Returning to Arab values

Meetings this week in Washington will be crucial to the future of Iraq as the United States seeks to intensify the multi-pronged campaign against Islamic State.

The liberation of Mosul is being hailed as complete. Islamic State is unlikely to again govern and control large swathes of territory in the near future.

Although the years of war have been hard, optimists believe there will be some justice and respite for those who have lost friends and family to IS, as well as for the broader Iraqi population.

Because IS has been all but ejected from one of its former capitals and surrounded in the other, members of a 72-nation coalition will meet this week to try to ensure the battlefield victories do not, once again, evaporate amid new sectarian strife.

The war on IS has resulted in a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Many Iraqi towns and cities have been destroyed, more than three million people have been displaced and 11 million require assistance.

Rehabilitating local communities and economies and bridging the difference between and among the diverse sections of Iraqi society is essential to ensuring IS does not regain a foothold as it once easily did when it divided the Shia and Sunni populations.

The challenge is to ensure a new local government is chosen for Mosul which takes Sunnis' interests into full account and ends their sense of alienation. Baghdad must quickly find the resources to rebuild the shattered city, while at the same time realising ownership of Iraq's oil reserves will also be in dispute.

United States President Donald Trump's post-conflict strategy follows two tracks. The US is likely to support a robust Iraqi and United Nations-led effort to stabilise liberated areas in Iraq, where American officials say they have a reliable partner in Prime Minster Haider al-Habadi.

But amid Syria's ongoing civil war, Washington is pursuing a more cautious, localised plan. Initial stabilisation efforts are already under way in eastern Mosul. But officials say the western part of the city, where fighting was more intense, will be the greater challenge.

More than one million civilians fled the city, according to United Nations figures, well beyond the UN's worst case scenario. Funding is helping relocate Iraqis back to their own cities with nearly two million people having returned to their country.

A concern for the US, which will likely complicate the best efforts of the meetings this week, is the influence Iran may play in the region.

Pushing back against Iranian influence will not be easy. Teheran wields clout through some Iraqi politicians and Shi'ite militias, which have recently deployed towards Iraqi's border with Syria.

There are also tensions over who pays for what. US and other Western officials argue Russia, which intervened to help Syrian President Bashar Assad, should contribute to rebuilding Iraq.

The good news is most of Iraqi's leaders recognise the challenges ahead. Haider al-Habadi has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive than his predecessor.

High-ranking Iraqi officials are proposing a series of visits by Shia community leaders to Sunni areas and vice-versa to start a dialogue on reconstruction. Importantly, officials have warned members of militias any abuse of Sunni civilians will be ruthlessly punished. The test of sincerity starts now.

Restoring trust will be no easy task. According to leading Arab experts, many Sunnis have an unjustified feeling of victimisation now the Shia majority is in political charge. But some Sunni leaders are willing to accept a new status for their communities and are working with Haider Al-Habadi. This is to be encouraged among the wider international community.

There is now a feeling that with IS out of the picture, Iraqi Arabs need to return to the values of not so long ago when Sunni or Shia identities were politically irrelevant.


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