In March of 2015, a Shi’a militia commander in Iraq became an internet celebrity. The man known as Abu Azrael, commander of the Kata’ib al-Imam Ali militant group, gained widespread media attention for his Rambo-like antics, posing in photos with axes and swords, and threatening Islamic State militants by saying he would cut them up “like shawarma.” These actions, while carrying the moniker of “Father of the Angel of Death,” endeared him to many as a muscle-bound anti-Islamic State hero. In May of this year, he resurfaced, this time in Fallujah, where his comrades in the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) had helped drive out Islamic State occupiers and subsequently detained, tortured, and executed Sunni civilians on suspicion of colluding with the jihadists. Much more recently, an Iraqi grandmother named Wahida Mohamed al-Jumaily has become famous for beheading Islamic State militants and cooking their heads on camera. She claims to do this as revenge for the murder of her family.
While these stories are compelling to the average viewer and these people are battling an internationally reviled jihadist group, individuals like Abu Azrael and al-Jumaily should be recognized for the greater sectarian divides that they represent. While their crusade is nominally against the Islamic State, this animosity, as we saw in Fallujah can easily spill over to affect ordinary Sunnis. Mosul, the current target for liberation by the Iraqi government, is primed to be the stage of new atrocities if the PMF are able to enter the city. While the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has officially denounced the idea of outsourcing the fighting inside Mosul to Shi’a militias, spokesmen from the PMF have voiced their resolution and resolve to actively participate in the operation, supposedly on the behalf of the central government. According to one spokesman Ahmad al-Asadi, the PMF “is an official institution under the commander-in-chief Abadi.” They have also been vocal in their opposition to Turkish presence in the region, where President Erdogan’s troops have provided material support and training to the Sunni militants of the Nineveh Guard (Hars Ninewah, formerly the Hashd al-Watani), as well as local Sunni Arab tribes.
The threat of retribution is very real for Sunnis in and around Mosul. The Iraqi and U.S. governments have made commitments that only Iraqi security forces will enter the city proper, but even if Shi’a and Kurdish militias do not enter Mosul, the coalition-led attack on the city will cause mass displacements of civilians who will be especially vulnerable as they scatter across the province. So far, there is no indication that the PMF has any presence near the main offensive. Iraqi troops, however, have been seen raising black and red banners above tanks and captured buildings emblazoned with the words “Ya Hussein,” a common Shi’a reference to the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson at the hands of the Umayyads, as they liberate predominantly Sunni and Christian villages west of Mosul. The town of Hawija is set to be the next hotbed of sectarian strife, with PMF and Kurdish forces reportedly disputing who will liberate the Sunni-dominated, Islamic State-controlled town. While Iraqi troops are concentrated on securing the Mosul and Qayyarah areas, many surrounding towns and villages are left in the firing line. Human rights organizations have cautioned about the danger of sectarian cleansing and other human rights abuses by militias, but it is unclear whether these considerations are being taken seriously by Baghdad.
The U.S. Department of State has stated that Peshmerga forces will also not enter Mosul, yet the Peshmerga have taken an active role liberating and clearing surrounding towns. The reasons for their active participation are twofold. The Islamic State has presented an existential threat to the Kurds as the militants have taken large swathes of the province of Kirkuk and attacked the city of Kirkuk last week. Simultaneously, the Islamic State incursion has presented the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with a unique opportunity to better their position vis-à-vis Baghdad by clearing and holding Iraqi villages in Nineveh. By the time the Mosul offensive is over, the Peshmerga might have taken enough territory to negotiate with the central government in exchange for greater autonomy, while the diverse array of minorities in Nineveh—Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Shabak, Yazidis—are caught in supremacy dispute between Erbil and Baghdad.
There is also no feasible way for the coalition to completely rid the city of elements loyal to the Islamic State without interrogating every civilian in Mosul. Any fighters that escape the city will also have the chance to regroup or flee to Syria unless they are caught by PMFs surrounding Tal Afar. Considering all plausible outcomes of the operation, it can be said with certainty that Mosul’s Sunnis will be left in a precarious position. In addition to the likely infrastructural and human destruction resulting from the battle, it is uncertain whether current levels of pledged humanitarian aid will be enough to alleviate the destruction caused by the fighting in the city. Sunnis in Nineveh are underrepresented in the Iraqi government, they have little paramilitary power and they have legitimate fears that their homes will become military and political battlegrounds even after the Islamic State is defeated.
The countryside surrounding Mosul is Iraq’s most diverse region. Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis, Shabaks and Arabs of many religious backgrounds have called the province home since the Ottoman era. The strategic importance of Mosul is not an excuse for Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan and the United States to make a stand through exacerbating sectarian tensions. There is fear among non-Muslim minority communities that the removal of the Islamic State will pave the way for a new Sunni insurgency. In this sense, perhaps their most feasible option would be incorporation or relocation into autonomous Kurdistan. The Peshmerga have protected and sheltered some of these minorities better than the Iraqi government ever has. Maliki’s antagonizing the Sunnis has severely degraded Baghdad’s legitimacy in Nineveh. Proposals to balkanize the area, creating autonomous Sinjar for the Yazidis, a Turkmen Tal Afar and a Christian Nineveh Plains have been brought before the Iraqi parliament against considerable opposition. These proposals are problematic in that none of these groups have the manpower or military aptitude to defend themselves from another Sunni insurgency or the PMF. Thus, they would be reliant again on the Peshmerga, essentially creating a greater security sphere for the KRG. At the same time, the populations of these minority groups has severely diminished, their languages and culture are fading into extinction, and it is unclear whether the Kurds will respect the ethnoreligious identities of these communities.
The rise of the Islamic State has shown that the status of the country’s Sunnis is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the Iraqi state. Removing the Islamic State is therefore not an endgame, but the beginning of a long struggle to incorporate Sunni Arabs into greater Iraqi society. This is the task that Maliki’s government should have undertaken, but explicitly undermined at every step. The atrocities and strife that have been propagated in the past two years are a direct result of Sunni disenfranchisement and there is no guarantee that it will cease after Mosul is liberated.
With all this in mind, the aftermath of this operation may very well be disastrous, especially for Iraq’s underrepresented minority groups. The situation is precarious, and the projected aftermath does not bode well for the vitality of the Iraqi state. At the same time, the country still can be put on a more sustainable path to security. Abadi has been presented with a unique opportunity to guide Iraq’s sectarian future, and repair damage in an area where Maliki fundamentally failed. This offensive will either prove that the Shi’a-dominated government is indeed deaf to the needs of Iraq’s minorities, or it will show that the Abadi camp can rise above decades of sectarian strife, suppress the mobility of PMF militias, and liberate Mosul for the sake of all Iraqis. Recently, Abadi has entertained the idea of assigning a citizen as military governor in Mosul to prevent fragmentation and preserve security until provincial councils are elected. Abadi’s vocalized intent to grant self-governing authority to Nineveh, a governorate with a plethora of ethnoreligious minorities, also gives some hope that the aftermath of Mosul may produce positive changes in Iraqi policies. The battle for Mosul is not simply a military engagement, but the ultimate litmus test for Iraq’s governance in the coming decade.