Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 26, 2017
It is bewildering to notice the whimper and not the promised bang ISIS ended with.
In post-ISIS Iraq, Iran emerges a significant player

Holding a large knife, a six-year-old slits the throat of a teddy bear and smiles at the camera. The child is part of a propaganda video meant to motivate kids to join the ISIS’s ‘Junior Jihadis’. Severed heads on stakes in market squares instil a fear of devil amongst the citizens of Syria and Iraq. The savagery is to warn the people to never challenge the presence of the ISIS. Speaking with a British accent, Jihadi John appears on television screens and mobile phones decapitating hostages in orange overalls. This is the ISIS’s version of Hollywood style action flick.

Ghastly but well-produced, images were arguably a bigger strength of the ISIS than its military know how or control over territory. The ISIS spread its tentacles with depictions of its brutality and became the most feared terrorist outfit in the world. The horror was such that it inhibited war hardened journalists, who had filed copies from in between the front lines of conflict zones, from venturing into the ISIS controlled territory. The group distributed its content on social media with such efficacy that the intelligence agencies across the world scrambled for clues online to stop its expansion in their respective countries. At its height, the group was sprawled across 35,000 square miles, the size of Jordan and earned an estimated $1.5 million a day from oil sales. Presenting itself as a politically, economically and militarily run state, the ISIS fed the idea that if the Umma or the Muslim community lived a stringent life according to their interpretation of Islamic law, they could be a power that one day defeats the West.

Three years later, ISIS fighters are running like rats or being killed by the thousands.

It is bewildering to notice the whimper and not the promised bang ISIS ended with. The warriors of Baghdadi’s caliphate had vowed to unleash hell but are now begging to stay alive and in some cases even wearing dressing as women to flee to safer zones.

The group has been routed from the major population centres of Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit and the last being its self-proclaimed capital city of Raqqa. According to The Guardian, as high as 60,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since 2014 and as per the New York Times, the land under the group’s control has shrunk to 4000 square miles along the crevices of the Euphrates.

The most feared terrorist organisation in the world stands defeated.

A cause for celebration? Yes, but no one is throwing a party. In the West Asian theatre, the ghosts of terror modules have returned to haunt and often reborn in another name for the next round of Islamic Jihad. In Iraq, even before the people heaved a sigh of relief, the fear that the group might resort to guerilla warfare has creeped in.

The most feared terrorist organisation in the world stands defeated. A cause for celebration? Yes, but no one is throwing a party.

Can it return as a guerrilla force?

In mid-summer heat in Mosul, days after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi claimed victory over the ISIS on 9 July, I stood in front of the Al-Nuri mosque. It was from a pulpit in this mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had announced his caliphate. The pulpit had gone and the historical monument lie in ruins. I spoke to some of the residents of the old city who lived right under the sword of the ISIS.

Suleman, a middle aged man wearing the traditional dress for Arab men called ‘thaub’ or a long white tunic, seemed pleased at the ISIS’s extermination but worried they might soon make a comeback.

“Their sleeper cells have already returned,” he said with a hint of fright in his eyes.

Suleman initially welcomed the ISIS because he preferred to live under Sunni rule in Sunni dominated Mosul than a government controlled by Shias. ‘Maliki’, he said, ‘was responsible for sectarian riots.’ He was referring to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, under whose tenure in 2006 Iraq saw a rise of Shia militias who reportedly responded to attacks on them from the Sunni jihadis. This instigated deadly sectarian crises. The ISIS promised governance by Islamic law, was Sunni and was easily accepted in the old city. The dream of a utopian society though was short lived. The ISIS imposed a harsh social code, displayed unheard of grotesquery in its operations, and the support for the group dwindled. Now, Suleman says, the Sunnis of Mosul will never support the group again.

Sunnis like Suleman who if not actively but tacitly backed the ISIS’s entourage, feel let down and this may have sounded the death knell for Islamist Jihad, says Richard Spencer, the West Asia correspondent of The Times. Covering the fall of the ISIS in Raqqa, Spencer analysed, “ISIS’s brutality and its defeat have disillusioned many formerly sympathetic Sunni Arabs with Jihadism, especially in Iraq. This might mean that jihadi movement has had its heyday.”

Sam Heller, of the Century Research Foundation, is more skeptical. He says, “It will be able to feed on the same social grievances and resentments that originally empowered it. Absent of some external shock, the group is unlikely to return to its 2015-era apex, but it is going to be part of a deeply damaged social landscape in the areas that made up its Caliphate.”

Sectarian divide is right up on the list of issues that could fuel an ISIS insurgency. There is a lingering dread of Shias holding political and armed power in the Sunni community. Suleman feels he has his back against the wall. As a Sunni he is afraid he might be targeted by the Shias. Yet, he doesn't see it fit to discredit the victorious Popular Mobilisation Forces or the PMUs which are dominated by the Shias and are greatly responsible for vanquishing ISIS.

“They have fought for Iraq. First, let us see what they do.”

Suleman’s conciliatory tone is an acknowledgement of the changing balance of power. Some of the Shia groups in the PMUs like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, earlier a faction of the Mehdi army, are accused of maiming the Sunnis in the sectarian clashes of 2006.

Sectarian divide is right up on the list of issues that could fuel an ISIS insurgency. There is a lingering dread of Shias holding political and armed power in the Sunni community.

Post the toppling of Saddam, Shia militias sought revenge from Sunnis for the atrocities committed by the dictator and the Sunnis are concerned that they now might be asked to pay for ISIS’ crimes. If that happens, it would ignite the fire of sectarianism and create a viable atmosphere for the ISIS or another jihadi group to gain public support, which is vital for the Sunnis of an extremist strand to return as a guerrilla force.

Will these apprehensions turn into reality? A lot depends on how the Sunni community, a minority in Iraq, is treated.

Changing balance of power

At a tea stop in Baghdad, Sajid, a Sunni and Ali, a Shia, are joking about how the Shia-Sunni power dynamic in Iraq has reversed.

“Sometimes, Ali mocks me, and says your days are gone,” Sajid says of the banter the two friends share, but not every Sunni thinks of it as harmless talk and not every Shia means it as such. The impression on the ground is of Sunnis feeling marginalised and being looked upon as secondary citizens. “Earlier Sunnis were in power and now Shias are”, Sajid explains.

Donning black to mark the mourning period of Imam Hussain’s killing, Ali says, he is religious but not sectarian. “Saddam, Al Qaeda, the ISIS were all Sunnis but all Sunnis are not them,” he adds. A nationalist at heart, Ali thinks Sajid must not suffer the way Shias did under Saddam, Al Qaeda or the ISIS. Both Sajid and Ali stress the need for reconciliation and are against meddling by the US or Iran.

Tehran is asserting itself in the region like never before. Over the last six months, I have travelled to Syria and Iraq and witnessed the rise of Iran. It is reflected in the most obvious signs. Flags depicting revered Imam Ali and his son Imam Hussain pop out of every Shia house in Iraq. Feeling emboldened, the PMUs have even marked Sunni neighbourhoods with posters of Shia Imams and clerics .The fighters of the PMU chant ‘Ya Ali’ in areas inhabited by the Sunnis and some even provoke by hailing the gains over the ISIS as the victory of Shias over Sunnis. Posters of Ayatollah Khomenei and Khamenei adorn the check points on arterial roads and fly atop important installations. Yet, Iran has been mindful of not over doing the symbols of its influence. Iran, it seems, does not want to offend the nationalists amongst the PMUs and is treading cautiously. Tehran understands that the rise of Shia power is the rise of Iran and unnecessary projection of success can do them more harm. Its grip on the power brokers in Iraq is incontestably strong.

Over the last decade, Iran has funded several Shia fighting groups, including the ‘Death Squads’ who allegedly killed Sunnis. Iran has also sponsored the Badr organisation led by Hadi al-Ameri who is a possible candidate for the position of Prime Minister in the upcoming elections. The former PM of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, is perceived to be taking orders from Iran and is considered divisive. The only candidate acceptable to both Sajid and Ali is the current PM Haider al-Abadi, who is seen to be building bridges with the Sunni community. To assuage the concerns of the Sunnis back home and the gulf, Abadi recently visited Saudi Arabia.

Over the last decade, Iran has funded several Shia fighting groups, including the ‘Death Squads’ who allegedly killed Sunnis.

Ali and Sajid’s support to Abadi is centred on the hope that he would be able to lead Iraq on a true path of reconciliation amongst the Shias and the Sunnis. The problem with Abadi, Ali says, is that he is getting too close to the US. Sipping tea, Ali warns Abadi: “If Abadi is seen as a stooge of America, he will loose all credibility.”

Abadi’s position in a quagmire of local, regional and global interests is far from enviable. Journalists and political experts in Iraq confirm that he has a tightrope walk of balancing Iran’s desire to keep the PMUs in play and through them maintain its influence with that of US and Saudi Arabia’s anxiety over their enhanced stature.

Attending a launch meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee on 22 October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control.”

Tillerson’s comments express the US’ and Saudi Arabia’s anxiety over Iran’s influence which post-ISIS stands hugely magnified. Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional competitors and are supporting opposite sides based on sectarian affiliations in the Syrian and Yemeni wars. The two are constantly in a struggle of supremacy in the Islamic world.

Tillerson’s demand had a quick response from Mohammad Javed Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran. “Exactly what country it is that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to? Shameful US FP, dictated by petrodollars,” Zarif tweeted.

The Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard reports directly to the Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei and its leader Qasem Soleimani has been spotted in Iraq on several occasions during the course of the conflict. Quds has trained factions of the PMU and its soldiers have been on the ground. The fighters of the PMUs are Iraqis albeit largely funded by Iran. Despite the monetary assistance, Iran lets the PMUs make independent calls, knowing the loyalties of Shia PMUs will always be with Iran. It is here worth mentioning that seeking legitimacy both within and outside Iraq, the PMUs are opting for a politically correct line. Their attempt is to be recognised as a nationalist force which protected Iraq from the claws of the ISIS.

Hussain Al-Assadi, the spokesperson of the PMU in Iraq, told me on a recent trip to Baghdad via the Arabic translator that the Sunnis are Iraqis and needn’t worry. He said, “Only Daesh should fear us. Christians, Sunnis, Shias are all Iraqis, they have nothing to be afraid of.”

While such assertions are not incorrect, they fall short of reflecting the whole truth. The inspiration which propelled thousands of Iraqi boys to become a lethal fighting force emanated broadly out of their sectarian identity.

PMUs are the strongest military entity in Iraq, even more than the Counter Terrorism Unit trained by the US. They are here to stay and when in trouble would always deal with Iran. There is no question of Shia groups mingling with the US. In fact, the struggle to score Iran’s vote will intensify amongst existing and aspirant candidates, including leaders of some of the PMU groups, as federal elections approach.

Iran too is here to stay. It has acquired a significant status by supporting the PMUs; a formidable force in Iraq and Syria against the ISIS and other opposition. It has finally realised the dream of being a regional power with a significant foot print from Tehran to the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The success is almost a gift to Iran from Wahabi Sunni Jihadis. To target the Sunnis at this stage would be squandering the opportunity to emerge as a Persian power.

The next struggle to control Iraq would be at the hustings, in between the Shias, fronted by the proxy candidates of Iran and the US.

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Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.

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