Iraq 2016: The long road to Mosul

Iraq 2016: The long road to Mosul
Comment: All of Baghdad's many problems will likely be ignored until the Iraqi flag flies again in the country's second city, writes James Denselow.
4 min read
18 Jan, 2016
More than 50 percent of 2015's global non-state violence was in Syria and Iraq [AFP]

The start of 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of the US-led war to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

A quarter of a century on, and Iraq still has an active US military presence - but is a very different place, with uncertain prospects for the future.

Whereas during Saddam's rule, his vision of the national project was imposed on the country - with dire consequences for those, usually Kurdish and Shia, who opposed it - today, the country's politics and national identity is fragmented.

The major challenge for the somewhat beleaguered Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who, unlike Saddam, faces daily questions as to whether he even can stay in place, is the battle against the Islamic State group, and his mission to regain control of Iraq's second city, Mosul.

Just before the end of 2015, Abadi was able to claim success with the re-capture of Ramadi. It was, however, a bitter harvest, with the city in ruins - more than 80 percent destroyed with an estimated cost of $10 billion to rebuild.

Operations against IS [are] 'far from over'

The British Foreign Secretary congratulated Abadi for the Ramadi operation, placing it in the context of the wider story of IS having "lost 30 percent of the territory they once held in Iraq".

Yet the US military's Central Command described operations against IS as "far from over" and emphasised that there could yet be an increase in attacks across the Middle East as the group becomes more desperate.

This is already happening - with bombings on mosques and areas with large concentrations of civilians. More than 50 percent of global non-state violence in 2015 took place in Syria and Iraq - and the challenge is clear. IS' continued capability to conduct significant ground operations in Anbar province will be a key feature of the next twelve months.

The US commitment to support the Iraqi military in its fight against IS appears solid, with a recently signed contract for the supply of 1,000 Humvees, despite Baghdad simply losing some 2,300 vehicles (largely to IS) to date, as well as misplacing around 5,000 Hellfire missiles.

Meanwhile, US aircraft hunt IS leaders from the skies, while Joint Special Operations Command does so from the ground. Yet the elephant in the room when it comes to Iraq's security forces is the role and strength of militias.

Militia incorporation into a "national project" of some kind is essential for both sectarian reconciliation and on the ground military effectiveness.

The failure of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to adopt the "Sons of Iraq" programme effectively hastened his downfall - and Iraq's most senior Shia cleric has called on the government "not to permit the presence of militants outside the framework of the state".

This incorporation will be a key test for Abadi's year ahead.

Meanwhile, Iraq has to sail the choppy waters of regional instability and diplomacy. Being stuck between Riyadh and Tehran could be bad news for the country - yet this could potentially see Iraqi mediation as part of the solution, with Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jaafari saying that Iraq was ready to help "alleviate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia".

Meanwhile, to the north, an increasingly assertive Turkey will need to be managed carefully.

The reliance of Iraq's economy on oil export is being exposed by the huge drop in prices. Deals with the IMF and the World Bank, alongside loans from Washington, may help to paper over some of the cracks. But if the oil price remains low, Baghdad will need to think seriously about the balance of its economy.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is reportedly in $18 billion dollars of debt, and the deputy Kurdish prime minister has warned that such an "economic tsunami" may impede what has been one of the more successful fronts against IS.

Macro issues can wait while the fight against IS continues

In more positive news, production and oil exports from the south have been relatively unscathed by the chaos elsewhere in the country, despite reports of the crime rate soaring as security resources are redeployed elsewhere.

Baghdad has to prepare itself for a change in relations with the US, with a new president in the White House early next year.

There is also the small matter of the future of Kirkuk, arrangements on federalism, energy deals with the Kurds and the continued humanitarian crisis caused by fallout from the fighting which has seen tens of thousands forced from their homes.

Yet these macro issues can wait while the fight against IS continues, and while the Kurds don't see Baghdad as being ready to take Mosul.

This year, Abadi will be desperate to prove them wrong.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.