Experts are wary of announcement that came after year of particularly brutal sectarianism, even by Iraq’s bloody standards
The leaders of Iraq’s two largest Sunni and Shia parliamentary coalitions announced this week that they had reached a preliminary deal for a post-Islamic State future based on compromises that overcome past mistakes.
Leaders of the two coalitions met at the house of Iraq’s parliamentary speaker on Monday, according to Matshar al-Samarrai, a Sunni Iraqi MP who is part of the Sunni Iraqi Forces Coalition (IFC).
Iraq has a sectarian power-sharing agreement where the parliamentary speakers – currently Salim al-Jabouri, who is also part of the IFC – is guaranteed to Sunni Arabs.
The prime ministry is in turn guaranteed to Shia Arabs and the presidency to Kurds.
Al-Samarrai and al-Jabouri met with Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), the IFC’s Shia coalition partner in parliament.
“A quasi-agreement on a settlement was reached,” al-Samarrai told a pan-Arab news website.
Speaking to Arabi 21, the Sunni MP said he asked the NIA to “launch initiatives that will build hope among political factions. These initiatives should include the return of displaced persons to their cities, restoration of land to residents once it is taken back from Islamic State forces and release of those innocently imprisoned, as everyone admits that there are innocent people being held in prison.”
Displaced Iraqis who fled Mosul arrive during a sand storm in the village of Gogjali, on the eastern outskirts of the main hub city, on 2 December, 2016 (AFP)
Experts were sceptical the announcement would come to much, however.
Tallha Abdulrazaq, an Iraqi security and counterterrorism expert at the University of Exeter, said he would not be surprised if the “preliminary agreement follows the same path of 'one step forward and 10 steps back'."
"I think it's frankly laughable that the politicians who are part and parcel of a political process that engenders foreign intervention and meddling are talking about building inter-sectarian equality in Iraq post-IS,” he said.
Al-Samarrai told Arabi 21 that the meeting was only the first step towards a permanent solution, with one such step being the establishment of parliamentary committees to focus on the agreed initiatives, adding that an agreement on setting them up was close.
Al-Jabouri, the parliament speaker, told Arabi 21 that the meeting was significant because this was the first time a dialogue was held to discuss Iraq’s post-IS future. He also emphasised that it was essential for displaced citizens to return home.
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces drive in the Tameem district of Ramadi, a large city on the Euphrates 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Baghdad on 9 December, 2015 (AFP)
“Firstly,” Abdulrazaq commented, “IS is far from defeated, and the loss of territory does not mean that the terrorist organisation cannot continue to fight.
“Secondly, IS has already been used as an excuse to commit sectarian cleansing against the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, including documented war crimes, and that must be addressed - not only the return of IDPs to their homes.”
Crime and no punishment
The meeting comes after a year of particularly brutal sectarianism, even by Iraq’s bloody standards.
In January 2016, Human Rights Watch accused Shia militias of abducting and killing tens of Sunni civilians in central Iraq in retaliation for an IS bombing.
By the time the Iraqi state’s campaign against IS was in full swing, HRW was calling on the Iraqi government to prevent certain Shia militias from taking part in June’s operation to retake Mosul – citing the likelihood of mass human rights breaches.
Members of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, a largely Shia coalition of militias, walk near the frontline on 21 October, 2016, some 30 km south of Mosul, during an operation against IS (AFP)
The atrocities reached such a scale that the United Nations said in July that Shia militias had kidnapped 900 civilians – and executed as many as 50 of them – during the battle to take Fallujah from IS.
By October, Amnesty International had gathered enough testimony to release a report titled “Punished for Daesh’s crimes: Displaced Iraqis abused by militias and government forces.”
Amnesty accused pro-government Shia militias of committing war crimes by “by torturing, arbitrarily detaining, forcibly disappearing and extrajudicially executing thousands of civilians”.
History vs hope
It was in this context that a number of senior leaders of both coalitions attended the meeting, and agreed on the importance of correcting past mistakes.
According to al-Jabouri, they agreed on the importance of abandoning a winner-takes-all mentality, and that compromise and cooperation were necessary moving forward in their attempt to build a strong state in the wake of the recent IS insurgency and a decade of sectarian strife.
Abdulrazaq, however, pointed to the history of the post-invasion Iraqi political class to justify his lack of optimism.
“This is not the first time these politicians have cut deals and set up committees only for the same nepotism, corruption and foreign meddling to derail everything,” he said.
A US Marine covers the head of a statue of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein with the US flag before pulling it down in Baghdad on 9 April, 2003 (AFP)
Al-Samarrai was more hopeful – but still tempered by a weary caution.
“They [NIA] must implement what was included in the political settlement to rebuild trust and a state of institutions for people to be able to live securely,” he said.
“But if there are only promises and empty talk without action on the ground, the settlement will be just like those that preceded it,” he said.
He continued: “The (Iraqi Forces) Coalition sees a general lack of seriousness in achieving reconciliation, especially as much money was spent on these [previous] initiatives and we came out with nothing.
“We have not lost hope, but we are waiting to see.”