While the Iraqi army along with the Shiite paramilitary force Hashed al-Shaabi — or Popular Mobilization Units — and Iranian fighters under the command of Gen. Qasem Soleimani were routing the Islamic State (IS) at Saddam Hussein’s birthplace of Tikrit in the heartland of Sunni Iraq, it was indeed an interesting experience to watch, from a distance of three hours away, the evolving military and political situation.
Sulaimaniyah is known as Kurdistan’s cultural capital and has been the bastion for Kurdish national sentiment for nearly a century. It has long been the power base of Iraq’s first Kurdish President Jalal Talabani in the post-Saddam period, and the town itself is where the Kurdish Gorran (Change) movement was born and won two successive electoral victories.
It is also the hometown of Barham Salih, a Kurdish-Iraqi politician who served as deputy prime minister in Baghdad (2006-2009) and the Iraqi Kurdistan prime minister in Erbil (2001-2004) and hopes for a bright future for his homeland. That is perhaps the main reason he initiated founding an American university in Sulaimaniyah, in addition to the Sulaimani Forum, which has brought international luminaries as well as Iraqi and Kurdish political leaders to Sulaimaniyah since March 2013.
On March 11-12, the Third Annual Sulaimani Forum, “Fertile Crescent in Turmoil: Challenges and Opportunities,” was attended by high-level US officials as well as a number of Iraqi and Kurdish leaders. Here, IS was treated as one of the jihadist organizations operating in the region within the framework of the evolving sectarian conflict in Iraq.
The forum's participants met under the unmistakable weight of IS and its control over the town of Fallujah and its operations in Anbar province. After capturing Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq, on June 10, 2014, and ruling swathes of Syrian territory from the provincial capital Raqqa, IS has become synonymous with the turmoil theme of this year's forum.
At the same time, IS suffered lethal blows in Tikrit, three hours away from Sulaimaniyah. Flights to and from the Gulf had been canceled because of the military situation in Tikrit. However, no tension was felt in the Kurdish heartland, despite the proximity of the fighting. On the contrary, a sense of optimism prevailed — one that was nonexistent a year ago, when IS had not yet made its surprising advances in Iraq and Syria.
One of the forum's panelists, Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House and, more importantly, a grandson of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, one of Najaf's most important Shiite clergy, left for Kirkuk, an hour away from Sulaimaniyah, following our conversation and came back late at night. He reassured me that the governor of Kirkuk, Najmaddin Kerim, had taken him to Bashir, a suburb of Kirkuk that has been cleansed of IS forces.
The advances made by the Iraqi forces againt IS encouraged US officials in Sulaimaniyah to speak with noticeable optimism that IS was militarily done with in Iraq. Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran and deputy special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter [IS], said that IS is being decimated in Iraq. Retired Gen. David Petraeus was equally optimistic. Petraeus has good knowledge of the Iraqi scene and served as the Mosul-based commander of the 101st Airborne Division in 2003-2004, as commanding general of the Multi National Force Iraq (2007-2008) and as commander of the US Central Command (2008-2010).
Petraeus has a remarkable track record in Iraq. There is widespread belief that the security situation in Mosul collapsed in 2004 after he left the city, where he had applied unconventional counterinsurgency methods. He has a reputation of successful implementation of the “surge strategy” that isolated and suppressed the Sunni insurgents in Anbar province, the forerunners of the current IS.
In Sulaimaniyah, Petraeus, referring to the battlefield reports that he follows on a daily basis, was sure that IS will be rolled back in Iraq in the near future. But how soon might this happen?
A former Iraqi minister in the governments of the post-Saddam period who asked not to be identified said it will happen by June 2015, the first anniversary of the fall of Mosul. The source had been in a private meeting with Iraqi and US officials in Sulaimaniyah and the prevailing prediction has been that IS will be rolled back militarily from Iraqi territory by June.
After removing IS from Tikrit, it is still unclear whether the anti-IS military offensive will move toward Mosul, which is in close proximity to Turkey and Syria and a threat to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Another possibility lies in the south toward Anbar, to cleanse the vast and Sunni-populated province from IS to relieve the worries of the Saudis and Jordanians.
The issue of IS is not only a military one, and therefore the military achievements of anti-IS elements do not inspire a triumphant mood for everyone in Iraq. The question of what is next is raised mainly by Sunni figures.
In Sulaimaniyah, listening to Osama al-Nujaifi, Iraq's Sunni vice president, and parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri, one can easily attest that the sectarian rift and the Sunni worries on Iran’s growing influence in Iraq run as deep as they did in 2014.
Even those who want to see IS defeated in Iraq are truly worried with the newly won legitimacy of the Popular Mobilization Units. Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the minister of oil and a veteran Shiite political leader, downplays the importance of the issue. Mahdi told Al-Monitor that the Popular Mobilization Units were formed in response to the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani when IS was threatening in June 2014 to attack Baghdad and the south. He says it was a purely defensive force that saved the capital and the potential unity of Iraq thanks to Sistani’s unprecedented fatwa. Sistani had never authorized the formation of a Shiite militia.
Nonetheless, the active involvement of Iranians against IS under Soleimani further adds to Sunni worries. Although prominent Shiite politicians are careful to underline the legitimacy of Iranian interests and their involvement, these may not be enough to dispel the Sunni misgivings.
In Sulaimaniyah it was clear that despite the first IS military setbacks in Iraq in over a year, the ambiguity around the future of the country torn apart by sectarian strife remained the same.
In Iraq, the story of Sisyphus can be repeated anytime. Even if IS is defeated, we can find ourselves back at square one. After IS is finished in Iraq, the question of what is next remains open.
The Institute of Regional and International Studies of American University of Iraq, Suleimani provided flights and accomodations for the author to attend the Sulaimani Forum.
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