The difficulty of drafting a ‘day after’ plan for Iraq’s Mosul

 Paris Meeting

Paris Meeting

Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, could fall from Islamic State (IS) group control in a matter of weeks or months. But once the war is won, winning the peace is likely to be full of challenges. FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto examines some of them.

The battle for Mosul is in its early stages, but the international community is already working on a “day after” plan. There are fears that once Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city and the largest held by the IS group – is liberated, there could be sectarian violence and retribution attacks.

On Thursday, France hosted a meeting of members of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition to discuss ways to stabilise Mosul once it is freed from IS-group control. The meeting brought together delegates from more than 20 international organisations and countries, including Iraq, the Arab Gulf states, Turkey, Iran, the US and several EU nations.

What are some of the main challenges facing the post-conflict battle plan?

The coalition of anti-IS groups, which is very diverse at the moment, is holding together because of the ongoing, active battle against a common enemy. Once the fighting for Mosul is over, however, another type of battle will begin: the battle for peace.

Historically, the US and US-led coalitions tend to be good at war. But they’re terrible at holding the peace, whether it be in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, in Libya or even in Afghanistan.

The French have a better track record – after the 2013 Mali invasion, for instance, France did manage to hold the peace. The West African nation still faces security challenges of course, but the mission has been largely successful.

The key to holding the peace in deeply divided nations with a well-armed populace or militias is understanding the internal dynamics: the players, their alliances and their enmities.

In Iraq, the IS group seems to be losing ground and will likely lose Mosul in a matter of weeks or months. But its ideology could remain a more potent threat – for the entire world, but particularly for Iraq, which has a disenfranchised Sunni community.

To bring the majority of the Sunni population back into the political fold, the international community has to ensure that there are equitable post-conflict power-sharing arrangements in liberated cities and towns. The Iraqi government will also need international help, particularly in financing and in putting together a comprehensive anti-radicalisation or anti-extremism programme. This comes with its own sets of challenges, since surrounding countries – such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – have their own agendas in the soft-power competition to influence the global Sunni community.

On the other side of the Iraqi-Arab divide are the Shiites. They pose a huge challenge because tens of thousands of Shiites are fighting in militias that are officially under Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s control. But that could change quickly once the active battle against the IS group is over.

Who are these Shiite groups ?

The media tend to call these groups Iran-backed Shiite militias, which is misleading. They are not all Shiites and they are not all Iran-backed.

There is a government-recognized umbrella network for militias, called al-Hashd al-Shabi or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), or sometimes Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The birth of these militia groups goes back to 2014, after the fall of Mosul to the IS group, when Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling on believers to fight the IS group and protect holy sites.

Tens of thousands answered his call. But most of them did not enlist in the Iraqi army, which was corrupted and discredited after the fall of Mosul. Instead they joined militias that followed local leaders. Some of these local leaders are familiar players on the Iraqi scene, and US intelligence and military officials know them well.

One of the most controversial is Muqtada al-Sadr, who led the Mahdi Army after the 2003 US invasion. The Mahdi Army has since been disbanded, but several spin-offs and splinter groups operate to this day.

Sadr now leads the Sarayat al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and his rhetoric, as well as his fighters, have kept up their anti-American discourse, posing a possible threat for Western troops, such as US and French special forces on the ground in Iraq.

The fiery Iraqi cleric’s links to Iran are complex. He is primarily a nationalist figure and can indulge in public rants against Tehran. But at times he also tries to make peace with Iran.

One of his former followers, Qais al-Khazali, has far stronger links to Iran. Khazali is an important figure to watch. He heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), or League of the Righteous. This group has been accused of human rights violations by international rights groups earlier this year in the Diyala province.

Khazali was captured by US forces in 2007 but he was released in 2010 reportedly in exchange for the release of British national Peter Moore, who was kidnapped by the AAH. This release happened under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rule. Khazali has close ties to Maliki, who remains a player on the Iraqi political scene. Khazali has kept up his anti-American rhetoric, and has an alarming anti-Sunni discourse as well.

Another player in the conflict is the Kataib Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, which Iran definitely supports. Some of its members have been fighting in Syria, supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

What are the challenges they pose ?

These are only some of the estimated 60 to 70 militia groups that have joined the war against the IS group.

The post-conflict plan is to either demobilize or integrate them into the Iraqi armed forces, or more likely to a national guard. But some of these commanders are too powerful, and it’s arguable that they will allow themselves to be controlled by a central government.

But given all the diverse groups and players and their shifting allegiances, one can see why it’s never too early to chalk up a day-after plan.