Update Oct. 5, 2017: Iraqi officials announced earlier today that their military forces had successfully recaptured Hawija from ISIS control, leaving mainly a few stretches of al-Anbar province near the Syrian border still under the control of the militant group.

(continued from Part 1)
The military offensive to uproot ISIS from the northern Iraqi city of Hawija, entering a new phase this week, is aimed at clearing out an estimated 1,000-2,000 insurgents from what is one of the extremist group’s last Iraqi strongholds. The next battle will be the layers of ethnic, religious and sectarian tension that will complicate any recovery. 

Displaced people arrive at a security screening center in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ivor Prickett
Displaced people arrive at a security screening center in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ivor Prickett

A Sunni Arab city seized by ISIS in its 2014 offensive, Hawija’s location 135 miles north of Baghdad in oil-rich Kirkuk province makes it ripe for the same territorial claims on the province by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government and central authorities in Baghdad. The Kurdistan region’s Sept. 25 independence vote in a non-binding referendum has compounded the rift.

The collection of forces involved in the attack on Hawija could add fuel to the conflicts. They include the central government’s military and police units, and the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), many of them backed by Iran. Kurdish Peshmerga, though positioned along the front lines and providing certain support to the offensive, aren’t participating in the fighting.

Questions loom about which forces will provide security afterwards. Hawija has been a center of Sunni resistance to the Baghdad government since the U.S. deposed President Saddam Hussein in 2003. The government’s reach and, in turn, the rule of law, have been persistently weak.

The area eventually became a breeding ground for al-Qaida in Iraq, the precursor of ISIS. Anger over a massacre of protesters by government troops in Hawija in 2013 led many disaffected residents to welcome or not resist ISIS the following year. But many Sunnis also fled when ISIS took control, most of them now displaced in Kirkuk.

Sunnis are concerned that Shia fighters taking part in the Hawija offensive will stay.  Some Shia militias, reportedly, have abused Sunnis in other areas cleared of ISIS, raising concerns of more sectarian violence and a renewed turn to extremists. Kurds, in turn, worry that their security will be threatened from Hawija by lingering terrorists or Shia militias.

Hawija’s Sunni tribes also are grappling with internal splits, between members who joined ISIS and those who opposed the extremists and paid a heavy price in life and property. Under traditional tribal law, defeated ISIS allies could expect severe retribution at the hands of their victims. Collective responsibility often remains the norm, with one tribe accusing another of complicity with ISIS even if only a few members went astray. Revenge, continuing demands for compensation and competition for power could spur inter-tribal violence.

With so many dangerous crosscurrents at play, hope for a peaceful resolution in Hawija rests on reconciliation efforts from the national to the community level. Hawija is one of several areas where USIP has supported tribal, community and government leaders striking agreements aimed at preventing post-ISIS conflict.

The Hawija accord—signed by more than 100 tribal sheikhs and facilitated by USIP’s Iraqi partners, Sanad for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators —aims to enable the return of displaced people and help lay the foundation for economic and physical security and social stability.

Given its history of alliances with armed groups and terrorist organizations and its position amid competing territorial claims for Kirkuk province, Hawija will be among the most complex and important areas in need of stabilization in a post-ISIS Iraq.

Related Publications

Nancy Lindborg on Iraq Rebuilding After ISIS

Nancy Lindborg on Iraq Rebuilding After ISIS

Thursday, April 11, 2019

By: Nancy Lindborg

Following her trip to Iraq, Nancy Lindborg discusses the country’s efforts to rebuild after ISIS. “They’ve [ISIS] been deprived of their territory … rebuilding is under way. But, there is very much a sense that the ISIS ideology is alive and well and there are a lot of concerns overall about security,” says Lindborg. “There has been important progress, but it’s very precarious and completely reversible.”

Reconciliation; Violent Extremism

Reaching a Durable Peace in Afghanistan and Iraq: Learning from Investments in Women’s Programming

Reaching a Durable Peace in Afghanistan and Iraq: Learning from Investments in Women’s Programming

Friday, March 29, 2019

By: Danielle Robertson; Steven E. Steiner

USIP recently partnered with New America to convene roundtable discussions with government, civil society, and humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organizations to learn from the past decade of women’s programming in fragile states such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on these discussions, this report provides guidance for improving future programming to not only integrate the needs of women but also recognize the role women play in transforming violent conflict and sustaining a durable peace.

Gender

The Current Situation in Iraq

The Current Situation in Iraq

Friday, March 29, 2019

Iraq has been ravaged in recent years by cycles of warfare, an internally displaced persons (IDPs) crisis, crippling sectarianism and, most destructively, a three-year campaign to drive ISIS from the third of the country it controlled. Even after the military defeat of ISIS, Iraq continues to face severe challenges including resolving the political, sectarian, and tribal conflicts that fueled the spread of extremism and its entanglement in regional rivalries.

View All Publications