Iraq appeared to have reached a point of no return when the Islamic State (IS) executed an estimated 1,700 Iraqi Air Force cadets, mostly Shia Muslims, at Camp Speicher near Tikrit in June 2014. The massacre, one of the worst among the IS’s many atrocities, deepened sectarian faultlines, and laid the ground for a possible entrenchment of the terrorist group as the Iraqi state collapsed. It would have seemed far-fetched at the time to imagine the scenes of pan Iraqi solidarity seen on the streets of Mosul three years later, on July 10, 2017, when Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the IS. Flag-waving civilians danced in the devastated streets amid chants of “by our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq”, and calls for Shia-Sunni brotherhood.
The unity Iraqis forged in the face of the existential threat is a less discussed aspect of the defeat of the IS. Not many had anticipated what Iraq expert and The Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele described as “a national sense of urgency [among Iraqis] which overcame regional, ethnic and sectarian disputes”.
To be sure, it wasn’t easy. Even in March 2015, a year before the Iraqi army’s final push against the IS, tensions ran high at a meeting of 16 tribal leaders gathered at Baghdad’s Babylon Hotel with the object of reconciliation. An important leader threatened to walk out at one point, after local tribes were accused of being complicit in the Camp Speicher massacre. But the facilitators persisted with their efforts, and tangible results followed.
The Babylon Hotel meeting was organised as part of efforts supported by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) since December 2014 “to forestall a new cycle of killing”. Iraqi facilitators, officials, peacebuilders, and NGOs led the talks to encourage engagements and counter calls for revenge. The USIP, a nonpartisan institute established by Congress in 1984 to “prevent, reduce, and resolve armed conflict around the world”, drew on earlier mediation experiences in Iraq, and its experience of cultural norms and tribal traditions. Its efforts turned out to be crucial in facilitating the return of Sunnis to their homes in Tikrit, which they had fled for fear of reprisals once the city was liberated. Earlier, the al-Bu Ajeel and al-Bu Nasir tribes had promised to turn over anyone found to have been involved in the massacre. “Determined bridge-building” curbed the “powerful tribal impulse for revenge”, defused calls for retribution, wrote Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor.
The engagements provided a template for reconciliation, and helped build the understanding that both sides had suffered from the IS’s terror. It emerged that Sunnis had protected many Shia cadets and shepherded them out of IS-held territory. The two sides held the IS responsible for the atrocity without stigmatising Sunnis as a whole, and agreed to build a memorial to the massacre victims.
Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose June 2014 fatwa swelled the ranks of anti-IS volunteer forces, emerged as a key unifying figure. A year earlier, he had issued a fatwa prohibiting the shedding of Sunni blood despite a wave of targeted attacks on Shias by al-Qaeda. Iraq’s Shia clerical establishment has worked hard at presenting a unified front, including inviting journalists from across the world to counter the sectarian projection of the anti-IS war. In 2016, a briefing of Sunni, Shia and Christian commanders of the anti-IS volunteer force was organised for Indian journalists in Baghdad to highlight the success of reconciliation efforts.
It has helped that the origins of sectarianism in Iraq are relatively recent. In a 2014 piece, Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi argued that the turmoil in Iraq resulted from a revolt against “very specific governmental policies — most of which have their origins in the US invasion and occupation”. Iraq had ethnic tensions prior to the 2003 invasion, al-Gharbi wrote, but Saddam Hussein “did not allow overt sectarianism to flourish”, and “Sunnis and Shias led a fairly well-integrated existence, especially in the larger cities”.
Indeed, nearly a third of marriages in Iraq were inter-sectarian, and the country had other thriving minorities, al-Gharbi argued. Political affiliation was largely based on secular ideologies; Saddam’s socialist Baath regime had a significant Shia presence. Even the insurgency, according to al-Gharbi, “was fairly broad-based” during the early stages of the occupation.
American diplomat Paul Bremer, who headed the post-Saddam Provisional Authority of Iraq, is often blamed for falling back on the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter the broad-based challenge. Sunnis, who are around 40% of the population, suddenly found themselves excluded from positions of power. The army that predated the Baath party was disbanded, and Sunnis were purged from the military and bureaucracy in the garb of de-Baathification. The policy of mandatory declaration of sect for the issuance of documents, and the allocation of quotas in the governing council on a sectarian basis, pitted ethnic and religious groups against each other.
Iraq paid dearly as a result. While Prime Minister al-Abadi’s inclusive policies, and the Shia clergy’s farsightedness have helped, no one believes that the defeat of the IS is the decisive end of the war. Iraq could yet become a new battleground for regional powers and their deadly sectarian games. The Trump administration’s policy of taking sides in the region is unlikely to promote the cause of peace.