“The Greatest Challenge”

Information at a glance from one of the P-WW’s contributors, Harith al-Qarawee, on the current developments in Iraq.



-Over 1.4 million people fled Mosul since the outbreak of fighting in the city, the largest and fastest single forced human migration in history.  

-This is the “most serious problem Iraq has ever seen; political elite not up to the job of confronting this challenge. Events on the ground are moving too fast for the monolithic political machine in Baghdad to keep up.”

-It is critical to distinguish between “partition” and “division” in Iraq. Partition is a political process conducted through legal channels in the courts and parliament. This is not what is happening to Iraq right now. “This is the destruction of Iraq.”

-Dramatic gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) created the environment for a larger Sunni uprising to occur in northern Iraq. Former Ba’athis, Salafis, and Sunni militias joined ISIS militants, although these groups are now locked in a tense and unsustainable partnership with the Islamic State.

-Although ISIS was not the core of the insurgency against Maliki at the outset, it is critical not to underestimate the group today. 

-The ISIS prominence has given rise to a true sectarianization of the conflict in Iraq, a reality that had not defined the conflict before. The group is shaped by the years of US-led occupation in Iraq, and the insurgency against coalition forces. Many former members of the Shura Council are commanders of the ISIS militants in Iraq. 

-Because of their experience in Iraq between 2006 and 2008, it is easy for ISIS commanders to liaise with local populations and the Sunni community in the country. This cohesiveness raises deep fears amongst Shia communities that have led to reprisal attacks and re-mobilization of Shia militias. The specter of the Iraq insurgency still haunts the country. 

-In Syria, ISIS does not have the same network of previously-established contacts on the ground. This reality, compounded by the prevalence of foreign fighters, has led to a far more savage strategy of suppression rather than coercion.

-Announced in 2006, the Shura Council was a grouping of at least six Sunni militias and al-Qaeda in Iraq against the US occupation: Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal-Sunnah, Saray al-Jihad Group, al-Ghuraba Brigades, and al-Ahwal Brigades.

-The recent Amman Conference of self-proclaimed “revolutionary leaders of Iraq” raises serious questions about the evolving character of the Sunni insurgency: Why did they not meet in “liberated” territory? How are the actions of exiles causing legitimate social grievances to be co-opted by political concerns? What is the relationship between these leaders and ISIS? Before these questions are answered, ISIS will “keep growing.” 

-ISIS was shaped by Iraq, but it is not, today, Iraqi. Its connections to the insurgency do mean, however, that it can adjust to changing social conditions on the ground there more easily. The group continues to evolve, balancing its dual goals of Global Jihad and local community operations in occupied territories. Whether ISIS can achieve such a balance will remain to be seen. Any confrontation with ISIS must face it along these lines of tension.  


-ISIS has always fostered a shaky relationship with al-Qaeda. The confrontation of ISIS could present the first opportunity for Saudi Arabia and Iran to cooperate in terms of security, an unprecedented situation in the region’s history. 

-Sectarianism is an outcome of the conflict, not the result of it. The 2009-2010 weakening of sectarianism in Iraq at the governmental and social levels after the US surge provides an example of this reality. 

-What is the Sunni community, really? There are huge differences between the Sunnis living in Mosul and al-Anbar, for example, which are two areas where ISIS has made gains against the Iraqi government. This kaleidoscopic situation is mirrored in the differences between Shia communities in Najaf, Kerbalah, and Basra. 

-Regional Sunni identities, based on locality, economy, and society, are nevertheless slowly being eroded, leading to the overall “Sunnification” of the Sunni community. The notion of Sunni victimhood developed from this situation into a cohesive narrative after the 2003 US-led invasion. 


-It is critical to realize that Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, is not the problem, but a serious factor in a series of problems plaguing Iraqi politics. Replacing Maliki will reduce tension and create psychological room for negotiation, but this action will not in itself be a solution. 


-Is independence a possibility right now? The PUK is pragmatic and comprised of intellectuals. Yet it is divided over the issues of secession, and cannot agree on an official position. Furthermore, the PUK recently split, giving rise to the Gorran Movement. 

-Although the Peshmerga militia represents the best counter right now to ISIS militants, the divisions within the Kurdish parties illustrates deeper cracks in their fighting force. Each political faction in Kurdistan funds its own Peshmerga units, a situation that does not ultimately promote a national unity amongst armed factions under different commands. 

-The Kurds represent the largest influence in Kirkuk right now, but the predominance of the KDP Peshmerga in that city raises fears that the party could further marginalize its PUK counterparts. 

-The PUK prefers to be part of Iraq, but a restructured country, whereas the KDP tends towards independence. 

Read al-Qarawee’s interview on understanding Iraqi sectarianism here.

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