As Mosul falls, a new threat to peace looms

As Mosul falls, a new threat to peace looms
Comment: The war on IS has partially suppressed disagreements among the different Shia blocs in Iraq, but as victory draws closer, tensions are rising once again, writes Mona Alami.
4 min read
23 Mar, 2017
Fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Units after recapturing a village near Mosul from IS [AFP]

As the war against the Islamic State group (IS) appears to be entering its final stages in the city of Mosul, Iraq seems more divided than ever.

Yet the post-IS phase may be marked not only by increasing ethnic and sectarian strife, but also by internal communitarian struggles, particularly among Shias.

Divisions among the Shia community in Iraq are echoed in the country's fractured nature as a whole.

The fight to push out the Islamic State group looks likely to end successfully in the next few months. But the military victory may be mitigated by dissent among the various Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) factions attempting to capitalise on the terror organisation's losses, each with differing views of what the next phase should entail.

The PMU Shia militias were formed at the behest of grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who called on Shia volunteers to rise against IS advances in Iraq in 2014.

The respected cleric insisted that the formation of the militias should be temporary, to be disbanded once IS had been crushed.

The military victory may be mitigated by dissensions among the various Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) factions

Last year, a new law passed by the Iraqi parliament designated the PMU an official military force, operating in parallel to other security forces. In addition, PMU militias appear to have been eyeing Iraq's upcoming local elections, and the 2018 federal elections, with tensions rising between the three main PMU blocs.

The first is led by Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr, a respected Iraqi cleric who has placed himself at the vanguard of the war on corruption. Sadr has also been pushing his Initial Solutions plan, a national reconciliation proposal for post-IS Iraq which is backed by many Sunnis.

But the plan seems incompatible with the views of another major Shia player, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Sadr's initiative encompasses a UN-supported entity focusing on human rights and minorities, and calls for a dialogue among political players and the dissolution of the PMU - with their integration into the standard national security forces.

The war on IS has to an extent, suppressed disagreements among the different blocs vying for regional and political power

Sadr also argues for the expulsion of "occupying" as well as "friendly" forces. The Sadrist movement has also called for electoral reforms, which would put an end to Maliki's political hegemony.

This puts Sadr at odds with Maliki, Iran's man in Iraq. A controversial figure, accused of rampant corruption and of contributing to the country's divide - facilitating the rise of IS - Maliki still has ambitions for the premiership. Building on his role in the creation of the PMU, he feels a certain entitlement after the victories in the war on IS.

  Read More: Iraq: The legacy of a disastrous invasion lives on

The third major Shia bloc is led by the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ammar Hakim. Hakim has been arguing for a large-scale reconciliation process that remains somewhat vague and does not, as yet, seem to have seduced the Sunni constituency.

The war on IS has, to an extent, suppressed disagreements among the different blocs vying for regional and political power, without preventing clashes. Last February, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's procession was attacked by pro-Sadrist university students in Kut. According to some, Sadr accused former Prime Minister Maliki of being behind the attack, claiming it was motivated by a desire to distort the Sadrist movement's image.

Last April, pro-Sadrist crowds stormed parliament, with Shia factions coming close to direct paramilitary confrontation. The takeover of the parliament came after rival political groups blocked parliamentary approval of a new cabinet made up of independent technocrats.

The political infighting marked by intermittent episodes of violence offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead for Iraq in the post-IS phase. The prospect of domestic strife risks taking centre stage, with a resurgence in the struggle for dominance among the Shia constituency.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

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.