Iraq can’t afford to repeat mistakes in Mosul

Sunday 30/10/2016

There is an expression attributed to the late American baseball player Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” It is a funny way of saying we have been down this path before and, as the battle for Mosul continues, it is increasingly looking like a path we have been down before in Iraq.

It goes something like this: Prepare a battle plan of overwhelm­ing forces against an enemy with limited resources but do not think about what you will do after you win the battle.

It is what the United States did in 2003, when it defeated the forces of Saddam Hussein but failed to con­sider what would happen afterward. This doomed the country to more than a decade of continuing conflict and seeded the ground for the crea­tion of the Islamic State (ISIS).

If it is not careful, Iraq is poised to do the same thing in Mosul.

There is a rushed feeling to the government’s attempt to take back the city, no doubt caused by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s promise to retake Mosul before the end of 2016 and US President Barack Obama’s desire to hand ISIS a major defeat before the end of his term in January.

Some Iraqi officials, however, said they worried that the military effort is being pushed too fast, before the country’s politicians can agree on how this multi-ethnic, multi-sec­tarian city in an area dominated by Sunnis should be governed.

Turmoil in Iraq’s political struc­ture is also of concern. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seems deter­mined to be more than a nuisance and former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has never stopped trying to find a way back to power.

In Kurdistan, differences between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Demo­cratic Party about how to deal with Baghdad have kept its parliament closed for more than a year.

Meanwhile, the country’s Sunni Arabs feel alienated by the entire enterprise.

Also, Iraq’s combined forces of elite government counterterror­ism troops, Shia militia gunmen and Kurdish per­shmerga fight­ers are work­ing together, in a fashion, because they have a common enemy. Once that enemy is defeated, however, there is a danger these forces could fall to fighting among themselves as they struggle to see who will control Mosul.

There is also the presence of Turkish troops to the north of the city, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems determined to play a role in Mosul governance.

It is also important that the United States does not allow Mosul to become another Ramadi or Fal­luja. After victories in those cities, local Sunnis were victimised by Shia militias that saw anyone who remained in the city under ISIS rule as a co-conspirator.

Amid these problems, the ques­tion of what to do in Mosul after the defeat of ISIS is still on the table.

The mistake not to be repeated — the main one made by the United States country-wide in 2003 — is to create a governing structure that rigidly adheres to the ethnic and sectarian make-up of the city. It would be much wiser to create a government that can deal with the real problems that will face the city after the battle, a city government more attuned to the reconstruction that will be needed and the return of everyday life, not one that will spend all its time arguing about identity rather than ideas.

It remains to be seen whether these different factions can be cajoled to work together to restore Mosul to its political and cultural importance. It is a process that should have started a long time ago. The sad truth is that any effort now may be too little too late and Mosul, just like Iraq itself, will be doomed to deal for many years with communal conflict, revenge killings and no effective way to help its displaced population.