ISIS' One Year in Iraq: Transformation in Perceptions of Politics and Security

The process which started with Mosul’s takeover by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in June 2014 can be regarded as a historical turning point for Iraq. The fact that ISIS seized control of Saladin (Tikrit), Al-Anbar and some parts of Diyala alongside Mosul where the Sunnis live allowed it to establish new spheres of sovereignty around Kirkuk and Baghdad. This situation, on the one hand, disturbed the balance between economics, politics and security in Iraq, on the other, changed share of governance, the social structure and the geographical distribution of the population dramatically. It is likely that this change and new dynamics which occurred during the fight with ISIS will cause permanent problems, changes and damages. Thus, analyzing the transformation and the change that ISIS created in Iraq will help to understand both the current situation in Iraq and the abyss of power that may occur in a post-ISIS Iraq.


Perception of Politics

Formation of a group like ISIS is not a new case for Iraq. Groups which form the basis for ISIS and have links to the global terrorist organization Al-Qaeda came into existence in post-2003 Iraq under different names such as Tawhid and Jihad, the Mujahideen Shura Council and Islamic State of Iraq. These groups which interrupted the process of forming a new state in post-2003 Iraq to a great extent manipulated the confusion in Syria in 2011 in order to come into existence and consolidate their power. Additionally, the policies of Nouri al-Maliki who became the Prime Minister for the second time in 2010, on the Sunni regions and Sunni politicians enabled these groups to reform among the Sunnis who are cast out of politics in Iraq. As a result of these separatist developments in Iraqi politics, a terrorist organization like ISIS gained territory in Mosul and afterwards in other Sunni regions and declared “The Islamic State” for the first time on Iraqi soil. (The Islamic State declared by ISIS consists of the territories under ISIS control in both Iraq and in Syria). This process changed the perception of politics and security dramatically in Iraq. Because Nouri al-Maliki who won the Iraqi Parliamentary Elections on 30 April 2014 and wants a third term in office as Prime Minister had to withdraw from office when ISIS gained power in Iraq. Instead of Nouri al-Maliki who could not find support among the Sunnis, the Kurds and event among the Shiites, a more moderate politician, Haider al-Abadi was entitled to form the government. Haider al-Abadi, trying to receive the support of all groups in Iraq during this process, formed the government under extraordinary conditions with the participation of the Sunnis to the government and took office on 9 September 2014. Abadi’s delay in determining the Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs interrupted the fight against ISIS. The balance of politics was formed in regard to the government’s prioritization of the fight against ISIS.


In this regard, having tried to negotiate with Baghdad and Erbil, the new government reached a consensus about the problems of budget and share of oil revenues as part of the struggle against ISIS. Moreover, despite the consensus between Erbil and Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish parties consolidated their domination in local politics by increasing their pressure on Baghdad. Particularly the retreat of the Iraqi Army and the security forces strengthened the influence of the Kurdish parties in Kirkuk and eventually the duty of providing security in the city fell to the Peshmerga, public security forces with links to Kurdish Parties and Kirkuk local police. Najmaddin Karim, Governor of Kirkuk who is of Kurdish origin and member of PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), took decisions in Kirkuk independently of Baghdad by displaying a tougher attitude towards Baghdad. However, there is a new actor which was created following Ali Husayni Sistani’s fatwa and influenced directly by Iran: the Hashd al-Shaabi. Because of the practices of Shiite militias within the Hashd al-Shaabi in the Sunni regions and the exclusion of the Sunnis from the process, the balance in politics is not maintained. In fact, suspension of Governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi from his duty by an act of parliament worried the Sunnis and left question marks behind about the government policies on the Sunni population. In short, because of the fact that the Sunni integrity is not maintained, that the worries of the Sunnis about the demographic balance between the security forces are not overcome and there are concerns about the position of Shiite militias and their future have disturbed the balance of politics of Iraq.


Transformation in the Balance of Security

The change in the balance of politics of Iraq and formation of news actors in terms of security after ISIS changed the perceptions of security. First of all, the presence of ISIS constitutes a security risk not only for Iraq but also for the region and the rest of the world. The fact that ISIS established spheres of sovereignty especially in Syria and Iraq and does not encounter much difficulty in finding resources (human, financial and military) increase the crisis. When considered the risks in terms of Iraq, it is a fact that ISIS constitutes a threat for all parts of groups in Iraq. ISIS' use of different and unprecedented methods in Iraq and its constant strategy shift cause the struggle of Iraqi government with ISIS to extend and make the organization harder to eliminate. Besides, the fact that Iraqi Security Forces withdrew running from the regions under ISIS' control shook the public trust in the government and replacing the absence of official security forces with local elements increased the loss of trust in the government. In fact, the recreation of Shiite militias during the fight against ISIS and the creation of new militias have caused a security gap in Iraq. Formation of  militias as well as voluntary fighters in order to support the security forces following the fatwa of Ali Husayni Sistani on jihad and the fact that they took the lead in the fight against ISIS strengthen the imbalance between the security forces, one of the fundamental problems in Iraq. Actions such as recruiting members of every ethnic and religious groups into al-Hashd al-Shaabi alongside the voluntary fighters and the militias and institutionalizing the organization are taken in order to ease these worries. In order for every city to consist of its own people and to protect its own city, a “National Guard” force was planned in Iraq. In addition, some of the Sunnis formed an organization such as “al-Hashd al-Watani” (National Mobilization) during this fight against ISIS. Whereas these formations tried to eliminate the security breach in the country, these developments localized the security and created groups which try to extend their control in their regions. This situation is likely to cause loopholes in the state structure. Forming localized security forces instead of institutionalized and stable security units is a development that will eventually damage the central authority in Iraq.


On the other hand, an increase in the foreign intervention towards Iraq is observed in the post-ISIS process. It is also observed that Iranian commanders and military consultants which are stationed in Iraq have directed the militias and provided logistic assistance in every field. This situation damages the status of independent state of Iraq. Moreover, it is known that the USA sent about 3,550 military consultants to Iraq again. Along with this, the international coalition which was formed with the support of around 60 countries led by the USA has carried out air operations against ISIS in Iraq. Whereas these operations are conducted with the approval of the Iraqi government, on the one hand, they damage the institutionalization of the state and on the other, lead to the loss of legitimacy of the country on the popular basis.


As a result, when the last one year of Iraq is taken into consideration, it is observed that the structuring process has not yet been finalized after the USA intervention in 2003 and there is a delay in establishing the balance. To sum up, this process has shown that instead of forming a structure in which all parts of Iraq can participate, steps which will lead the country to localization and more ethnic, religious and sectarian dissolution are being taken. Iraq’s last one year under ISIS control and influence is seen to have intensified the localization and the separation in Iraq, shaken the central authority and increased the confidence crisis.


This article was published in Ortadoğu Analiz journal with the title of "ISIS' One Year in Iraq: Transformation in Perceptions of Politics and Security”