National Security & Defense

In Fiercely Contested Iraq, Erbil Offers a Model of Stability

A street scene in Erbil, Iraq, March 31, 2017. (Reuters photo: Andres Martinez Casares)
An optimist’s guide to a war-torn country divided by sectarianism.

Seventeen-year-old Khalid shuffled into the room, his baggy brown pants pulled up to his ankles. Three months ago the Iraqi army liberated his town from the Islamic State. Then Shia militias allied with Baghdad showed up. When they did, “I ran away from them and came here,” to Erbil, Khalid says, sitting on the couch of a rehabilitation center run by the Labor and Social Affairs ministry of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Last year these Shia militias, called Hashd al-Shaabi, or “popular mobilization units,” were incorporated as an official paramilitary force alongside the Iraqi army because of their key role in fighting ISIS.

Too young to remember Saddam Hussein, Khalid spent his formative years as a teenager under the Islamic State. Although his uncles were murdered by ISIS, he admits to joining the group under pressure. Now as ISIS faces defeat, Shia militias allied with Iran as well as with the Iraqi government are occupying his village. His hatred for Iran and the Shia is clear today. It illustrates the seething anger among some Iraqi Sunni Arabs who wonder whether liberation from ISIS will mean a new round of conflict with the central government.

ISIS was brutal toward the groups it hated, including Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and Shia, but many of the local Sunnis in Mosul celebrated when it arrived in June 2014. Now those same people are witnessing the war come full circle as the Iraqi central government battles for control of the city. To stave off a new insurgency and create a functioning Iraq, the government has to show that its new army and institutions are professional and disciplined and that liberation from ISIS will bring stability. If militias come to dominate areas around Mosul after the war, Baghdad’s tensions with the local population and with the Kurdish region will increase. Currently the Iraqi army is fighting in Mosul while popular mobilization units man checkpoints in the countryside.

Members of the U.S.-led coalition that is working closely with the Iraqi security forces in the battle for Mosul are optimistic about what they are seeing on the ground. Lieutenant Colonel John Hawbaker, a local U.S. commander from the 73rd Cavalry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, says that the Iraqi army’s various units fighting in Mosul are capable and experienced. Sitting next to the tarmac of a makeshift helipad ten kilometers south of Mosul, the commander liaisons with the Emergency Response Brigade and the federal police, two Iraqi units that have played a key role in the battle for Mosul. Hawbaker served in Iraq when the U.S. was fighting a jihadist insurgency in 2005–6. In those days it was the American military leading the way. “The difference now is that ISF [Iraqi security forces] conducts a fight not as a counter-insurgency but against a conventional force” of ISIS, Hawaker says, adding, however, that the ISF and coalition continue to fight “the same evil.” In this battle, the Iraqis have set the priorities and the plans, and the U.S. mission is to advise and provide accurate air strikes and artillery fire to assist the advance. As we sat and talked, the loud boom of outgoing fire could be heard as M109 howitzers sent their shells skyward to strike at ISIS in the city.


US Army Lieutenant Colonel John Hawbaker (Photo: Seth J. Frantzman)

From my numerous conversations with the coalition in Iraq, it is clear that members have a newfound respect for the capabilities of the Iraqi army. It isn’t the old Iraqi army, which collapsed, surrendering thousands of vehicles and equipment in 2014 when ISIS arrived. Driving into west Mosul along the road that leads north from Baghdad, this Iraqi war machine was evident. Blue and black humvees of the federal police drive back and forth, their bulletproof windows often dented with shrapnel. M117 security vehicles, which look like tortoises with giant wheels, line the road, dirt berms dug in to protect the supply line. The flood of American equipment has made this army capable, but it is the Iraqi soldiers who had to clear ISIS from a dozen Iraqi cities over the past two years, killing thousands and taking heavy casualties.

A 90-minute drive from the battle for Mosul, through the flat Nineveh plains, where the Assyrian empire once flourished, takes one to the borders of the Kurdistan region. This was where Kurdish forces and American airpower defeated an ISIS tide of advance in 2014. Before being pushed back, the jihadists ransacked Assyrian Christian towns and dynamited archaeological sites on the plains. In contrast to the religious tensions palpable around Mosul, today’s Kurdistan Regional Government and its capital, Erbil, are thriving and bustling — new hotels and residential towers are being built, and coffee shops, some modeled on Starbucks but offering nargilahs, line the streets.

After the fatigue from decades of war and insurgency in Iraq, Erbil stands out as a model of stability, offering hope. The coalition has said that it will continue to train the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, the two forces that defeated ISIS. Jared Kushner and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford were in Baghdad on March 3, as a show of support. But there is a long road ahead to rebuild areas shattered by war and enable millions of internally displaced people to return home.

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