Defeating violent extremism in Iraq and securing U.S. interests in the country’s peaceful future requires a range of economic, political and military support, including more reconciliation initiatives such as those undertaken by the U.S. Institute of Peace, an Atlantic Council-led task force said in a report released today. 

Civilians flee clashes between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters in western Mosul, Iraq, March 7, 2017. Car bombs snipers, mortar fire and coalition airstrikes have all taken a heavy toll on civilians during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from Mosul.
Civilians flee clashes between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters in Mosul. Car bombs snipers, mortar fire and coalition airstrikes have all taken a heavy toll on civilians during the offensive. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ivor Prickett

Creating conditions that will allow the country’s ethnic, sectarian, and minority groups to coexist peacefully is critical to stabilization after the expected military defeat of ISIS, the Task Force on the Future of Iraq concluded. The report cited reconciliation work supported by USIP in liberated areas as a model for reducing communal tensions that feed violent extremism.

“By consolidating the gains that the United States has made in this second war against violent extremism in Iraq, we hope to avoid becoming entangled in a third,” wrote task force chair Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. envoy to Iraq from 2007-2009. USIP’s director of Middle East programs, Sarhang Hamasaeed, was a member of the task force, and Manal Omar, associate vice president for the Middle East and Africa Center, was a senior adviser on the project.

The report’s release coincides with a final assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on the last ISIS strongholds in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the extremist group’s operating base in the country since June 2014. As the defeat of ISIS drew closer in recent months, the task force explored strategies that would secure long-term U.S. national security interests.

The report defines those interests as an “independent, stable and prosperous Iraq” that is at peace internally and with its neighbors, governed legitimately and effectively, and cooperating with the U.S. in the region. A stronger, secure and economically vibrant Iraq will be better able to reduce the influence of radicalism and resist interference from Iran, the task force said.

The report broadly calls for the U.S. and its coalition partners to remain engaged in Iraq and to measure success more by improvements in governance over years than by any quick military advances against extremists. It identifies as among the root causes of extremism the Sunni population’s alienation under the former Baghdad government, an ineffective justice system, lack of economic opportunity and pervasive corruption.

“Only an effective, responsive, and legitimate government can tackle the root causes of radicalization,” according to the report. “This does not mean that the United States should engage in a large-scale, nation-building program in Iraq, but rather, that it should support progress on key legislative programs and reform initiatives that directly tackle Iraqi grievances.”

A critical foundation for stabilizing Iraq is fostering inclusivity across sectarian lines, according to the report. ISIS exploited and provoked social divides and local conflicts to advance and hold territory, in part by implicating tribal and community members in its crimes. In some areas, ISIS sparked cycles of revenge that prevent internally displaced persons from going home, the task force said, calling USIP’s efforts at reconciliation “successful templates” for addressing such conflicts.

USIP has supported reconciliation work by the Network of Iraqi Facilitators, the civic organization SANAD for Peacebuilding and with the government’s National Reconciliation Committee, and helped form the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities to advocate peacefully for their rights and interests. In January, USIP worked with partners to produce a tribal agreement that ISIS suspects would be subject to formal rule of law mechanisms once the city of Hawija is recaptured, to avoid tribal justice that risked setting off new rounds of violence and instability.

“The United States Institute of Peace has supported locally led dialogues in Tikrit, Yathrib and other liberated areas that have reduced communal tensions and facilitated the return of thousands of IDPs,” the task force said. “These efforts must be escalated across all liberated areas.”

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