The Fight For Mosul: Learning From The Past

The Islamic State will only be ousted from Iraq’s second largest city if Sunni tribal forces join the fight. That will require rebuilding their trust in Baghdad.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has been occupied by the self-proclaimed Islamic State since June 2014. The situation for its residents, Moslawis, is deteriorating, and the isolated city has two to four hours of running water and electricity per week and no functioning Internet or mobile phone networks. It is, moreover, becoming a staging ground for Islamic State radicalization.

To combat the largely Sunni extremist group in Iraq, as well as the growing radicalization linked to it across the region, many analysts are calling for another Sunni Awakening. That Sunni mobilization during Iraq’s 2006–2008 civil war helped to push Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) into obscurity, and the Sunni community will again need to mobilize its fighters and battle against Islamic State soldiers if Mosul is to be reclaimed.

But the effort to launch a new Awakening faces grave challenges. Sunnis have little trust in the Iraqi political establishment; their unwillingness to take up arms is partly due to the negative legacy left by the government of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. But Sunnis’ hesitation also stems from the rise of Shia militias—which mobilized to combat the Islamic State and now operate across Iraq with impunity—as well as from Iran’s growing influence in the current conflict and, they fear, the country.

Iraqi officials have proposed the establishment of a national guard, which would institutionalize and unite Sunni tribal forces. Sunni tribal leaders also see it as a way to ensure that their forces, rather than Shia militias or Kurdish forces (the peshmerga), provide security to their region. An Iraqi national guard would help address concerns of both Sunni and Shia leaders, and is an essential component of any effective strategy to counter the Islamic State in Iraq.

Maliki’s Legacy
In the fight against AQI, Iraq’s Sunnis put their trust in Maliki, choosing to support the Shia leader over other political actors like the Jaysh Rijal Al-Tariqa Al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), a Sufi-Baathist group of former Saddam loyalists.

One key to winning that Sunni support was Maliki’s cross-ethnic targeting of extremists, who were defined not by sect, but by extralegal militancy. This policy, pursued at the urging of General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and other U.S. officials increased Sunnis’ trust of Maliki, as they began to believe that an institutionalized Iraq could in fact protect them from the horrors of Shia militias and from Sunni extremist groups.

Under this demilitarization policy—a frequently overlooked piece of the Awakening puzzle—Maliki initiated several operations beginning in 2007. Operation Imposing Law (Fardh Al-Qanoon), for instance, combated both AQI and Shia militiamen in the streets of Baghdad. More critically, Operation Knights’ Charge (Saulat Al-Fursan) took the battle against Shia militias to another level by combating them in Shia-dominated Basra and southern Iraq. Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (Jaysh Al-Mahdi), the largest Shia militia, became notorious at the time for horrifically murdering and torturing Sunnis throughout Iraq. Maliki, who himself was often at odds with Sadr, a radical Shia cleric, initiated a successful policy to drive the militia out of Iraq.

The original Sunni Awakening would not have been successful in ridding Iraqi territories of AQI had it not been for this two-pronged strategy of targeting both Sunni and Shia militias. The approach eventually led the country into an era of good governance under which the Sunni tribes made attempts to trust the new political establishment in Baghdad. From these battles, Maliki emerged as “al-mokhtar” (the chosen one) and championed the antimilitia movement. Maliki even named his electoral coalition bloc Dawlat Al-Qanoon, meaning State of Law, an explicit reference to working against extralegal institutions, Sunni, Shia, and other.

But only a few years later, sectarianism again crept into Baghdad’s political narrative. Maliki let the Sunnis down, embracing a hypercentralized and authoritarian method of governance that marginalized them. When Sunnis, inspired by the Arab Spring, began to protest in 2011 against a perceived return to dictatorship, they were treated as foreign insurgents. Maliki’s regime began systematically torturing and killing Sunnis. His son Ahmed, moreover, gained notoriety by interrogating and unlawfully imprisoning Sunnis in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The Sunnis began referring to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which they had put their trust in as a cross-ethnic institutionalized military, as “Maliki’s Military,” which they said pursued Shia interests at their expense.

Maliki furthered his often violent rule by growing close with the League of the Righteous (Asaib Ahl Al-Haq), a splinter of the Jaysh Al-Mahdi, which he had fought against. The league, which Sadrists claim stems from the most notorious renegades of the cleric’s former group, began terrorizing Sunnis. In only a few years, Maliki ended the era of good governance and shattered the fledgling Sunni trust.

Today, Sunni trust in the Iraqi political establishment is even lower than it was during the U.S. occupation and the initial shock of regime change that transferred power from Sunni to Shia. Part of this is due to the sudden end of the era of good government and Sunni-Shia cooperation. Maliki successfully used “divide and conquer” tactics to humiliate those Sunni leaders who had given him their trust following the Awakening. Those who decided not to reengage with Baghdad then, such as the JRTN, had their approach legitimated, and they now take a “we told you so” stance.

Sunni distrust is evident in discussions about combating the Islamic State. As one Sunni tribal leader put it, “Why are Sunni fighters considered terrorists and Shia forces considered legal?” This gets to the heart of the issue: both Sunni and Shia extremists must be countered—as they were during the first Awakening—if Mosul and other areas are to be liberated from Islamic State control.

The crisis of trust is twofold. Sunnis are not willing to fight against the Islamic State in Mosul along with the powerful anti–Islamic State Shia militias that roam Iraq, and the Shia-dominated central government is not willing to send sufficient arms and finances to the Sunnis

Sunni Uncertainty Over What Comes Next
Sunni tribal leaders are the key to any political and military solution that can begin to address ridding Iraq of the Islamic State and the alarming rate of radicalization that has accompanied it. They are the same figures who, supported by the United States and Maliki, revolted against AQI during the original Awakening. And today, conversations with Sunni tribal leaders indicate that an overwhelming majority of them despise the Islamic State and its attempts to establish a caliphate, just as they detested AQI.

Yet these tribal leaders are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Islamic State has pushed many of the tribes away from governing their territories and has shattered their traditional structures of representation. The growing radicalization within territories occupied by the Islamic State calls into question their own legitimacy as tribal or political leaders.

The alternative is also bad. Iran has increased its leverage and presence in these areas. Reports of billboards displaying Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with a “we won’t be defeated” message in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities have only increased resentment and anxiety among the Sunnis. This indeed complicates initiatives to win Sunni participation in the effort to retake Mosul.

Iran’s presence is most associated with the rapid rise of the Shia militias. Unofficial reports estimate that some 60,000 to 90,000 fighters have taken up arms against the Islamic State. The Badr Brigades, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, enjoys considerable influence in the central government, and its leader, Hadi Al-Amiri, was even a candidate to be Iraq’s interior minister, before Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Al-Jaafari worked in the final moments to stop the bid. The ministry is nonetheless strongly influenced by Iran, and Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban was widely considered a weak compromise to allow Amiri and Tehran to continue to exert their control.

Kataib Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed militia that is related to the Lebanese Hezbollah, created the Popular Defense Companies to mobilize Iraqi Shia volunteers. It now controls swaths of land in Sunni-majority areas in Iraq, including in Baghdad, Diyala, and Amerli. Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, which enjoys strong support from Iran and Maliki, is similarly powerful. Iran’s fingerprints are thus all over Iraq, with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s special Revolutionary Guards unit, the Quds Force, photographed at various battles across the country.

These Shia militias pose several problems for resolving the Iraqi crisis. Under the banner of fighting the Islamic State, they have initiated a widespread program of kidnapping, extorting, torturing, and murdering Sunnis, with or without proof of links to extremist groups. For these acts, they face whatAmnesty International described as absolute impunity, as the Ministry of Interior works to cover up their crimes. In many cases, this includes officially listing deaths caused by torture and executions as “health problems” on death certificates.

So, while many Sunni tribal leaders share the Shia hatred of the Islamic State, they are hesitant to join the fight because they do not trust that what comes next will be better. They do not want to wage war, and spill their blood, simply to see the Islamic State’s control of their areas replaced by that of Iranian-backed Shia militias or the sectarian-minded ISF, run in part by an Interior Ministry with strong ties to Tehran. They are demanding guarantees that the militias be tackled, as Maliki tackled the Jaysh Al-Mahdi in 2008. Such guarantees have thus far not been made, and the tribal leaders’ general perception is that the government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, which took power in September 2014, is too weak to challenge the militias as Maliki did.

According to Sunnis from Mosul, Islamic State leaders told Iraqis in the city and elsewhere that the group has learned from past mistakes and is different from AQI. They are referring to AQI’s inattention to local Iraqi leaders and its strict implementation of sharia law, policies that were largely rejected by Iraqi Sunnis.

More critically, the group’s leaders have been telling Sunni Moslawis that ultimately the Islamic State is better than the only alternative: Iran and the Shia. Tribal leaders appear to be accepting this “best of the worst” argument and are unlikely to fight against Islamic State forces unless a more promising scenario is presented to them.

Trust in the ISF has similarly been shattered. Moslawis remember that the ISF did not try to stop theIslamic State’s advance into the city. Reports that ISF security forces allowed Shia militias and ISF forces to execute Sunnis under their watch further complicate the possibility of Sunnis joining with Shia in a new Awakening.

Sunnis complained in interviews that when the militias do target the Islamic State, it is generally to protect Shia communities and Iran’s border and interests. Sunni leaders say more attention has been paid to preventing the Islamic State from emerging on the border with Iran than arming groups to fight in Mosul. Even U.S. air campaigns are perceived to only be supporting Shia positions. As a result, some believe that the United States is only interested in strengthening Shia power in Baghdad, rather than reviving the approach that worked against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

During the original Awakening—when the United States was on the ground in Iraq and helping to administer the central government—U.S. funding and weapons were provided directly to Sunni leaders, and today, many favor the same approach. But the current U.S. policy is to supply the Sunnis indirectly, by sending arms and finances to Baghdad. Sunni leaders complain that Abadi’s government has yet to pass on such assistance, and they trust the Shia government even less than they trust the United States to ensure that such support is sent to them.

Underfunded and Underequipped
The other side of the crisis of trust is found in the central government in Baghdad. The Shia ruling elite is hesitant to provide weapons and funds to Sunni political or tribal parties because they are uncertain of where the aid will go—with many fearing that the leaders will simply give it or lose it to Islamic State fighters.

As Sunnis are well aware, the Shia militias are better paid and better equipped than their forces, courtesy of both Tehran and the central government of Baghdad. The Shia militias have received essential weapons, including M16 rifles and rifles with high-tech Steiner scopes, and, given their relative strength, they will need to be included in the battle to retake Mosul, along with the Kurdish peshmerga.

Funding Sunni forces is important for both restoring trust and strengthening local partners, who can then begin thinking about combating the Islamic State in Mosul and elsewhere. As the Sunni tribal leaders see it, both the Shia militias and the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq are directly receiving weapons, funding, and training from the international community to fend off the Islamic State—but their tribes remain dependent on Baghdad, and thus underfunded and underequipped. Without combating the lack of political trust between the camps, retaking Mosul from the Islamic State will remain problematic.

In several parts of the Nineveh Province, which includes Mosul, and other areas of northern Iraq, Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds are competing for territory and oil. While the Kurdistan Regional Government’s peshmerga can be expected to play a key role in any liberation of Mosul, there is a general mistrust among Sunnis that Kurdish fighters will use the opportunity to expand their jurisdiction. Some Moslawis are intrigued by the idea of becoming part of the Kurdistan Region simply because of its better experience with internal stability, a sharp contrast with the failed Iraqi security sector. But the majority would likely not welcome the peshmerga forces for a prolonged stay.

The Need for a National Guard
Iraqi and U.S. officials are preparing to try to retake Mosul by summer 2015. But for such an effort to succeed, local Sunni tribal forces must be reintegrated with the ISF. This step will unite the Sunni tribes—the only actors able to effectively command these areas—under an institutional framework and ensure they are sufficiently funded and equipped to take on the Islamic State.

Tribal acquiescence, in defiance of an untrustworthy Baghdad, is what facilitates the Islamic State in Mosul and other territories it controls. Removing the general perception that the ISF is a Shia instrument will make Sunnis feel like stakeholders in Iraq’s security and strengthen their resolve against the Islamic State. Putting Sunni forces under the ISF will also provide a more legitimate alternative to the dreaded external Shia or Kurdish paramilitary occupation of their territory. Similar to the original Awakening, then, integrating the tribes into an anti–Islamic State front will allow Baghdad to use local partners to drive out the extremists.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have proposed the establishment of a new national guard (haras watani) as the best way to give the Sunni tribes a stake in Iraq’s security and governance and eventually overcome the crisis of trust. Under a draft law approved by Iraq’s cabinet on February 3, 2015, local forces—in a decentralized scheme in which the prime minister serves as the general commander—will be responsible for exclusively protecting their own provinces. The national guard units are to include fighters who will be paid by the central government and be treated like legitimate armed forces within the ISF.

This option is widely viewed to be in the spirit of Petraeus’s policies during the first Sunni Awakening. By giving the tribes a stake, weapons, and funding, they will be more willing to fight off the Islamic State. More critically, their fear that Shia militias or Kurdish peshmerga will move into Mosul and other Sunni areas will wither, because the national guard will be able to provide any needed security.

The national guard offers several other advantages as well. By including members of all groups within Iraqi society, it will help the country move away from the current narrative, in which only Shia concerns are addressed. And, by providing an institutional framework, it will make the ruling Shia elite more comfortable with sending weapons and cash to Sunni tribes.

Yet, challenges continue to plague the national guard. The first come from within the Sunni community, where tribal leaders agree with the concept, but are putting forward dozens of different proposals on matters such as which personnel will be awarded with powerful ranks inside the new force. The Sunni political leadership must work to forge a compromise among these competing ideas and camps in order to present one front vis-à-vis Baghdad.

Another challenge to the national guard is Abadi’s control over his government and violence carried out by forces that report to the Interior Ministry. Similar to Maliki’s targeting of the Jaysh Al-Mahdi during the original Awakening, Abadi will have to retake control by purging the ISF and incorporating Shia militias into it. This compromise is essential to ensuring that the Shia militias, under the auspices of the ISF, can provide security in areas where they are perceived to be legitimate, and not threaten to move into Sunni areas where they will be met with resistance. This would help quell anxieties that the Sunni tribal leaders have over what comes next once they fight off the Islamic State in Mosul. Yet many Iraqis, including Hanan Fatlawi, a member of parliament, question the prime minister’s ability to slow the spread of Shia militias, which he does not command, in Sunni governorates.

Much of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq stems from tragedies that followed the Islamic State’s invasion of Mosul in June 2014. The problem today is that the elements necessary to combat the Islamic State, the Iraqi Sunni tribes from the region, have no trust that sacrificing their blood will facilitate a future free from Shia oppression. Iraqis could learn from the first Awakening, and find ways to bring back Iraq’s short-lived era of good governance.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It can be accessed online at:

Renad Mansour is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on Iraq, Iran, and Kurdish affairs.