Keep the Militias Out of Mosul

The liberation of Ramadi in the closing days of 2015 was a rare moment of success for Iraq. It has given Iraqis an opportunity to examine what works and what doesn’t in the fight against the Islamic State. It has also generated a momentum that we should capitalize on if we truly want to expunge the jihadist group from Iraqi soil, including from the crucial city of Mosul, and take the first steps toward a meaningful reconciliation for our country.

The operation in Ramadi worked for three reasons. American airstrikes and military and intelligence advice were instrumental. The cooperation between the Iraqi Army and the local government of Anbar Province also proved effective. The critical element, though, was tapping into the potential of the area’s Sunni tribes and the local communities, who helped to push the Islamic State out. This revived the hope among Iraqis that with the help of the international coalition led by the United States we are indeed capable of taking back our own cities.

Liberating Ramadi broke the mold of past operations, in which unlawful sectarian militias, on the government payroll as part of the “popular mobilization forces,” swept through recaptured towns and villages, conducting reprisal killings and destroying homes and mosques. Amnesty International and other groups documented those atrocities. Many people in Salahuddin and Diyala Provinces, which were retaken from the Islamic State last year, were barred from returning to their homes and forced to live in makeshift camps. In towns like Muqdadiya, in Diyala Province near the border with Iran, armed groups used the fight against the Islamic State as cover for a heinous campaign of ethnic cleansing, which spawned recurring battles and violence that continues today.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This conflict also widened the gap between people living in those newly liberated areas and the government in Baghdad. The government not only failed to prevent those atrocities, but it was also unable to contain the scale of damage or bring the militias to justice. Families displaced by sectarian militias are still wondering if they will be compensated for the destruction of their property and the loss of civilian lives and economic resources. If those areas, with their majority Sunni populations, are going to remain impervious to the Islamic State’s offensives in the future, they will need to recover economically. That will require Baghdad’s assistance.

The operation to retake Ramadi was different because the people and tribes of Anbar cooperated with the local government. They guarded their families and property, and identified and captured terrorists attempting to escape. They held on to and controlled liberated towns and villages. They helped restore basic services for returning families. In the vast province, which borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and stretches over almost a third of Iraq, the Sunni tribes and local people are now the key to long-term stability.

Iraq stands at a crossroads. We can regress to a failed strategy and let sectarian militias fight the Islamic State — and then commit atrocities against civilians. Or we can embrace the success of Ramadi as a model.

As we look toward the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, we face a stark choice. Mosul has a population of more than a million people, a majority of them Sunni. If we grant free rein to sectarian militias, there will be a humanitarian and refugee crisis of incomparable scale. Civilians will flee the mayhem and bloodshed created by the terrorists and the militias, and head north toward Turkey — and the countries of the European Union. The international community may not be able to contain such a large-scale exodus.

The alternative is to build on the momentum of Ramadi. The fight for Mosul will inevitably be difficult, but we can succeed. Of course, we need the political engagement and limited military assistance of the international community, led by the United States. But it is vital that we also mobilize our local manpower and the Sunni tribal might as we did in Ramadi. The Kurdish forces stationed to the east, north and west of the city will also need to back the operation and help secure those areas.

Once it is retaken, we will also have to work out how to distribute responsibility for governing and providing services for this vast province. The city’s mosaic of ethnic and religious groups should be welcomed back from exile in Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan under the watch of an inclusive local government.

We strongly believe that Iraq’s reconciliation process is based on three priorities: liberation of our land from the Islamic State, reconstruction and national reconciliation. Ramadi has shown us that is the right path ahead for Iraq. It is up to us to choose it.

Saleem Al Jubouri is the speaker of Iraq’s Parliament.

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