After IS: a new fight to unite Iraq

Open wound: The conflict in Iraq has killed around 700,000 people since 2003. © Getty

Iraq’s Islamic State nightmare is slowly drawing to its close. But defeating the militants will still leave a society mired in complex tensions. Can Iraq ever become a normal nation again?

The march of Islamic State (IS) through vast swathes of Iraq was as astonishing for its speed as for its brutality. But while the fight to defeat the militants has been much longer, it now seems like the end is nigh for IS in Iraq.

On Sunday, after eight days of fighting, Iraqi forces had retaken most of Tal Afar, an IS stronghold in northwest Iraq. This comes just one month after the Iraqi government declared victory in Mosul, the city from which IS declared a caliphate over three years ago.

Yet a new wave of vengeance killings is taking place in areas formerly under IS control. It is estimated that 10–15% of the population of Nineveh Province, of which Mosul is the capital, were involved with IS through a family member or employment.

Anyone suspected of having even the most minor role in the running of IS is targeted. “I would kill every last one of the IS families,” said one fighter.

This is just one manifestation of the task that lies ahead to rebuild Iraq. The issues that led to IS remain in a country which has not seen stable government for 14 years — and even that was the murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

For decades, Iraq has seen division and mistrust grow between its two main communities: the Muslim sects Shias and Sunnis. When Saddam, a Sunni, was in power, the Shias were ignored. Now the Sunnis feel shunned by the Shia-majority government.

But it is more complex than that. Iraq’s Yazidi population has been decimated by genocide, while the Kurds are pushing for independence from this tangled mess.

“This isn’t over … it will become sect versus sect, party against party, neighbour versus neighbour,” said one government official.

But most conflicts do eventually resolve themselves. Peace-minded Iraqis can take heart from the example of Rwanda. In 1994, one million people were killed in the space of a month, often by acquaintances. Now it is safe and free.

Vietnam is another example of a seemingly failed state becoming peaceful. Can Iraq ever do the same?

Keeping the peace

Some say that Iraq’s problems are too deep to be solved in the medium-term. This is not a case of a two-way dispute fought on a single issue, but of pervasive multi-faceted conflict, with religion, territory and natural resources all at stake. Add to that the fact that Iraq is surrounded by unstable states, and the prospects look grim.

But people have said that about countless other civil wars, reply others. All it really takes is one thing: a government that can earn the trust of a majority from most communities in Iraq. That is easier said than done, but the Iraqi people will surely one day put aside their differences and come together in the national interest.

You Decide

  1. Will Iraq be peaceful in 20 years’ time?
  2. What do you think is the single most important reason for the conflict in Iraq?


  1. On a map, plot the rise and fall of Islamic State in Iraq.
  2. Research one conflict that lasted for more than 20 years. In 500 words, explain why it lasted so long and how it eventually ended.

Some People Say...

“Democracy will never work in the Middle East.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that IS (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) is close to being driven out of its remaining territory in Iraq. From its height in mid to late 2015 it has lost over half its total territory in Syria and Iraq, and has lost the key city of Mosul after a long struggle. However, the sectarian conflicts that gave rise to IS are unlikely to disappear overnight, and a long period of rebuilding will be required.
What do we not know?
How long that will take, and whether a uniting figure will emerge from Iraqi politics, or whether more international support will be needed to build stability. We also cannot predict whether or how events in Iraq’s neighbouring states, especially Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will affect the future for Iraq.

Word Watch

The Iraqi army virtually downed tools as IS swept through the Sunni heartlands of Iraq. At one point, Islamic State controlled territory just 50 miles away from Baghdad, Iraq’s capital.
Most of Tal Afar
Iraqi forces have taken back the city’s 29 neighbourhoods, but are waiting until they have retaken the surrounding areas before declaring a complete victory.
An Islamic state (note the lower-case “s”) that is ruled by a “caliph” — a political and religious leader. There is much debate within Islam about what such a state should look like, if it should exist at all.
Shias and Sunnis
Of Iraqis 87% follow Islam: 65%–75% Shia (mainly in the south) and 15%–21% Sunni (mainly in the north).
An ethno-religious group native to northern Iraq, the Yazidis were targeted by IS from August 2014. At least 4,000 people were murdered, while many others were taken to be slaves in IS territory.
The Iraqi Kurds are holding an unofficial independence referendum on September 25th this year. They are very likely to vote yes, but the result will probably be ignored for now.


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