how to engineer the re-weaving of the social fabric torn asuder by ISIS. One case in point is the city of Mosul. It is urgent that a dialogue on governance and long-term reconciliation be immediately organized in Mosul involving respected elders and representatives of the city’s different societal components.

In the long-term, the challenges facing Iraq are multiple and must be mostly borne out by Iraqis including the difficult task of transitioning their society from a collection of heavily weaponized components fighting each other, toward dialogue and conflict resolution to achieve transitional justice. Unfortunately, the presence of armed non-state actors like the PMU creates additional obstacles in the pathway of achieving transitional justice in Iraq.

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About the author

RANDA SLIM is a Lebanese-American political analyst with a long-term experience with peace-building initiatives in Central Asia and the Middle East. She is the director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at the University of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


OMER KASSIM holds a BA in Middle East Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently a research assistant at the Middle East Institute focusing on Iraqi politics. He has also worked as a journalist at Al-Hayat.