The victory is Mosul is sweet, but as always in Iraq, the road ahead will be bumpy…
The Iraqi Prime Minister arrived in Mosul on Monday to take a victory lap. ISIS took over the city in 2014, and after an eight month campaign, American-backed Iraqi forces have killed or driven them from the city. Like most politicians, Haider al-Abadi didn’t miss a chance for a photo opportunity as he praised the heroic Iraqi soldiers and kissed babies.
After a long, hard-fought battle for one of Iraq’s biggest and most historic cities, it is worth taking a second to savor victory. But it’s important for Iraqi leaders to focus on long term problems in the country that allowed ISIS to take over in the first place. They continue to face steep political and ethnic divisions, a military that cannot stand up on its own, and problems with both neighbors in Syria and Iran.
As Opslens analysts have reported, the battle for Mosul has been hard fought. ISIS routinely used human shields, making them a difficult enemy to fight without innocent casualties. The massive amounts of displaced persons, totaling about 900,000 by the end of the battle, resulted in a lingering humanitarian crisis. The narrow roads and dense urban terrain required an effort worthy of Stalingrad and victory is a major step for the fledging government.
But ISIS only assumed power in the first place because of severe mistakes by the government. The Shia prime minister drove the Sunnis out of the government and even arrested some top leaders, many who rose through the ranks during the Saddam Hussein years. Despite their valuable skill set, the government mistrusted them and often replaced them with highly politicized leaders. The removal of valuable leadership combined with the lack of the valuable aid from America through Special Forces, aircraft, technicians, and advisors, meant the Iraqi army melted when ISIS made their strikes across the country.
On top of that, there remain deep divisions within the country. The Shia majority tends to accept Iranian influence and Iranian backed militias in the fight against ISIS, and at least the southern part of Iraq could form a block with Iran. In Syria, there is continued chaos, a multi-faceted fight, and even more refugees. Syria has become a proxy war with the Sunnis in western Iraq who are helping their brothers in Syria. The Kurds around Mosul continue to push for independence and even seized some key oil fields when they helped take back Mosul.
In 2003, President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier behind a giant banner that read: Mission Accomplished. He gave a rousing speech and had a great photo op. But that victory lap ended up being hung around his neck as the Iraq conflict descended into a long quagmire and bitter insurgency. Similarly, on Monday, the Iraqi Prime Minister took a moment to celebrate an important victory. But unless they take steps to ensure a professional army and make wise choices that unify the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish divisions within the country, his visit will be used by his opponents as a cudgel against him as the country descends into more chaos.