Questions raised even as Mosul battle ends

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally declared victory over Islamic State in Mosul on Monday (July 10) as only a few dozen militants put up resistance after 9 months of gruelling urban warfare.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announcing victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul on Monday. But questions remain over whether the Iraqis can meet the challenge of uniting the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announcing victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul on Monday. But questions remain over whether the Iraqis can meet the challenge of uniting the country.PHOTO: REUTERS

Top concern: How to resettle thousands of Sunni civilians and fix deep sectarian divide

MOSUL (Iraq) • The fighting is all but over in Mosul, and the billboards are already up: hastily raised signs in which the government urged the city's Sunni residents to "turn the page" from the terrorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Some called for brotherhood between Sunnis and Shi'ites after months of warfare against the Sunni-extremist ISIS. But despite the flaring of hope for a new national unity, the government's costly victory in Mosul and the questions hanging over its aftermath feel more like the next chapter in the long story of Iraq's unravelling.

Most pressing is the need to bring back hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunni civilians.

Reports of past abuses by the Shi'ite-controlled government, its security forces and militia allies against Sunni families have kept sectarian divisions fresh. And with no reconciliation process to speak of, any setback in the resettling could dangerously add to the list of grievances.

For the mostly Sunni residents of Mosul, there are the devastating aftereffects of living under ISIS. And there is deep doubt and fear over what will happen to them next. Concerns are growing that Shi'ite militias which mobilised in other parts of the country to fight ISIS could turn their guns on one another in a scramble for power.

And the thoughts of many in Iraq's Sunni community have been fixed on revenge against their neighbours who supported ISIS, with increasing reports of violent reprisals.

The Kurds, who have operated an autonomous enclave in the north since the 1990s, are moving quickly to hold a referendum on independence in September, despite pleas from US diplomats to hold off.

So, the end of the Mosul battle, even with ISIS still in control of other areas of the country, resurfaces a vital question asked ever since the modern and multi-sectarian state of Iraq was created from the ashes of World War I: Can the country hold together?

At a great cost in lives and property, the Iraqis have shown that they can defeat ISIS militarily. But whether they are up to the political challenge of bringing the country together again - or to even get the lights turned on in Mosul and bring the displaced back home - is another question entirely.

"Right now we are only fighting Daesh militarily," said peshmerga secretary-general Jabar Yawar, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. The peshmerga are the Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq.

And to the south of Mosul, the battle against ISIS continues. The militants have captured most of the village of Imam Gharbi on the western bank of the Tigris River 70km from Mosul, said an Iraqi army officer.

Armed with machine guns and mortars, the militants have now seized more than 75 per cent of Imam Gharbi and reinforcements are expected, the army officer said.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'Questions raised even as Mosul battle ends'. Print Edition | Subscribe