Assistance by U.S. airpower has helped Iraqi forces take back much of the city of Mosul from ISIS. However, the military checkpoints along the road to East Mosul aren't manned by the Iraqi army, and the flag they are flying is not the flag of Iraq. Instead of the red, white, and black Iraqi banner, a religious flag displays the face of the holiest Shiite icon, the prophet's grandson Imam Hussain. As well, the face of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adorns a large placard tacked to a post on the road.
Although uniformed as Iraqis, the checkpoints are manned by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, who now control the entrance to this Sunni Arab city.
Trudy Rubin, a journalist who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize award in commentary, and author of the book “Willful Blindness: the Bush Administration and Iraq” wrote an article for philly.com, saying, “Washington should regard the black flags as a warning signal. Even before ISIS is fully defeated, Shiite Iran is laying the groundwork to expand its deep penetration of Iraq (with whom it shares a nearly 1,000-mile border). Tehran wants to control the Baghdad government through its Shiite political and militia proxies, marginalizing Sunnis, including in Mosul.” She adds, “But judging by history, repression in Sunni areas of Iraq will provide fertile ground for the next jihadi movement to take root.”
The Shiite flags at Mosul show that a military defeat of ISIS is not enough. The Sunni’s must be assured of a role in a post-ISIS Iraq. There is no political plan evident in Baghdad or Washington, but one should be made ready soon. Mosul residents say that the Shiite militias are not entering the city proper, so far. An elementary school teacher who lives in East Mosul said, "Right now they are not pushing people out,” but he added that sectarian Shiite political parties linked to the militias are already opening offices in the city.
The Iraqi military is viewed far more positively by the Maslawis, as Mosul natives are called, than the militias. Iraqi forces are composed heavily of Shiites because they make up a majority of the population, but Iraqi forces are loyal to the state, not to Shiite political parties or Tehran.
The prominent Sunni Sheikh, Abdullah al-Yawar, praised the behavior of the Iraqi military units that entered the city, especially the U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service (CTS). "The only force people like is the CTS and [its] Golden Division. It did not force people to leave their homes.”
No one knows the future of the militias, who are technically under military control, after ISIS is defeated. Ms. Rubin writes that, “Sunnis fear they will act as armed wings of competing Shiite parties or an Iraqi version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps, which took over Iran's army from within.” She adds, “And Sunnis rightly fear Iran's long-term intentions. They know Tehran still remembers Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran, when Sunnis ran Iraq, and the decadelong war that followed.”
One Sunni politician said, "Iran wants to see Iraq's Sunnis weak and divided, so the 1980s can never happen again.”
Haidar al-Abadi, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, scheduled to visit Washington this week, said this about reconciliation with Sunnis, at a forum sponsored by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, ”We are proud of our diversity. Victory will be done when we are united."
According to Ms. Rubin, Sunnis in Mosul haven’t yet seen any of the $500 million set aside for reconstruction by the Iraqi finance ministry, and it is unclear when hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents who fled the fighting will be permitted to return home.
Additionally, Maslawis worry about how they will be protected them from terrorism or displacement, after ISIS is defeated. U.S. forces trained 8,000 Sunni tribesmen as a "hold force" to secure Mosul after ISIS have been deployed but they have not yet made an impact.
Once U.S. airpower is not necessary to target ISIS, Maslawis believe Iran will press the Baghdad government to kick U.S. forces out of the country. Although hostile to the American presence in the past, Sunnis now want US forces to stay.
“They know the Iranians are very clever at playing the long game. Tehran appears eager to shift Iraqi politics toward a system where the Shiite majority assumes permanent dominance over the Sunni and Kurdish minorities,” Ms. Rubin writes, adding, “The Iranians are buying off weak Sunni politicians, helping to keep a divided community even more so. Money is also flowing to small minority groups like the Shiite Shabaks, who are manning the checkpoints at the entry to Mosul. Shabaks are a tiny Iraqi ethno-religious sect that, I'm told, had never taken up arms before.”
What options does Washington have in Iraq, to offset Iran and prevent ISIS 2.0.? Ms. Rubin was told by Iraqi Arabs and Kurds what they hope a Trump administration will do:
• First, stay engaged with Iraq and retain a military presence to help Iraqi forces prevent an ISIS resurgence.
• Second, bolster Abadi against Iranian efforts to back a hard-line Shiite opponent. For starters, encourage America's Gulf Arab allies to help finance Sunni reconstruction. Washington should also aid Mosul's civil society activists who are trying to rebuild from the ground up.
•Third, press Baghdad to adopt a federal system, which the country's constitution provides for, so Sunnis can establish their own provinces within the country. Iran and Shiite parties will oppose this formula, but it's the only way to convince Iraq's Sunnis that they have a future.
A long-term U.S. engagement may not appeal to the Trump administration, but the Shiite flags outside Mosul make it clear that shorter-term thinking may be costly, as absent a strong U.S. effort, the ISIS may grow once again in Iraq.