ISIS virtually defeated in Mosul but root problems remain
Iraqi soldiers fighting to liberate the last holdouts of ISIS militants in Mosul may hold the key to either the survival or further destabilisation of the war-torn country.
Assisted by US special forces, elements of the Turkish Army as well as Kurdish and Shia militias, Iraqi Army units participated in capturing the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and surrounding areas from where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate.
Unlike the limited international support enjoyed by the Kurds, the Shia militias have powerful financial backing from across the border with Iran. They and their backers in Tehran are inevitably a power to be reckoned with in a post-ISIS Iraq.
The capture of the historic mosque prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to observe it amounted to a “declaration of defeat” from ISIS.
After ISIS took control of the city in 2014, senior Iraqi officials, such as former Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, predicted it would not be able to retain control of the city indefinitely.
Three years later, his prediction is coming true. What happens next? Stories about Iraqi government corruption and inefficiency date from before 2014. They are still part of the conversation on the street.
One of the reasons Mosul fell so easily to ISIS was the absence of full-time soldiers to defend the city. Thousands of so-called ghost soldiers registered with the Ministry of Defence existed only in name, allowing senior officers to pocket the salaries. The issue of ghost soldiers is a major one. Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari has been quoted as saying there was “maybe $500 million-$600 million in salaries being paid to soldiers who don’t exist. There are so many outlets for this money to go without any accountability.”
Apart from the ghost soldiers, money has been earmarked for imported defence equipment that never arrived or for infrastructure projects that were never built. The money is believed to have ended up in the pockets of well-connected government officials.
Other aspects of corruption continue to come to light. When Al Baiji oil refinery north of Baghdad was liberated from ISIS control in 2015, Iraqi MP Mishan al-Juburi told local television that the refinery had been looted with even underground pipes and cables stolen.
Asked who was responsible, he responded: “I’d rather be a coward one thousand times than dead once.” Juburi, who is a member of a parliamentary committee investigating corruption, earlier said: “Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Everyone. Including me. At least I am honest about it.”
Corruption has highlighted the differences between the haves and have-nots in Iraq, as has a shortage of public funds resulting from the comparatively low oil prices that underpin government spending. Last year, oil prices plunged to $27 a barrel at a time when the government’s budget was based on price assumptions of $45 a barrel.
Although prices subsequently recovered, there is a big gap between what is needed and what is available for public spending. None of this has been helped by funds being syphoned into private pockets.
Stories of corruption were so endemic that at one stage desperate government officials sought the assistance of the country’s leading religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to back anti-corruption measures. Sistani did speak out but stopped commenting because, his spokesman said, “Nobody listened.”
Sistani’s backing may once again be required as part of a multi-pronged effort for more accountability in public life. Never mind that questions remain as to the ayatollah’s effectiveness. Long term, no matter Mosul’s recapture, the absence of economic reforms with political and religious backing will provide an opening for the likes of ISIS to exploit.