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What's next for post-Daesh Iraq?

It doesn't seem that the situation in Iraq after Daesh is going to be any better than what it has been like since the militant group took control of half of the country in 2014. Data indicates that differences between rivals who have been united by Daesh are too major to be contained by some passing understandings related to the battle for Mosul. This is not merely a temporary stage in preparation for what comes next. All participating parties, and those supporting certain parties, are waiting for the moment when Daesh will leave Mosul to begin the next phase.

The battle for Mosul came nearly two and a half years too late, a delay which allowed Daesh to get stronger inside the city in terms of defensive fortifications and in attracting people to its ideology, which is more dangerous. The group worked very hard to find itself a popular incubator among the people of Mosul. It is hard to tell if it succeeded or failed; I don't think anyone knows.

The rivals united after having divided roles and spoils. Perhaps that was evident in the way Mosul was attacked, with the Kurds, Iraqi army, Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and the other combatants all given their own sectors to focus on. Although the battle is still not over after nearly two months, there are signs that disputes have arisen between the various parties. The Kurds, for example, have made strong fortifications and built sand berms as if to confirm that these will delineate the new borders of their region, even while the battle is still being fought.

Baghdad is furious about what the Kurds have done. The government confirmed that the agreement reached with the Kurds before the start of the battle for Mosul stated that the Peshmerga militias would withdraw to their bases, and to the pre-17 October borders, and that the autonomous Kurdish authority in Erbil must commit to what it has promised.

At the other end of the deferred conflict, the PMF stationed near Tal Afar had actually started to break the agreement before the Mosul battle began. They were assigned to secure the attacking forces and to prevent members of Daesh from fleeing to Syria, but the PMF — which can be said to represent Iran officially and militarily in Iraq — broke ranks and entered Tal Afar, ignoring its own pledges.

Faced with this situation, with a divergence of interests and conflicts erupting early, even before entering Mosul, it seems that the status quo is better right now for Iraqis than what awaits them post-Daesh.

Some might think that America will not allow any conflict between Baghdad and Erbil, but the suffering of the Kurds as a result of Baghdad's policies may push them towards bitter choices. The economic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is critical, and the latest statements of the Kurdish regional President, Massoud Barzani, that successive governments in Baghdad have deliberately aimed to starve the Kurds, show the huge level of discontent not only amongst the latter but also their politicians. Baghdad's policies, of course, are dictated by Iran.

In some parts of Mosul, where Kurdish forces have entered and taken firm control, a solution can be worked out through a joint local administration of those areas. However, the biggest obstacle is going to be in oil-rich Kirkuk, which neither Baghdad nor Erbil seem ready to put a mechanism in place to discuss how to end the dispute over it; nor is either ready to give it up.

In return, the PMF entry into Tal Afar is going to aggravate the complex situation between Baghdad and the Sunni Arabs. Tal Afar, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not allow the PMF to enter, seems to be the latter's share after all, it having realised that Ankara has no power to prevent the militias from entering. Perhaps the recent phone call between Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart, Haider Al-Abadi, in which he declared his country's support for Baghdad's steps in the fight against terrorism, is a clear indication of Turkey's inability to do anything in Iraq.

Tal Afar, which is meant to be a continuation of the Iranian land line linking it to the Syrian coast across Iraq, will further darken the scene in Iraq, not least because the Sunnis will find themselves, once again, outside their own areas which they were expecting to be far from Iran's Shia hand.

It is a complex situation, and we still have no idea what US President-elect Donald Trump's policy on Iraq is going to be. Thus a post-Daesh Iraq is likely to be open house for continuous proxy wars for years to come.

Translated from Al Araby Al Jadid, 13 December 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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