Challenges to Peace in Post-ISIS Iraq

An aerial view of the destroyed al-Nuri mosque and Old City of Mosul, Iraq. June 28, 2017. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Iraqi security forces today liberated the ruins of al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, the site from which the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) announced its caliphate three years ago. Celebrating this symbolic victory, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “the end of the [Islamic] state of falsehood.” However, his words belie the deeper challenge facing his government in the months ahead. As Iraqi security forces enter the final phase of their nine-month battle in Mosul, Iraq still lacks a coherent strategy for ensuring stability or reconstruction in liberated areas.

Now, Iraqi commanders are beginning to transition from offensive combat operations toward a post-liberation constabulary phase. As they do so, already overstretched forces may struggle to maintain security in areas that, after several years of occupation by ISIS, lack functioning state administrative institutions. With all eyes on the military’s advances against ISIS in northern Iraq since October 2016, policymakers in Baghdad have yet to address critical medium- and long-term governance priorities in Mosul and across the country, raising the specter of future insecurity if left to fester.

Efforts to meet this challenge have been handicapped by an ongoing economic crisis and political competition between armed groups inside areas cleared of ISIS. A series of informal interviews with government security forces and residents inside Mosul conducted during March-April 2017 indicated that these conditions are fostering waste and a lack of transparency, as well as fueling the growth of non-state providers of essential services to fill the government’s absence. By replacing (or, in some cases, subverting) state institutions, these operations (which often resemble mafia networks) create an extortive environment in which civilian populations may lose ownership over their community’s recovery.

As the Mosul battle grinds into its final stages, the next great test for Iraqi leaders will be whether they can administer liberated areas while maintaining security elsewhere in the country. The greatest spoilers for Iraq’s short- and medium-term stability may not be reinvigorated insurgency, but ultimately organized crime, corruption, and poorly managed rivalries between local actors. Confronting these developments before they solidify requires looking beyond Mosul or the Ninewa Plains. Capitalizing on the Iraqi Army’s current universal popularity, Baghdad could instead rebalance the limited security and reconstruction resources at its disposal to ensure security and strengthen local legitimacy in Mosul and areas neglected during the anti-ISIS campaign.

Mosul’s Uncertain Liberation

In Mosul, liberation without a complementary plan for sustained recovery has created unmet needs among fragile populations that will endure after emergency supplies are exhausted. Numerous security officials, provincial administrators, and civil society leaders in the city describe the need to restore essential services, sources of income, and safety to vulnerable communities. Otherwise, they stress, militias and criminal gangs will fill the vacuum, exploiting local populations to seize resources, pursue their own self interests, and fuel anger against perceived government neglect. Such risks have precedent. In the years preceding Mosul’s collapse in June 2014, ISIS’s predecessors had infiltrated the city’s municipal offices, allowing them to extort taxes from residents in exchange for services that Baghdad failed to provide. These networks helped the insurgents seize the city and vast swaths of surrounding territory that summer with relative ease.

Today, non-state actors may be again coopting service delivery networks. In March-April, many Moslawis (residents of Mosul) complained about the emergence of informal providers of resources—including water, electricity, and medicine—highlighting deeper cleavages between neighborhoods and the security actors that control them. For many sub-state groups, ownership of reconstruction projects in a given zone of control has become a lucrative means of building legitimacy among local populations and securing funding from federal and provincial sources. According to Ninewa security officials, approximately 30-39 distinct armed groups—including elements of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and Sunni tribal mobilization forces—have established zones of operation within Mosul. These groups sometimes compete with city, provincial, and federal security forces, particularly in terms of screening for suspected ISIS members amid civilian populations and conducting counterterrorism operations.

According to recent opinion polling, Moslawis generally trust the Iraqi Army and commend its soldiers’ bravery; however, their opinions of local and national political leaders are much more negative. Most civilians do not trust politicians to manage medium- or long-term reconstruction needs, instead leaving Mosul to the mercy of militia interests or organized criminal elements. Many concluded quietly that local and national leaders seek only to enhance their own political influence by controlling funds and human resources in the city. As one local NGO official in Nabi Younis neighborhood explained, “for Mosul’s people to have any security or future, they must form their own militia with local men that can collect money and enforce its own laws.” Across the city in the al-Quds neighborhood, an administrator for a local primary healthcare clinic expressed greater resignation: “We do not need any parliamentary representative or ministry official to speak on our behalf. Instead, we know the guidelines, and must pay our dues to the correct people if we want to recover our lives. Our future must be local. We can do this ourselves.”

Her comments speak to the hyper-local nature of post-liberation politics and reconstruction in Mosul. Within some of the city’s liberated eastern neighborhoods, residential streets are divided by two or three checkpoints, each one manned by a distinct militia unit, sometimes alongside federal police or the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division forces. One resident in the al-Thaqafa neighborhood expressed apprehension concerning these groups, stating, “Those guys are crazy; I know not to take any photos near their position or make eye contact with them, because they will cause a great deal of trouble for me.” A father of three in the nearby al-Muhandiseen neighborhood echoed this sentiment, concluding that “the Iraqi Army is full of heroes, but we have no idea about these other units. I worry they will harass my young sons, or give them trouble or harm.” His neighbor described the situation in simpler terms: “Give me a shovel and I will volunteer to repair my city’s roads and homes—if the gangs don’t stop or replace me.”

Since January 2017, many of the factions to which these civilians referred have established schemes to provide resources lacking across Mosul. In late March, a group of masked men removed newly installed water pumps and electrical generators from a sanitation facility in eastern Mosul. While small-scale looting has been reported across the city’s liberated areas as civilians struggle to restore lost livelihoods, this incident was different. One week after its disappearance, the equipment was quietly returned undamaged. No explanation was given, nor was any investigation opened. A local NGO official later explained how “the theft was a simple but dangerous warning that police and army do not control Mosul…. Instead, the city belongs to political forces, which often seek only personal gain.” Another physician at a local healthcare clinic concluded after a shipment of intravenous fluid disappeared that, “We must buy back our own material. Right now, we are struggling to survive, even as we are bled from all sides.”

Civilians across eastern Mosul understand this warning well. For example, nearly four months after liberation, residents of Rashidiya neighborhood must dig their own makeshift wells, sometimes selling water or pump access to neighbors. Entrepreneurs have established networks of diesel-powered generators, and charge local “managers” a monthly rent to provide electricity in their areas. In Rashidiya, one such individual is able to collect $7 per ampere from residents, selling about $21 worth of electricity per family in a month. Local NGOs and community organizations must navigate these non-state economies, which lack accountability and are vulnerable to infiltration from divisive armed groups and militias.

With new funding sources and local influence, many of these groups are able to act as muscle for political parties and parliamentary blocs, securing political and financial interests within the reconstruction context. For example, in Nabi Younis, a member of parliament who is also a prominent figure within a minority ethnic militia has reportedly received government funding to rebuild areas around the famed Shrine of Jonah,  as well as the shrine itself. According to a Ninewa antiquities official in charge of the site’s preservation, “Such an award means that the militias will take credit for rebuilding these areas, and take a cut of the funding set aside for reconstruction. They can put their flag on the heritage these areas hold, and they will deepen their financial independence from Baghdad.”

Implications Beyond Mosul

The interviews in Mosul revealed a city in the tense early liberation phase, during which government security forces must counter nascent networks of corruption and simultaneously dismantle remaining ISIS cells. With limited reconstruction funding and heavily depleted army units after three years of combat, policymakers in Baghdad and their international partners have struggled to devise a comprehensive post-liberation roadmap for reconstruction and governance in northern Iraq. Nascent territorialism in Mosul ultimately threatens long-term reconstruction efforts by institutionalizing division between traumatized populations and non-state security actors, as well as by breeding local resentment at perceived government neglect. The Iraqi government appears ill-equipped to reverse trends toward factionalism without international assistance, jeopardizing hard-won gains in the war against ISIS.

This need to manage complex relationships in northern Iraq has drained security resources from elsewhere in the country, fueling crime, violence, and waste far away from Mosul’s battlefield. Over 950 kilometers away in the southern city of Basra, for example, lawlessness today is symptomatic of the security forces’ overstretch. In late 2014, an Iraqi military division of about 8,000 soldiers, along with a police battalion of approximately 500 police officers, were redeployed from Basra to the northern frontlines, leaving only nine incomplete police battalions and one army battalion to secure a province of three million people. Criminal gangs and militias quickly exploited the security vacuum; over the past three years, incidents of theft, armed robbery, kidnapping, tribal conflict, and drug trafficking have risen sharply. Local officials have reported nearly 300 serious crimes per month since 2015 – including assassinations and improvised explosive device attacks.

The Iraqi government’s “whack-a-mole” effort against insecurity belies deeper implications for its ability to prevent future conflict across the country. Baghdad has not yet adopted a strategic approach to post-ISIS and post-Mosul security, particularly within semi-governed spaces like Basra—Iraq’s economically vital province, which holds about 70% of its oil reserves. Iraqis across the country today overwhelmingly trust state security forces to guarantee their safety. Encouragingly, the US Defense Department train-and-equip budget request for 2018 reflects a focus-shift away from Mosul to tasks neglected over the past three years, such as empowering state forces to confront militia, criminal, and tribal threats. However, without similar and international support to address manpower and funding shortages beyond the emergency context, it will be difficult for Iraq to meet these challenges alone.

Early observations from Mosul indicate that countering militia influence in liberated neighborhoods will require long-term Iraqi security forces engagement. The Iraqi government derives legitimacy from its ability to provide security. To rebuild state legitimacy and institutions in liberated territory, Baghdad must first ensure a sufficient level of safety for war-weary populations. Overcoming non-state challenges to this authority will prove a costly endeavor and may push the Iraqi government to make a difficult choice about where best to commit its limited security resources: Should it commit its forces to dismantle corruption and extortive networks in Mosul, or focus on a national security strategy while giving ground to non-state actors in the north?  Ultimately, the strategies Baghdad adopts in the coming months could determine the country’s trajectory after ISIS.

Matthew Schweitzer is a Researcher at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington, DC, and the editor of