The so-called Islamic State (IS) is losing ground in Iraq. The recapture of its stronghold Ramadi by US-backed Iraqi forces on December 28th, was a significant setback for the militant group. Its defeat was secured through a successful military strategy that combined the Iraqi national army, tribal forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces (an umbrella organization composed of mostly Shi’ite militias.) Despite victory for this alliance in Ramadi, there are still four serious challenges, old and new, that Iraq needs to overcome in order to stabilize the country and end the plight of millions of people.
1. THE DEFEAT OF IS
Replicating the success in Ramadi will not be easy. The campaign to recapture the city took over six months. To defeat IS, similarly lengthy operations would have to be carried out in other important cities such as Mosul. Retaking Mosul is more challenging. IS has been in the city for more than 18 months. During this time, they have become well acquainted with the city, fortifying it with elaborate defenses including mines and booby traps. Mosul is much bigger than Ramadi adding complexity to the battle. Moreover, the northern region of Iraq is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups that live between Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. These different groups have divergent agendas and fears. A successful operation in Mosul would require cooperation between these forces, including Kurdish militias.
2. SECTARIAN AND ETHNIC TENSION
Sectarian tension has been one of the most serious challenges to Iraq’s stability since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. These tensions have created fertile soil for extremist organizations like IS to exploit, tapping feelings of exclusion and injustice to gain new recruits. This is especially acute in areas where communities share a history of competition over land or leadership. A recent, deadly IS attack against Shia Muslims in the eastern province of Diyala led to retaliation that killed at least 10 people and the bombing of a number of Sunni mosques. Tensions between various communities often prevent local populations from moving freely, which can deny them access to safe areas. These restrictions reinforce tensions and pull apart Iraq’s fragile social fabric.
Having an inclusive central government that is representative of all Iraqis regardless of their religion and ethnicity is a must, not only to defeat IS but also to stop the injustices that breed radicalism.
3. IRAQ’S TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY
The unity of the country is another challenge that the central government faces. Iraq’s territorial integrity is indeed threatened, by both the separatist aspiration of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and by the destruction of law and order resulting from war.
The relationship between the northern region of Kurdistan and the central government has been strained over a number of financial and political issues. The call for a Kurdish independence referendum has been delayed because of the war against IS. Despite this, the President of Kurdistan called out recently to the international community urging it to pave the way for the creation of a Kurdish state. Disputes with the central government over energy export channels and shares of Iraqi government expenditure further complicate these relations. The row has created such serious financial pressures on Kurdistan that at times it has been unable to pay its employees. Tensions are further fueled by the spread of IS in northern Iraq, which has led to the expansion of Kurdish militias into territories that are disputed with the central government.
Iraqi unity is also threatened by uncontrolled militias that sometimes overpower the central government in certain areas. An example of this can be seen in the recent clashes that erupted between rival Shi’ite tribes in the oil rich southern city of Basra. The conflict led the central government to send an armored army division to restore order, diverting critical military resources away from the front-lines against IS. Powerful and unruly militias challenge law and order and often replace the government in the provinces where they are active and the state is weak.
4. ECONOMIC CHALLENGES
There are signification economic challenges in Iraq. The costs of humanitarian work and reconstruction efforts in the face of ongoing tumult are huge, and they will present serious obstacles in the future. Furthermore the Iraqi economy is vulnerable. Oil constitutes 90% of the state’s revenues. This means that the price of oil has a serious impact on the economic situation in Iraq. In light of declining oil prices, Iraq’s resources are stretched ever thinner between acute humanitarian needs and the demands of the war on IS. The Iraqi Finance Minister even warned that if the economic conditions of the last year continue into 2016, the Iraqi government will not be able to pay wages.
Economic problems are exacerbated by widespread corruption and the government is unable to provide basic services in many areas of the country. This corruption has led to mistrust of the central government by a large segment of the Iraqi population. Many popular demonstrations calling for reforms and the provision of basic services bear witness to the government’s ineffectiveness. The Iraqi Prime Minister Mr Haidar al-Abadi, has attempted to reform but the adverse political context and the spread of powerful militias prevent any real change.
The challenges Iraq must face are interconnected. Failing to tackle one issue may undercut efforts to address the rest. Keeping this in mind is vital to securing Iraq’s future.