Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Post-Ramadi test for Iraq

Iraq’s security forces may have retaken the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State group, but the victory has already become a kind of test for the Shia-led government, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

By all accounts the recapture of the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State (IS) terror group last week was a victory for the Iraqi security forces which have been battling the militants for control of the key city for seven months.

Yet, the prospect of an utter defeat of the brutal organisation that still holds large swathes of territory in Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul, remains far off.

In order to defeat IS, Iraq needs to tackle an increasingly complex web of political, security and communal challenges at a time when its economy is depressed.

Victory in the campaign again IS will depend on whether Iraq’s fractious communities can agree on a new and inclusive political process. Given its central role, the Shia-led government should take the initiative on new efforts towards national reconciliation.  

Backed by the US-led international coalition’s airstrikes and intelligence support, the Iraqi security forces have now taken back most of Ramadi, about 100 km west of Baghdad, from IS hands.

Experts agree that the battle for Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar Province, was a significant test for the Iraqi security forces, which collapsed during an advance by the militants in May.

The Iraqi forces, backed by a force of volunteers from local tribes, have overrun most of the neighbourhoods and key government buildings in the city held by the terrorist group and forced the militants to seek shelter outside.

Though the victory threw the military balance in the Iraqi forces’ favour, IS has continued to launch a series of deadly attacks on the edges of Ramadi, days after it was driven out of the city centre.

But even if the security forces restore control over Ramadi and the rest of the Anbar Province, enormous challenges remain.

First and foremost, the government faces the daunting task of making sure that the displaced families who have fled the fighting in Ramadi, a sprawling city of some one million people, return home safely. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are still either on the move or in camps for the internally displaced.

The return of internally displaced people in towns recaptured by Shia militias from IS, such as Jurf Al-Sakhar, Tikrit and several districts in the Diyalah Province, have been hampered by delays and security concerns. In some cases Shia militias have been in violation of the laws of war in retaking other cities from IS militants.

The quick and safe return of the displaced families to Ramadi will be a crucial test of the Shia-dominated security forces’ ability to stabilise the newly liberated Sunni city without aggravating sectarian tensions that IS could exploit.

The second priority is the reconstruction of the city, which was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the part of the Iraqi military forces during the battle when they engaged in street battles with IS jihadists.

According to city councillors some 80 per cent of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed. In addition to some 7,000 houses that were either completely or partially destroyed in Ramadi, the city has also lost most of its infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and public services buildings.

The road network now needs to be rebuilt in order to bring in electricity and water supplies and restore communication systems.

Ramadi’s local council has estimated that some $4 billion will be needed for the reconstruction projects in the city, including building 3,000 housing units to replace those destroyed in the fighting with IS. Others put the estimate at $20 billion.

The key challenge, however, remains the power struggle between rival tribal and political leaders in Anbar and within the Sunni community and its sub-factions.

A wholesale power struggle looms large in the province following its liberation which could drag it and the entire Sunni community into bloody conflict.

The liberation of Ramadi from IS militants has also raised the possibility of vengeance. IS militants, many of them belonging to local tribes, have killed hundreds of rival tribesmen in Ramadi and other cities in Anbar Province.

Many of the families of the victims are expected to exact revenge from the perpetrators or their kin, and a societal and prosecutorial approach needs to be found in order to avoid vengeful bloodbaths.

Meanwhile, it is widely feared that fighting will erupt between rival tribes in the province against the backdrop of severe political and communal divisions and competition over power-sharing.

There are serious concerns that families and clans that chose to stay in the city after the IS takeover will be accused of being IS supporters and the terror group’s future sleeping cells.

While there should be no immunity for those who committed crimes and collaborated with IS, there is a great need for tolerance, the application of the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

One major problem in post-conflict Ramadi that is likely to hinder stabilisation is that of leadership and political participation. The population in Ramadi is traumatised, disorganised, and lacking in capable leadership.

A pressing priority will be the resolution of a lingering dispute over the leadership of the Anbar Provincial Council, which will play a pivotal role in both the reconstruction of the province and its policing.

Most of the tribes in Anbar are currently against the council, which is led by the Islamic Party, the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood Organisation.

In the aftermath of the city’s liberation from IS, there is the need to settle the political disputes that fed into the dynamics of the violence that paved the way for the rise of IS.

Without genuine political reconciliation, efforts to produce stability will be badly skewed, and political disputes over who should be charge of the province are storing up troubles ahead.

Moreover, the political future of the Sunni-dominated province within Iraq is expected to emerge as one of the main contentious issues soon after the dust of battle settles.

The controversies and disagreements that have dogged the national reconciliation process since it was first mooted continue to reverberate, casting doubt on its efficacy and with the key concern being whether the National Reconciliation Commission’s purview will be selective.

    An all-Sunni conference held in Baghdad last month failed to resolve disputes over community leadership and representation. The gap between the political parties and the tribes that aspire to play a greater role in both politics and administration is expected to widen following the liberation of Ramadi.

It is widely feared that the Sunni leaders and political parties that have been participating in the dysfunctional political process have struck deals with Shia groups to stay in the government at the expense of the tribes that fought IS and now look for a bigger role in running their provincial affairs.

The liberation of Ramadi opens up the bigger question of the future of the Sunni-dominated towns and cities within Iraq. While most Iraqi Sunnis are hopeful of a more inclusive system, many Sunni leaders have been contemplating a Sunni autonomous region within Iraq similar to that enjoyed by the Kurds.

The Shias are fearful of a Sunni flank next to the areas they control and are suggesting a new reconciliation process. Last Thursday, the government said it was setting up a committee that would be tasked with launching political reconciliation.

Previous attempts at reconciliation went nowhere, however, as Iraq’s three main ethnic and sectarian communities, the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunnis, failed to compromise on the devolution of power and the distribution of national resources.

The recapture of Ramadi and its stabilisation will be the biggest test of the reconciliation process. Sunni leader and speaker of the Iraqi parliament Saleem Al-Jubouri warned that success in Ramadi would “reflect either positively or negatively on the liberation of Nineveh” in the north of the country.

“It will be a message to people in Mosul. If, God forbid, catastrophes happen [in Ramadi], we will lose the battle to win the support of the population of Mosul,” Al-Jubouri told the Al-Hayat newspaper.

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