Iraq after ISIS: continued conflict or rebuilding beyond ethno-sectarian identities?

An Iraqi soldier talks with civilians waiting to be evacuated in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, on July 10, 2017. Khalil Dawood/ Press Association. All rights reserved.As the defeat of ISIS/Daesh looms large
both in Syria and in Iraq, attention turns to post-ISIS settlements: while in
Syria the Assad regime seems set to remain in power with Russian support, how
Iraq’s diverse political forces – which mostly self-identify along Shi’a,
Kurdish, and Sunni lines – will address the deep divisions highlighted by ISIS’
rise to prominence remains a more open question.

Post-ISIS nation-building will certainly
require negotiation between political elites, most of which ground their
legitimacy in sectarian identity, but the long-term stability of any settlement
they reach depends crucially on their ability to address popular priorities and
national (non-sectarian) interests.

However, recent evidence from nationwide public opinion surveys
shows that these priorities are not always determined by
‘identity’, as is often assumed, but are often shared across communities. For
example, data suggests that in crucial areas, including security, people’s location is at least as important as
identity, and that people want stability, jobs, decent services, and an end to
corruption whatever their ethno-religious identity. People’s location is at least as important as identity… people want stability, jobs, decent services, and an end to corruption.

Basing either domestic politics in Iraq or
foreign policy towards it on ‘identitarian’ assumptions is likely to miss
popular demands and priorities. Indeed, the fact that people’s concerns are not
determined by their identity alone provides an opportunity to forge a socially,
economically, and politically inclusive post-conflict settlement. The divisive
consequences of both Saddam Hussein’s ‘Sunni-centric’ regime and the
‘Shi’a-centric’ central government which emerged in the wake of US-led regime
change provide cautionary tales about the price of failing to find such an
inclusive settlement, both at home and abroad.


The Arab Transformations
Survey, the latest empirical information from nationwide public opinion survey
dates from June 2014, just before the fall of Mosul, and covers Iraq plus five other
countries – Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. In 2014 Iraqis saw internal
security and the economy as the two greatest challenges facing their country,
with corruption a close third. More extensive analysis of the data suggests
that for some time concerns about security have been common across the
sectarian divide and higher in the central than the other regions. It also
suggests that Sunnis are more concerned about totalitarianism than Shi’ites
though in all regions many more people are concerned about corruption, internal
security and/or the economic situation than consider authoritarianism a major
challenge in their country. How such concerns will have been affected by the
experience of ISIS occupation remains to be seen, particularly in ISIS-occupied

In 2014, people across
Iraq were pessimistic about the country’s economic predicament and dissatisfied
with prospects for its development. In no group or region did more than about
40 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in the future of the economy, but
dissatisfaction was particularly high in the case of Sunnis, both in the
Kurdish-majority northern areas and in the centre. Beyond regional or ethno-religious
differences, however, such markedly low levels of satisfaction signal the
urgent need for inclusive development nationwide.

Regional and ethno-religious
differences are important, but what is more important than variations between
such areas and identity groups is that a considerable majority of the population nationwide were unhappy
with the country’s economic performance and lacked confidence
in the federal government’s work to improve it. While certainly posing a
challenging political task, this dissatisfaction emphasises the importance of
an inclusive post-ISIS economic settlement. The long-term stability of any
political settlement must be underpinned by growth that is – and is perceived
to be – inclusive across regional and sectarian lines.


Corruption is perceived
as pervasive: between 88 and 98 per cent identify it as a problem regardless of
regional location or religion. Indeed, for half of respondents nationwide it
was corruption which motivated them to support or take part in protests during
the 2010-11 Arab Uprisings, followed by economic factors (demand for improved
basic services 43%; economic problems 30%) and political factors (demanding
more political freedom 25%; opposition to authoritarian leader, 23%). By
contrast, even the highest levels of confidence that government will work
towards tackling corruption – among Shi’ites in the Central and Southern
regions, at 50 per cent and 40 per cent respectively – remain troublingly low.

While politically
sensitive and practically complex, tackling corruption is likely to both boost
economic growth and generate considerable legitimation for the federal
government and the political forces supporting it.

Few social or political institutions
command much trust in Iraq, often including religious leaders. However, the demand
for an inclusive, representative government remains strong, providing
opportunities for stable long-term solutions to Iraq’s problems. Trust in
central government varies
significantly along both sectarian and regional lines but is low nationwide, being highest among Shi’ites in the
Central Region (32% ) and the South (37%) compared to at most half these levels
for Sunnis in other regions.

Low levels of trust in
political leaders, however, do not translate into a lack of confidence in an
inclusive form of government. Iraqis clearly favour a parliamentary form of
government in which all parties – religious and secular, right and left – take
part (91% among Southern Shi’ites, 83% among both Central Shi’ites and Northern
Sunnis). Despite the comparatively significant drop, a clear majority of Central
Sunnis (64%) still also favoured such a system.

These data highlight the
problems of central regions but also show that despite the intense and complex
problems Iraq faces and the difficulty of reaching a negotiated compromise, a
politically and economically fair and inclusive settlement would be well
received by Iraqis of all religions and in all regions and would improve
social, economic, and political resilience.

Even before the ISIS
take-over of Mosul respondents nationwide were concerned about violence: two
thirds or more worried about war, terrorism, civil war, and sectarian violence.
In any post-ISIS scenario, government must both ensure security and gain the people’s trust. In any post-ISIS scenario, government must both ensure security and gain the people’s trust.

Iraq’s problems and
politics are often viewed through sectarian lenses. However, nationwide public
opinion survey data challenges received notions about the relative weight of
sectarian identity in explaining respondents’ perceptions of key social, economic,
and political issues. These regional variations point to the crucial importance
of local conditions alongside identity.

This has significant
implications for post-ISIS
nation-building in Iraq: it is not just ‘identity’ which
politicians must represent, but people’s interests. In particular, for any
negotiated settlement to be stable in the long term it must address popular
demands for both economic and political inclusion. Herein lies both a challenge
to conventional ways of perceiving Iraqi politics and an opportunity – if it
can be grasped – to build bridges across sectarian lines.


the full briefing in The
Arab Transformations Policy Briefs. No.7 from
the University
of Aberdeen. The research on which the article is based was funded by the European Union under FP7.

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