Sectarian tensions limit advances against Islamic State in Iraq

Mosul City fell but the fight against Islamic State is far from over. The Iraqi government is facing a series of challenges in their military advances towards the terrorist group and sectarian tensions are just one of them.

On 10 July, Iraqi PM al-Abadi visited the outskirts of Mosul and declared victory over the Islamic State (IS). Despite the proclamation, the war on IS in Iraq is hardly over. There are large Sunni areas still under IS control, including the districts of Tal Afar and Hawija, desert areas along the Syrian border in the north and parts of al-Anbar. Thus, the Iraqi government is still facing major security threats. The course of upcoming military operations will be influenced not only by constrained sectarian relations, but also by a lack of manpower and by existing disputes within Iraq and on the regional level.

The Predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi (HS) militias have been largely absent from the battle for Mosul itself, but were tasked with capturing desert areas east of the city, where they had already reached the Tal Afar airbase in November 2016. Despite previous claims made by HS commanders that their units would spearhead the attack on Tal Afar, the operation was delayed. Tal Afar, inhabited mainly by Turkmens (70–80% Sunni, 20–30% Shia), has been a traditional stronghold of Sunni insurgencies, including the predecessor to IS, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad, for their part, favoured Shia Turkmens.

Turkey has also threatened to intervene if HS enters Tal Afar, since it presents itself as a protector of (Sunni) Turkmens. Delays in retaking Tal Afar suggest a disagreement over the taking of the town between the Iraqi government, Turkey and the Kurds (who consider parts of Tal Afar District to be disputed territory under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution). Iraqi PM al-Abadi promised in early June 2017 that the operation to retake Tal Afar would soon commence.



Instead of Tal Afar, HS units turned their operations further west from Mosul, reaching the Syrian border on 29 May. HS leaders such as Badr Corps commander Hadi al-Amiri announced further advances south along the border towards al-Qa’im with the goal of controlling the border with Syria. However, since approximately 10 June, HS’s advances have stopped after the capture of the desert town of al-Hamdaniyah in al-Ba’aj District, leaving the majority of these areas still under IS control.

"However, any operation in the area would be highly demanding in terms of required manpower and manoeuvring through complex tribal landscape and array of IS sympathizers."

The desert areas of al-Ba’aj and al-Hatra Districts have traditionally been sanctuaries for Sunni insurgencies. The post-2003 governments were never able to fully control these areas. In 2008–2009, AQI also found refuge there after its military defeat. The proved in 2012 and 2013 that it is able to seize the right moment to return to the spotlight by staging more spectacular attacks and even exerting territorial control (see, for example, their activity throughout late 2012 and 2013 in the Diyala River Valley north-east of Baghdad or the foothold they gained in early 2014 in the strategic town of Ramadi in al-Anbar Governorate). There have been concerns that IS is once again turning to such sanctuaries and going into hiding in these Sunni tribal areas. Similarly, there have been reports of IS into rural areas of Diyala Governorate that were retaken some two years ago.

On 17 June, the Iraqi military announced that the strategic al-Waleed border crossing on the Baghdad–Damascus highway had been captured. IS, however, still holds the desert areas of al-Anbar Governorate as well as the rather densely populated Euphrates River Valley in the area of al-Qa’im.

"In parallel to Tal Afar, Hawija has been another hotbed of Sunni insurgencies with a strong presence of ex-Baath elements as well as other Sunni extremist groups."

It is paramount that IS is denied sanctuary in the deserts of western Nineveh and in al-Anbar. However, any operation in the area would be highly demanding in terms of the manpower required and in manoeuvring through a complex tribal landscape and an array of IS sympathisers.

Anwar al-‘Asi, the leader of the pro-government al-Ubaid Sunni tribe from the Kirkuk area, asserted on 11 July that Tal Afar would be retaken before the Hawija District, which remains another major pocket of IS presence in the north. Alongside Tal Afar, Hawija has been a hotbed of Sunni insurgencies, with a strong presence of ex-Baath elements as well as other Sunni extremist groups.

IS uses Hawija as a launching pad against Kurdish-held Kirkuk. On 5 July, it was reported that IS had even managed to seize control of several villages on the western bank of the Euphrates near a US military base in al-Qayyarah. Hawija thus poses a security challenge to both Federal and Kurdish forces. The delay is most likely due to a disagreement on the course of the operation between Kurdish and Iraqi security forces (including HS). Hawija is also considered disputed territory between Baghdad and Erbil according to Article 140.

Although victory in Mosul is imminent, IS is far from being dislodged from Iraq. From a military perspective, Tal Afar and Hawija, as well as desert areas of Nineveh along Syrian border and al-Qa'im, still remain to be captured. The main challenge is to thoroughly deny IS sanctuary in order to prevent it from resurfacing once again when the time is ripe (just as it did after 2011 amidst increasing dissatisfaction with al-Maliki’s government policies towards Sunnis and the US pull-out). However, as Iraqi counter-terrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi has noted, there is simply not enough military force to wage offensive operations in Mosul, Tal Afar and Hawija at the same time. Moreover, the course of the operations is affected by land disputes between the federal government and the Kurds as well as by competing regional interests (such as Turkish meddling in Turkmen areas). The elite Iraqi Counterterrorism Service alone has suffered 40% battle losses during the Mosul campaign.

Apart from military and security challenges, Shia leaders have so far fallen short of providing a genuine political plan for Sunni areas post-IS. Such a shortcoming leaves the main root cause for Sunni insurgencies in Iraq – the real or perceived marginalisation of Sunnis – unaddressed. 

About author: Tomáš Kaválek


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