Three years ago the prospects for Iraq were grim, and saving it looked uncertain. The Islamic State (IS) terror group had made stunning advances and captured large swathes of territory in the country. The Iraqi Kurds in their northern autonomous enclave had also taken advantage of the chaos and seized huge chunks of land, giving a boost to their vaunted secession.
Iraq seemed to be on the brink of falling apart: the militants had declared an Islamic caliphate over some one third of the country, the Kurds had started preparations for an independence referendum, and a total collapse of the national order looked imminent.
Since then, the Shia-led central government in Baghdad has succeeded in driving the IS terror group out from main cities and managed to confront Kurdish separatism by retaking control of territory claimed by the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG).
But as the Iraqi conflict enters its 15th year, the battle lines drawn with the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein are fundamentally the same and still frame the conflict.
As the threats from IS and Kurdish separatism recede, the country has now entered a transitional phase that is both complex and fragile, presenting challenges which cloud the nation’s future and also opportunities to break with the past.
The Iraqi state has accumulated conflicts over the last 15 years that have affected its ability to maintain stability and national cohesion. In order to end this dangerous phase in Iraq’s history, the country needs to address such obstacles before it can stand on its feet again.
The lesson of the past decade-and-a-half is that stabilisation is the key challenge that Iraq faces and that some significant impediments to stability lie in the fragile state that emerged after Saddam’s fall and the ethno-sectarian-based regime that replaced it.
The successful campaign against IS has underscored the need for political, economic and social solutions for the problems that have fuelled the Shia-Sunni conflict that gave rise to IS.
Such an endeavour can only begin if Iraq’s communal leaders look beyond the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions and find ways to work together to face the full nature of these problems.
The Iraqi government has been talking about national reconciliation and a rebuilding programme following the defeat of IS to stabilise the newly liberated areas and heal the wounds left by war.
But while working on an effective state and nation-building programme remains necessary to maintain the country’s unity, Iraq’s communities should come up with concrete and workable plans to end their divisions and bridge their communal visions.
A first step should be for these communities to reach a new social and political contract for a functioning national political structure to replace the current dysfunctional system.
One essential element in such a strategy should be to reach out to the disgruntled Sunni population and address their grievances of exclusion and marginalisation that were used by IS to launch its insurgency.
While reconstruction and national healing remain necessary, efforts should focus on addressing the root causes that led to the rise of IS and immunise the liberated areas from falling back into the hands of extremists.
Iraq’s other main challenge is how to deal with its long-standing Kurdish question. This has recently been inflamed by the failure of the referendum on the Kurdistan Region’s independence after opposition from Baghdad and Iraq’s neighbours.
Iraq can certainly point to major successes in stopping Kurdistan from splitting from Iraq, but it can hardly claim that it has crushed the Kurds’ deep-rooted dream of independence.
There is a risk that old tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds will re-emerge where these have not been mended and that grievances were set aside after the Kurds were granted autonomy in 2003.
As the KRG has now decided to put independence on hold and seek negotiations with Baghdad, the central government needs to stop being arrogant or bullying in trying to humiliate the Kurds for holding the poll in the first place.
The Baghdad government’s preconditions for talks with the KRG on normalising ties with Irbil, especially its insistence on the cancellation of the results of the referendum, are harsh and humiliating. The KRG has already accepted a ruling by the country’s supreme court that declared the referendum null and void.
As the deadlock lingers, the Iraqi-Kurdish dispute will remain a great challenge to the country’s stability, and the Iraqi state could enter a prolonged and dangerous crisis with its Kurdish population.
The Kurds’ longing for independence as demonstrated by the 25 September vote was a painful reminder that the Iraqi Kurds’ ultimate aim of breaking away from the rest of Iraq can still stir the blood in Kurdistan and in Iraq as a whole.
While Iraq’s military successes against IS and the Kurdish referendum’s failure should be factored into the new reality, the political processes that were launched in the country after the US-led invasion might now need a reset.
In order for this to move forward, a transitional period should start now alongside an effective, well-defined and sustainable stabilisation programme.
This will require renegotiating the political system with both the Kurds and the country’s Sunnis, including by writing a new constitution and electing a new parliament that will choose a government that will take responsibility for implementing a new national contract.
If these two major challenges continue unaddressed, stability in Iraq will continue to shrink and the country will remain in deadlock over its lingering communal disputes.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for next May hold tremendous implications for Iraq’s future and the course of the ongoing conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and led to an existential national crisis.
But Iraq seems to be ill-prepared for the vote, given its political turmoil and the push by its incompetent and corrupt political elite to consolidate its grip on power.
The ruling Shia political class in Iraq is trying to seize on the victory over IS to continue monopolising power and to re-establish its hegemony. Even more dramatic is the emerging struggle between the Shia political groups and the Shia militias over power.
Several militia groups have expressed their willingness to participate in the elections next year, and they hope that their role in the victory over IS will be translated into a large number of seats in the next parliament.
However, a political role for the militias will increase apprehensions among the country’s Kurds and Sunnis and enhance ethnic and sectarian polarisation. It will also trigger the further militarisation of Iraqi politics, a recipe for further conflicts and chaos.
On the other hand, many Sunnis are concerned that neither the national polity nor the local social order are ripe for credible elections on 12 May, and they want these to be postponed until a stabilisation and reconstruction plan is put into effect in their areas taken back from IS.
They specifically want the two million or so displaced persons still in camps or in Iraqi Kurdistan to return to their homes so that they can take part in free-and-fair elections.
The other problem casting its shadow over the elections is the dispute with Iraqi Kurdistan. If the political deadlock between Baghdad and the KRG over the referendum continues, the elections will be thrown into doubt as the Kurds will increasingly feel marginalised in Iraq.
It is not yet clear whether the government has a strategy to deal with these challenges, which will largely determine the future of Iraq in the short and medium terms. If it fails to meet these challenges, many Iraqis fear that this will set things back further, including by resuscitating the IS insurgency and Kurdish separatism.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly