Iraqi government troops and allied Kurdish forces opened their assault on the city of Mosul before dawn today, fighting to recapture Iraq’s second-largest city from guerrillas of the Islamic State (ISIS). While a military defeat of the extremist group is expected, that will not bring stability or an end to extremist violence in Iraq unless it is followed by a broad reconciliation among deeply divided communal groups, according to Iraq specialists at USIP. So even before the assault began, Iraqi civil society leaders have been preparing an effort to reduce underlying tensions and mediate among Mosul-area groups, as they have done in other Iraqi regions.

Iraqi Fighting
Kurdish fighters march at sunrise across plains toward the city of Mosul, part of a government-led offensive to oust ISIS from Iraq’s second-largest city. (Photo courtesy of NYT/Bryan Denton)

The Iraqi government and its international allies fighting ISIS say they have retaken 45 to 50 percent of Iraqi territory that the group controlled at its peak. But while some areas have been free of ISIS for more than a year, only 19 percent of displaced residents have returned home.

“It has become clear that liberation does not automatically result in people returning to their homes or communities, even with reconstruction by the Iraqi government and the international community,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, a USIP senior program officer on Iraq. “There are many barriers, including the fear of revenge for atrocities that have been committed, blacklists of people accused—rightly or wrongly—of complicity and lack of coordination among local authorities and security forces.”

Local Conflicts Prolong Violence

The greatest barriers to return include weak security and a lack of fair, reliable instruments of justice, such as courts, according to a recent USIP report based on discussions among displaced Iraqis, civil society organizations and officials in Baghdad, Karbala and Kirkuk. Such meetings are part of Justice and Security Dialogues used by USIP in many countries to dispel mistrust and build cooperation within communities to end or avert violent conflict.

As Iraq has prepared the Mosul offensive in recent months, two civic organizations—SANAD for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators—have been analyzing tribal, social and political dynamics in areas of Iraq recaptured from ISIS. The groups have facilitated dialogue among local leaders to reduce tensions and encourage reconciliation. SANAD for Peacebuilding (in Arabic, “sanad” means “support”) and the facilitators’ network have led such reconciliation processes, including in 2015, when Iraqi forces retook the area of Tikrit from ISIS. The two Iraqi groups work with support from USIP.

A critical divide in Iraq, between Sunni and Shia Muslims, has been exacerbated by the violence of ISIS, a Sunni group. At Tikrit, ISIS extremists massacred 1,700 Shia military cadets near the city, prompting some Shia to declare that local Sunni residents shared responsibility for the killings. So after Shia forces recovered Tikrit last year, Sunnis displaced in the warfare avoided going home, fearing revenge attacks by the Shia. SANAD and the Iraqi peace facilitators led a reconciliation dialogue among Sunni and Shia tribal leaders that led to a process under which more than 306,000 displaced residents have returned home, according to government figures.

Mosul: The Toughest Case Yet

Mosul could be the toughest venue of all for this peacebuilding work. Fraught with longstanding disputes over land and oil revenues, Mosul was the primary topic during meetings in Washington last summer of the anti-ISIS military coalition and international donors to Iraq.

“The local factors are compounded by ongoing jostling for political power, a competition that has already resulted in the changing of governors in Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces and has revived territorial disputes between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad,” Hamasaeed said.

Moreover, “the potential for sectarian violence also remains high in liberated areas, as evidenced by reported targeting of some Sunnis by Shia-led `popular mobilization forces’ in response to ISIS killings,” said Elie Abouaoun, USIP’s director of Middle East programs.

Iraqi facilitators and USIP field staff recently visited Washington to brief U.S. officials, congressional staff members and policy analysts on the need and prospects for reconciliation—and on their experience in such dialogues in other parts of Iraq.

Video: How Iraqis Are Opposing Post-ISIS Violence

This three-minute video explains why the retreat of ISIS is not necessarily bringing peace to Iraqi cities and towns—and how Iraqi peace facilitators are building local reconciliation through dialogue.

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