Iraqi Army soldiers in eastern Baghdad
After months of demoralizing news from Syria and Iraq, momentum finally seems to be shifting against the Islamic State. Not only have IS’ offensives stalled around both Kobani in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq, but recent American airstrikes may have wounded the Islamic State’s would-be Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite these positive developments, optimism regarding the future of Iraq is deeply misplaced, for the fight against the Islamic State is merely the prelude to a more vicious conflict.
Today’s round of fighting only sows the seeds for tomorrow’s destruction. I say this not out of any sort of deep-seated cynicism, but rather in recognition of the tactics by which the Islamic State has been halted. As President Obama calls for a more inclusive Iraqi government, Shia Iraqi and Iranian officials have let loose the sectarian dogs of war. In order to defeat IS, Shia extremists, Iranian proxies, and local Shia warlords are being given a broad, open-ended mandate to wage war across Iraq.
Where the American-trained Iraqi military has failed, Shiite militias are proving far more useful, at least in the short-term. Militias that went dormant following the withdrawal of US forces have been reactivated and rejuvenated with Iraqi and Iranian government support. Shiite ayatollahs have issued calls to their followers to defend Baghdad, Shia holy sites, and all of Iraq, prompting droves of men to enlist in both government and local forces. Predation upon Sunni civilians is common, as is conflict with supposed allies against IS.
While Iraq narrowly avoided full-scale civil war during the American occupation, this time around the Islamic State may yet push the stillborn democracy over the edge. Its radical Sunni ideology has found a receptive audience among the disgruntled and marginalized Sunnis of western and central Iraq. Should IS succeed in igniting civil war, it will quickly exploit the ensuing chaos to the detriment of the Iraqi state. Indeed, IS has been steadily preparing for this outcome for some time.
Long before IS conventionally invaded western Iraq, it spent years assassinating and removing former members of the so-called Sunni Awakening movement that was crucial to driving the group out of Anbar province in 2007-2008. Over 1,300 prominent Sunni leaders who were active in that movement were eliminated by IS prior to their return in force.
With Sunnis widely discriminated against by the central government, moderate Sunnis killed, in hiding, or in league with IS, there remains little for many Sunnis to do but acquiesce to IS’ demands. Unsurprisingly, many Sunnis see life under the Islamic State as potentially better than under the highly sectarian central government.
The rise of the openly pro-Iranian Badr Organization typifies the direction Iraq is headed in. The group, boasting 10,000 Shia fighters supported by both the Iranian and Iraqi governments, is known for its savagery. In response to allegations of widespread abuses against prisoners and Sunni civilians, including executions by power drill, the group’s leader, Hadi al-Amiri, simply replied: “Well, it’s the reality in Iraq.”
Such endearing statements made a junior member of his organization a natural choice to head the Ministry of the Interior, under whose jurisdiction fall several different security services and Special Forces outfits. The appointment of a ranking member of an Iranian proxy to a high-level security position, even after the fall of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is characteristic of the sectarian nature of the Iraqi government’s response to IS. It is no great surprise that Sunnis see nothing for them in Baghdad.
As the government finds itself increasingly reliant upon self-interested and sectarian militias, the ethno-religious divides in Iraqi society will be rent anew. Should these tactics continue unchecked, it matters little if the Islamic State loses ground in the near future. If Iraq is shattered by civil war, the Islamic State will return from Syria to reassemble the pieces as it sees fit.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.