Iraq’s response to the challenge of the Islamic State

Following the Islamic State’s dramatic advances in Iraq the country’s future now hangs in the balance with the prospect of protracted sectarian conflict and break-up looming large.

The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in June 2014 brought Iraq back to the world stage. IS’s subsequent declaration of the borderless caliphate linked Iraq’s troubles with Syria’s. The Iraqi government initially struggled to stall the IS offensive after the army’s collapse in Mosul. Recently, though, based on the strength of Shia militias and with external assistance from Iran and the United States, it has retaken territory and pushed IS back. An attempt is now being made, on the back of the formation of a new government, to shape a new inclusive system that can convince Sunnis to turn against IS. The future of Iraq, while it still hangs in the balance, looks more assured than it did last summer.

The rise of IS has precipitated a further challenge to Baghdad from the north, where the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has taken advantage of IS’s advance to seize the long disputed city of Kirkuk. This is another threat to the territorial integrity and common purpose of the Iraqi state, and one which, although it is currently sidelined in the face of the larger IS threat, will likely provoke serious repercussions down the line. Tensions have been eased by a temporary agreement with the KRG over oil sales and the continuation of payments from Baghdad to the KRG, but it remains to be seen whether this can any time soon lead to a more comprehensive accord over ongoing differences, including over the fate of Kirkuk.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Mosul, major geopolitical changes have occurred in Iraq that will occupy the central government for months if not years to come. Most significantly, the sectarian divide between the Shia majority, who control the government, and the Sunni minority, some of whom have rallied behind IS, has been entrenched, perhaps irrevocably. It is increasingly uncertain whether Iraq can hold together as one, multi-confessional state. If it does, the best hope for defeating IS and dampening the deep sectarian and political tensions probably lies in the implementation of meaningful federalism that would keep the country loosely united but empower unprecedented local administration.

By rejecting Shia rule in Baghdad, IS has won support from large parts of the Sunni population that was disenfranchised by the post-2003 political order, which handed power to the Shia majority. Despite its extremist practices, many Sunnis see IS as the only means of securing greater rights and putting an end to the perceived repressive rule of Baghdad. IS has highlighted the deep divide between Sunni politicians in Baghdad who remain part of the governing system and are committed to the idea of a united, federal Iraq led by Shia Islamist parties, and their communities in the Sunni majority provinces of Anbar, Salahudin, and Nineveh, who are not committed to a united Iraq and no longer view politicians in Baghdad as their legitimate representatives.

At the same time, the rise of IS and the violence accompanying it, including the deliberate targeting of Shias – such as the mass killing of army and air force cadets in Camp Speicher, allegedly in collaboration with Tikriti tribes – has hardened Shia attitudes towards the Sunni population. There is decreasing Shia appetite for reconciliation and increasing fears about a conspiracy to defeat Baghdad by Sunnis, who are widely perceived as terrorists and former Baathists. The loss of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, long hostile to the Shia-dominated government, was a real shock from a military point of view. It also led to a renewed conviction among Shia politicians that Baathists such as Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiya (JRTN) are conspiring with IS to bring about the collapse of Iraq.

The response to the rise of IS is more and more conceived of through a sectarian lens. Baghdad has responded to the Iraqi army’s failure to adequately confront IS by mobilising Shia militias such as Kat’aib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Jaysh al-Mahdi, and the Badr Organisation as its primary offensive tools. Their experience in urban warfare, especially those re-tasked from the ongoing conflict in Syria where some have been fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, along with their ideological commitment, is seen as critical in the fight against IS. Their ability to operate outside the normal rules of engagement of a standing army is also seen as the only match for a brutal enemy like IS. The slow pace of US military support, allowing IS to reach the outskirts of Baghdad, reinforced the view in Baghdad that the US is an unreliable partner, accelerating the Iraqi government’s reliance on Shia militias (as well as Iran). Meanwhile, a fatwa issued by the Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Sistani, calling on volunteers to join the army in the fight against IS, while not specifically aimed at the Shia population, was nonetheless predominantly heeded by them, thereby exacerbating the sectarian dimension.

Moving forward, and recognising that it will be difficult to pacify the areas overrun by IS without local Sunni support, there now seems to be a strategy to militarily fortify Baghdad and the south. Baghdad then hopes that increased disaffection with IS in Sunni areas will, coupled with political reform initiated by Baghdad, give the internationally-backed Iraqi army a better chance of ultimately defeating IS in co-ordination with local support. Signs are already emerging of a new regional and international partnership that includes both the US and Iran in support of Baghdad on this basis. This strategy has borne some fruit, leading to military successes and also renewed diplomatic ties with important neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Given the deeply entrenched divisions, however, it remains to be seen how far the incoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, can truly initiate a new inclusive beginning that rallies domestic support behind the fight against IS. Some of the difficulty has been removed by the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is personally viewed by many Sunnis as the chief architect of the discriminatory policies against them. And so far, Abadi seems to have been able to turn a new page in relations with political parties previously at loggerheads with Maliki, including drawing both Sunni and Kurdish parties into the new government. But the real challenge lies in mobilising sufficient support among the wider Sunni population, which is far removed from the politics of Baghdad.

This population is now faced with very difficult choices. The failure of the previous government to win them over and, indeed, their direct alienation through heavy-handed security policies, sometimes deployed in response to peaceful protests, has left them with little trust in their ability to regain influence through the political process in Baghdad. However, these grievances, aired prior to the rise of IS, are now being lost in the language of war. Some, alarmed at the brutality of IS, are joining the likes of Ahmed Abu Risha, a key figure in the Anbar Awakening against al-Qaeda over the past decade, working alongside government troops to counter IS. Tribes in Anbar such as Albu Nimr, Albu Fahd, and Albu Alwan have also fought back against IS and worked with the ISF to regain territory. If this model of cooperation can be replicated elsewhere, with the promise that tribal Sunni fighters will be integrated into a new proposed provincial National Guard, then other tribes in Anbar, Salahudin, and Nineveh may eventually follow suit in siding with the government.

One potential option, widely touted as the key means of empowering lower Sunnis and mobilising them in the fight against IS, is the implementation of greater federalism. There is little support among Sunni and Kurdish politicians for the complete break-up of Iraq. The Sunnis know they control a small pool of energy resources, unlike the oil-rich KRG and the Shia south. The Kurds have found little support for their initial push for independence from the US and the international community. Meanwhile, the Shias want to keep together the state they currently rule. As such, a key demand being made by some Sunnis is greater autonomy from Baghdad, while at the same time they seek to retain economic equality with the more prosperous regions of Iraq. Abadi may need to move quickly in this direction if he is to secure the broader Sunni support necessary to ultimately defeat IS.

Sajad Jiyad is an analyst and researcher focused on Iraq. He is pursuing doctoral studies on the post-2003 Iraq.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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