Counting the cost: Iraq declares war against ISIS over, but at what price?

Counting the cost: Iraq declares war against ISIS over, but at what price?
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has officially announced that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) has been completely defeated in his country. All the same, this victory could prove costly. RT looks at the legacy of the war against IS in Iraq.

“Our forces are in complete control of the Iraqi-Syrian border and I therefore announce the end of the war against ISIS,” al-Abadi told a conference in Baghdad Saturday. The Iraqi military confirmed combat operations over, and that Iraq has been “totally liberated” from the terrorist group.

The announcement came some six months after the Iraqi Army and its allied militias recaptured Mosul, a major Iraqi city which served as Islamic State’s major stronghold. In November, Iraqi forces seized Rawah, the last town held by the jihadists.

While announcing the victory over IS, al-Abadi boasted that Iraq “triumphed in little time” over the “enemy [that] wanted to kill our civilization.” Be that as it may, the situation in the country remains dire and the future of the Middle Eastern state unclear.

Just a month ago, the PM revealed that the damage caused by IS’ occupation of Iraq’s northern territories “already amounts to more than $100 billion.” The pseudo-caliphate seized around a third of Iraqi territory in a sweeping 2014 advance, and held on for almost three years.

Irreparable losses

The war against Islamic State turned into a massive human tragedy for the Iraqi people. According to official estimates from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, more than 29,000 civilians were killed between January 2014 and November 2017. Iraq Body Count Project (IBC), an internet based activist group recording civilian deaths in Iraq, put the death toll resulting from IS atrocities and various combat operations over the same period at 66,737.

IS terrorists were responsible for mass murders, torture, rape and even what has been described by the UN as the genocide of some Iraqi minorities. Iraqi forces repeatedly discovered mass graves containing the remains of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of people, in territories once controlled by terrorists.

The decimation of the Iraqi Yazidi minority, considered “devil-worshippers” by the extremists, is a noted example of the terrorists’ savagery. On August 3 2014, IS took control of the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq, a major hub for the Yazidis, who numbered fewer than one million.

After slaughtering thousands of predominantly fighting-aged men, the Islamists enslaved between 4,000-10,000 people, mostly women and children. In August 2017, the UN commission on Syria called on the international community to recognize the crimes committed by IS against the Yazidis as “genocide.”

The terrorists were not the only ones responsible for civilian casualties in this brutal, bloody conflict. The US-led coalition and Iraqi forces have also been repeatedly accused of indiscriminate tactics that has led to a significant number of civilian casualties.

In November, the UN said US-led coalition airstrikes were the reasons for more than one in four civilian deaths during the battle for Mosul. At least 2,521 civilians were killed and 1,673 wounded as the US-led coalition spearheaded the operation to recapture Mosul, a campaign that lasted for over nine months between 2016 and 2017, the UN report said. The UN added that these figures should be considered as an “absolute minimum,” implying that the death toll from coalition actions could be even higher.

International human rights NGOs have also criticized the strategy of the US coalition in Mosul. In late November, Amnesty International (AI) released a report, which stated that at least 5,805 civilians were killed by “relentless unlawful attacks by Iraqi government forces and members of the US-led coalition.” A September report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out that “the high civilian death toll raises concerns that military forces of the US-led coalition failed to take necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties, a requirement under international humanitarian law.”

The excessive use of firepower was the “key element of the victory” of Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition in the war against Islamic State, Fawaz Hilmi, a military and security researcher, told RT, and that such tactics led to the deaths of many civilians caught in the fighting. He added that the success of the Iraqi army was to a large extent a result of the “overkill” tactics used by the US-led coalition as well as the Iraqi Air Force and the Iraqi Army.

It seems that this approach did not help Iraqi forces save the lives of their soldiers either. Iraqi Army and allied militia losses, only in Mosul, were “abysmal”, Hilmi noted. “Some 19,000 Iraqi troops and allied forces [fighters] were killed in Mosul in addition to 22,000 wounded,” he said.

Devastation & ruin

The war has left a trail of death and destruction in Iraqi cities that were first captured by extremists and then retaken by government forces and their allies. Mosul has become the standout symbol of the devastation the war against IS in Iraq has left behind.

Aerial footage captured over the northern Iraqi city following its 'liberation' by Iraqi forces supported by the US-led coalition, show the extent of ruin Mosul has suffered as a result of the fierce fighting. The videos show crumbling buildings and desolated streets around once densely populated areas.

Parts of the city that were once residential districts are now completely destroyed, where one can see only collapsed houses, with many buildings literally reduced to ashes.

An RT crew visited Mosul soon after the battle and witnessed the gruesome aftermath of what was declared a major success by the US-led coalition. As the RT team walked through the Old City, burnt-out vehicles littered along the roadside, damaged walls and empty windows vividly illustrated the heavy price civilians paid for the Iraqi and US-led coalition’s Mosul victory.

In May, Iraqi officials acknowledged that about five years and billions of dollars would be needed to rebuild the city. Later, the same assessment was provided by the UN.

Mosul was far from being the only place ravaged by the war. Soon after the victory in Mosul, the Iraqi Army engaged in a fight for the neighboring city of Tal Afar, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the area. People, displaced by over months of fierce fighting, had to live in makeshift refugee camps where they endured water, food, electricity and medicine shortages, the UNHCR said at the time. The Norwegian Refugee Council relief group estimated that up to 40,000 civilians were still trapped in the city in August, after some 30,000 people escaped since April. Tal Afar was eventually 'liberated' from IS by early September.

Even the people in towns that had long been freed from IS struggled to rebuild their lives, months after the fighting officially ended in the areas where they lived. In Ramadi, liberated in February 2016, a UN survey found 5,700 damaged buildings, 35 percent of which were completely destroyed. The buildings that remained standing were not safe, as mines and improvised explosive devices continued to claim lives.

Fallujah was liberated in June 2016, yet, as of March 2017, the Iraqi city’s mayor was still residing in the Kurdish-dominated city of Erbil, only traveling to Fallujah on certain days to work. Its citizens were “still facing an array of challenges, from destroyed buildings to live Islamic State munitions buried in the rubble to the continuing threat of [IS] attacks,” according to a June study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point.

The war and destruction forced millions of Iraqi’s from their homes, with many now effectively having no place to return to. In total, 3,320,844 Iraqis have been internally displaced, and that’s only between January, 1, 2014, and February, 4, 2016, according to data provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Iraqi forces along with their allies are to blame for a significant part of this devastation, Himli told RT. He explained that the strategy of massive artillery and air strikes pursued by the allied forces is what led to the desolation in many cases.

“Indiscriminate use of firepower has also led to the destruction of many cities,” Himli said. At the same time, he admitted that sometimes it was necessary. “Heavy artillery barrages are what made a difference in this war,” he added.

Revival of old disputes

Now, with the fight against the common enemy over, Iraq, which has a population of many ethnic and religious groups with a history of conflicts and sectarian violence, is likely to face new challenges. An old issue has apparently already flared up, as the Iraqi Kurds, who played a major role in the war against IS, attempted to secede from Iraq.

The Kurds played a major role in the war against IS in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Iraq’s north east, has its own military, known as the Peshmerga. This militia not only prevented IS extremists from seizing the Kurdish territories, but also stopped the terrorists from capturing the oil-rich region of Kirkuk in 2014.

Kurdish fighters enjoyed the backing of the US-led coalition throughout the war. They were also taking part in the battle for Mosul alongside Iraqi government forces and their allied militias. Military successes as well as strong US support apparently emboldened the political ambitions of the Kurds, who long sought to secede from Iraq, arguing that they have an inherent right to self-determination after suffering decades under the heavy-handed rule of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors.

In September, with the war against the terrorists still in full swing, the Kurdish authorities held a referendum, in which the vast majority of Kurds voted in favour of independence, according to then President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani. Elsewhere the referendum was recognized neither by Baghdad, nor the Kurds' allies in Washington. It also provoked an angry reaction from Iraq’s neighbours, particularly Turkey.

The issue of independence also put Iraq on the brink of a new war as Baghdad eventually answered the referendum result by sending troops to the region of Kirkuk and seizing it from the Kurds. The Peshmerga, in turn, called the move an open “declaration of war.”

The seizure of Kirkuk once again forced thousands of people to flee their homes, while the Iraqi troops moved forward and clashed with Kurdish forces on the border of the autonomous region. With the conflict threatening to morph into a full-blown war, the Kurdistan Regional Government quickly proposed to “freeze” the outcome of the referendum result in exchange for a secession of hostilities.

The tensions now seem to have calmed as the two sides started“talking with each other,” according to the US coalition. With no “official ceasefire” in sight, the old simmering dispute could easily boil over again.

The Kurdish question is far from being the only problem facing Iraq following the war. The long-running sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias can also add fuel to the fire. Sectarian differences were even partly blamed for for the initial rise of Islamic State in Iraq, Hilmi told RT.

Shiite political forces that came to power following the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein opted to distribute government and military posts “on sectarian grounds, rather than due to merits,” he said. “That was not an army that was designed to win,” he added, pointing to the Iraqi forces’ initial defeats in the fight against IS.

Former officers of Hussein were openly ostracized and even some Sunni officers felt alienated under this policy, which eventually prompted many to join the ranks of IS, significantly boosting the terrorists’ military capability. “Many officers, who were subjected to repressive actions and stayed unemployed, joined [Islamic State], falling for its slogans,” Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems, told RT.

With similar sectarian-based political forces staying in power, Iraq is likely to see the rise of other extremist organizations, even with IS eliminated from the country, Hilmi warned. He added that the current Iraqi government’s policy, particularly concerning the budget, “will invite another extremist organization” because of the sectarian mentality of both the elites and significant parts of society.

Socio-economic factors could also play a major role in potential future instability, the experts warned. “Southern Iraqi provinces are suffering from the lack of… everything,” Hilmi said, adding, that even the issue of distributing resources “might create a conflict.”

His words were echoed by Viktor Litovkin, an author and military observer at the TASS and RIA news agencies, who said, “If there will be no fight against unemployment, no jobs and no social care … People are likely to take up arms again.” “This fight is going to last for years,” he added.

As Kurds strive for independence amid the ongoing Sunni-Shia tensions, Iraq totally lacks political unity, which it so desperately needs to maintain stability, Ivashov noted. He also warned that, even though IS is defeated as a political and military entity, its cells still exist throughout Iraq and can further contribute to the instability by committing terrorist acts.

As “Iraq still lacks a political force that could unite the whole society around a common goal,” its future remains hazy, the experts warned.

Arena for geopolitical games

And if devastation, economic struggle and internal conflicts were not enough, Iraq also risks becoming an arena for geopolitical games of both regional and global powers that would seek to capitalize on the political instability of the country. Iran and its arch-rival, Saudi Arabia, are already struggling for influence over the neighboring Middle Eastern state.

Tehran greatly capitalized on the war against terrorism in Iraq over recent years as it funded and trained the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – an Iraqi Shiite militia formed in 2014 and declared part of Iraq’s security forces. This development prompted Riyadh to mend relations with the Iraqi government and amplify its influence in Baghdad.

The Saudis also turned to their allies in Washington (who are also anxious over the increasing Iranian influence in the region ) to exert leverage on the Iraqi government. In October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said“Iranian militias that are in Iraq need to go home,” as he apparently referred to the PMF during a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir in Riyadh.

His words provoked an angry reaction in Baghdad. “No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi’s office said in a statement in response to Tillerson’s comments. It added that many PMU members were native Iraqis who made “enormous sacrifices to defend their country and the Iraqi people.”

“The Gulf monarchies, as well as the US could fuel chaos in [Iraq],” if they’re not satisfied with the outcome of Iraq’s internal political struggle, Litovkin warned. “Chaos would justify their presence in the region” and thus help them to pursue their own goals, he added.