MOSUL, Iraq – Iraqi forces helped by U.S. airpower have clawed back much of this broken city from the Islamic State. But as you approach East Mosul, the military checkpoints on the rutted road aren’t manned by the Iraqi army. Nor are they flying the flag of Iraq.
The uniformed Iraqis at the checkpoints are members of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that now control the entrance to this Sunni Arab city. Rather than fly the red, white, and black Iraqi banner, the militiamen display a religious flag adorned with the face of the holiest Shiite icon, the prophet’s grandson Imam Hussain. As if to hammer home the message, the face of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adorns a large placard tacked to a post on the road.
Washington should regard the black flags as a warning signal. Even before the Islamic State is fully defeated, Shiite Iran is laying the groundwork to expand its deep penetration of Iraq (with whom it shares a nearly 1,000-mile border). Tehran wants to control the Baghdad government through its Shiite political and militia proxies, marginalizing Sunnis, including in Mosul.
But judging by history, repression in Sunni areas of Iraq will provide fertile ground for the next jihadi movement to take root.
So the Shiite flags at Mosul’s gateway signal that a military defeat of the Islamic State is insufficient. There must also be a political plan (although none is yet evident in Baghdad or Washington) to assure Sunnis of a role in a post-Islamic State Iraq.
That plan is needed sooner rather than later. So far, the Shiite militias are not entering the city proper, Mosul residents tell me. “Right now they are not pushing people out,” says an elementary school teacher who lives in East Mosul. He says, however, that sectarian Shiite political parties linked to the militias are already opening offices in the city.
In other contested parts of Iraq, hardline Shiite militias are ethnically cleansing Sunnis from towns and villages to create a Sunni-free corridor from Iran across Iraq to the Syrian border. (That will enable Tehran to send men and heavy weapons by a land route through Syria to its anti-Israel ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.) These militias receive extensive Iranian support and Iraqi government funds.
Maslawis (as Mosul natives are called) view the Iraqi military far more positively than they do the militias, even though Iraqi forces are composed heavily of Shiites (who make up a majority of the population). That’s because Iraqi forces are loyal to the state, not to Shiite political parties or Tehran.
I heard nothing but praise for the behavior of the Iraqi military units that entered the city, especially the U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service, or CTS. “The only force people like is the CTS and (its) Golden Division,” the prominent Sunni Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar told me. “It did not force people to leave their homes.”
Although the militias are technically under military control, no one knows their future after the Islamic State is defeated. Sunnis fear they will act as armed wings of competing Shiite parties or an Iraqi version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps, which took over Iran’s army from within.
And Sunnis rightly fear Iran’s long-term intentions. They know Tehran still remembers Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran, when Sunnis ran Iraq, and the decade-long war that followed. “Iran wants to see Iraq’s Sunnis weak and divided,” one Sunni politician told me, “so the 1980s can never happen again.”
Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, who will visit Washington this week, says all the right things about reconciliation with Sunnis. “We are proud of our diversity,” he said this month at a forum sponsored by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. “Victory will be done when we are united.”
Yet Sunnis in Mosul have yet to see any of the $500 million set aside by the Iraqi finance ministry for reconstruction. Nor is it clear when hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents who fled the fighting will be permitted to return home.
Moreover, Maslawis worry about who is going to protect them from terrorism, or displacement, after the Islamic State is defeated. The 8,000 Sunni tribesmen trained by U.S. forces as a “hold force” to secure Mosul after the Islamic State have been deployed but have yet to make an impact.
Once U.S. air power is no longer needed to target the Islamic State, Maslawis believe Iran will press the Baghdad government to kick U.S. forces out of the country. Having once been hostile to the American presence, Sunnis now want those forces to stay.
They know the Iranians are very clever at playing the long game. Tehran appears eager to shift Iraqi politics toward a system where the Shiite majority assumes permanent dominance over the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
The Iranians are buying off weak Sunni politicians, helping to keep a divided community even more so. Money is also flowing to small minority groups like the Shiite Shabaks, who are manning the checkpoints at the entry to Mosul. Shabaks are a tiny Iraqi ethno-religious sect that, I’m told, had never taken up arms before.
All this raises the question of what options Washington has in Iraq to offset Iran and prevent the Islamic State 2.0. Here’s what savvy Iraqi Arabs and Kurds told me they hope a Trump administration will do:
First, stay engaged with Iraq and retain a military presence to help Iraqi forces prevent an Islamic State resurgence.
Second, bolster Abadi against Iranian efforts to back a hardline Shiite opponent. For starters, encourage America’s Gulf Arab allies to help finance Sunni reconstruction.
Washington should also aid Mosul’s civil society activists who are trying to rebuild from the ground up.
Third, press Baghdad to adopt a federal system, which the country’s constitution provides for, so Sunnis can establish their own provinces within the country. Iran and Shiite parties will oppose this formula, but it’s the only way to convince Iraq’s Sunnis that they have a future.
All this requires serious, long-term U.S. engagement, which may not appeal to a Trump administration. But, as the Shiite flags outside Mosul make clear, shorter-term thinking will be costly.
Absent a strong U.S. effort, the next iteration of the Islamic State will grow in Iraq.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.