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After Mosul: Iraq must begin process to erase sectarian wounds

As the IS suffers serious reverses, Baghdad must wage a political fight as well

The loss of Mosul is perhaps the biggest military setback for the Islamic State. Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul was the jewel of the IS’s military gains, a place where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his ‘Caliphate’ in June 2014. In less than three years, the IS’s territory has shrunk. It once controlled huge swathes in central and eastern Syria and north-western Iraq, but its influence is now limited to some pockets, through sustained military operations in which several actors such as Kurdish and Shia militias, Iraqi and Syrian armies and the U.S. and Russian air forces were involved. A few weeks ago, the IS lost the ancient city of Palmyra to the Syrian army. And now, it’s been practically defeated in Mosul. Iraqi troops have already captured the Mosul airport and major administrative buildings, and liberated population centres. What remains is isolated resistance by small groups of jihadists. It was a prolonged campaign. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the Mosul offensive in October 2016, and the troops, backed by Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias on the ground and U.S. air power in the sky, moved inch by inch. They first liberated eastern Mosul, the left bank of the Tigris that divides the city into two, and then moved to the west, the IS’s power centre.

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 A resident sits on a hill overlooking Eski Mosul, Iraq. The hole next to him is a grave that was opened up by the IS militants and used as a sniper hideout.
Inside Islamic State group's rule

The defeat in Mosul does not mean that the threat from the IS is over. The group still has presence in some pockets in Iraq and in at least two major cities in Syria, Raqqa and suburbs of Deir ez-Zor. Even if the group loses its territories, it could transform itself into a state-less jihadist group like al-Qaeda and continue to target civilians in the region and beyond. But still, the larger argument is that without territories, the IS couldn’t claim to be a ‘Caliphate’. It will be driven away from cities to deserts and mountains, wrecking its conventional military capabilities. In the short run, the military operations to liberate territories from the IS in Syria and Iraq should continue; in the longer run, the respective governments should adopt a more comprehensive approach to deal with the asymmetric threats the group will pose. In Iraq, for example, the IS’s eventual defeat depends on how the government addresses Shia-Sunni tensions. Prime Minister al-Abadi appears to be clear on his preferences. Unlike his predecessor whose Shia sectarian policies drove the Sunni population to revolt against Baghdad, a resentment which the IS exploited for popular support, Mr. al-Abadi tried to reach out to the Sunnis and promised to heal the sectarian wounds. After the military victory in Mosul, he has to make sure that the Sunnis are treated as equal citizens and share power equitably. This may not happen overnight given the deep sectarian divisions. But Mr. al-Abadi should at least begin a process that would erase the suspicions among Sunnis about the government. Else, IS-like outfits will continue to channelise support and regroup.

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