Iraq is an ancient place, but a place that has never been its own, standalone country prior to its creation as a League of Nations mandate under British control in 1920. Though some of the earliest documented civilisations came out of the Land between the Rivers, it has never been a cohesive place, with a unified cultural identity.
Indeed, as time wore on, it seems to have accrued more and more diversity – of peoples, of religions, of identities. To this day, despite decades of ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussain and over a decade of brutal sectarian fighting, it remains one of the most diverse countries in the world.
In that long history, this region has seen decades where peace prevailed, and in which its diverse population produced some of the most vibrant and scientifically advanced cultures in the world at that time, such as during the early Mesopotamian Empires, or during the Abbasid Caliphate, when Baghdad was the capital of the largest, most prosperous and most advanced empire in the world. But it has also seen decades upon decades of brutal infighting between the many peoples, cultures and religions in the area.
Iraq’s more recent sectarian problems originally stem from the Franco-British agreement to segment the previous territories of the Ottoman Empire among themselves after WW1, and Britain’s decision to lump three very distinct former Ottoman provinces into one state: the north-eastern Kurdish territories, the north-western Sunni territories, and the southern Shi’a territories.
Iraq’s more recent sectarian problems stem from the Franco-British agreement to segment the previous territories of the Ottoman EmpireDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Unlike at previous time in its history, this left no ethnic-religious group clearly in charge over the region, and thus clearly able to dominate everyone else and impose the peace. And the three roughly-matched regions, and their peoples, have been in intense competition ever since.
But though while Britain was acting as an imperial overlord and arbiter this may have worked fine, after the Kingdom of Iraq became independent in 1932, this was a recipe for trouble. And 85 years of trouble is exactly what followed.
Fast forward to 2017, and the battle for the future of Iraq is fought in Mosul – a city in northern Iraq that until recently was held by ISIS. Prior to the Iraq War, Mosul was majority Sunni Arab, but it and its environs had substantial numbers of Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmens, Kurds, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Circassians, and other ethnic groups, and religions such as Shi’a Islam, Christianity, Salafism, Sufism, Yazidism, Mandaeism were observed. Mosul was a microcosm of that history of diversity in Mesopotamia.
During the ISIS occupation of the city, many of the religious and ethnic minorities have been targeted for abuse and persecution. The most visible was the genocide against the Yazidis, who, in the warped mind of the militants, were thought of as devil-worshippers.
And yet despite the horrors of the past five years in particular, the city, and the region, maintain much of their diversity – much like the rest of Iraq does. That is why, what happens now that ISIS have been driven out of the city is so important.
Baghdad’s forces, which are majority Shiite, have expended considerable blood and treasure to recapture Mosul from ISIS. Military veterans say it was one of the toughest counter-insurgency operations in history.
But can they, unlike the American invasion in 2003, also win the peace? Can they re-forge a successful, cohesive and peaceful city out of an ethnic and religious patchwork who have suffered differentially under the Sunni ISIS, or prior to that under the Baghdad sectarian Shiite government of Maliki, or prior to that under the Sunni Ba’athist Baghdad government of Saddam Hussain?
Axes to grind
There will be many axes to grind in Mosul after the liberation, there will be the blood of many relatives to be washed on all sides, and there will be fear for the future and a lack of trust, which will make civilised living extremely difficult.
If that were not bad enough, the Kurds continue to aspire to an independent homeland, and northern Iraq is the most likely place they will get it. That drags regional neighbours such as Turkey and Iran into the equation, as many local groups will seek to forge alliances with international backers who will be only too happy to play their own conflicts with each other through their proxies in the city, and the wider Iraq.
And we have not even talked about the money needed to rebuild the city – estimated at over one billion dollars. Where will the money come from, and how is it going to be allocated such that it does not fuel further conflicts between the local peoples?
Can Mosul be rebuilt, and if so, how? The answer depends on whether there is the political will on all sides to make Mosul work as a city once more after all the troubles it has suffered in its recent history. If the people of Mosul can rebuild their city, then that bodes extremely well for the rest of Iraq.
The state of Iraq may yet become a cohesive and successful country. If Mosul fails, however, the shockwaves will also crack the fragile fibre that keeps the rest of Iraq together. And many more people will die before the flames of conflict burn themselves out once more.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.