ISIS is Losing in Iraq. But What Happens Next?

Major part of an article by Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in The New York Times, February 4

In Iraq, the good news always seems to come mixed with bad.

The good news right now is largely on the military front. Iraqi, Kurdish and American forces appear to be turning the tide against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

American air operations have inflicted heavy losses on the group – killing its fighters, destroying its equipment, disrupting its command and impeding its movements.

As a result, the Islamic State is more and more on the defensive. It has not made any significant conquests since the summer. During the past month, it mounted a major offensive in western Anbar Province but achieved only modest gains.

American military officials in Iraq tell me they are confident that a smaller, revamped Iraqi Army will be ready to begin big operations to retake Iraq from the Islamic State in the next four to eight months. Kurdish and Iraqi forces have largely secured Baghdad and its environs, made gains in the cities of Baiji and Samarra, cut off the road by which the Islamic State was supporting its garrison in Mosul from its base in Syria, and are encroaching on Mosul itself. In 6 to 18 months, the Islamic State may be driven out of Iraq altogether.

That would seem to be a good thing – a stunning reversal from just six months ago, when the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq like a juggernaut.

The problem is that political progress in Iraq has not kept pace with the military campaign. In fact, political reconciliation between the Sunni and Shiite communities is at a standstill. A military victory under these circumstances could turn into a “catastrophic success.”

Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities are captive to the mistrust from the 2006–08 civil war, inflamed by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s violent treatment of the Sunnis from 2010 to 2014 and the subsequent Sunni embrace of the Islamic State.

On top of that, many of Iraq’s recent conquests were won by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The government does not like to admit it, but these Shiite militias often lead Iraqi attacks and form the backbone of their defenses.

In these circumstances, offensive operations into the Sunni heartland – Anbar, Nineveh and Salah al-Din Provinces – could be disastrous.

The Sunni populace is terrified by reports of Shiite troops and militiamen conducting brutal ethnic cleansing operations. Without a new power-sharing agreement, promises that they will not be mistreated, and a program for reconstruction, the Sunnis may well see Iraqi government forces (and even the Kurds) not as liberators, but as a conquering Shiite army.

If that is the case, they will defend the Islamic State and, even if it is defeated, resist the Shiite forces. Military victory would not end the slow-burning Iraqi civil war, but inflame it….

Many of the most important Shiite leaders oppose reconciliation because they distrust the Sunnis. Others will block anything Mr. Abadi does so that they can undermine him and take his place. Mr. Abadi is further constrained by Iran, which seems interested in reconciliation, but only on its own terms.

For its part, the Sunni leadership is fragmented as a result of Mr. Maliki’s campaign against it. Many Shiite leaders shrug off calls for compromise with the Sunnis by claiming that they have no strong, legitimate Sunni partner to bargain with.

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