A CALL for Iraqis to use the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) occupation to set aside hatred and prejudices and encourage inclusion has come from the city’s Syrian Catholic Archbishop, the Most Revd Boutrus Moshe.
Speaking during the first mass in the war-damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Qaraqosh, 20 miles south-east of Mosul, after the removal of IS fighters, he said that Iraqis should “erase sedition, separation, and conflicts, which victimised us. Political and sectarian strife, separating one man and another, between ruler and follower — these mentalities must be changed.”
Christians returning to Qaraqosh found that sculptures of the Virgin Mary and other artefacts had been defaced or destroyed. The altar at the Church of the Immaculate Conception had been vandalised.
Archbishop Moshe’s call for reconciliation reflects growing anxieties among Iraqi Christians that, although thousands are now able to return to their home towns and villages, their future is not necessarily secure because of possible conflicts sparked by the liberation of the city.
Mona Malik, of the Assyrian Aid Society, told the Roman Catholic website Crux that “there needs to be a strategy for reconciliation and reform in the entire Nineveh Province [where Mosul is situated] in order to obtain a sustainable solution. It’s imperative that the region is not pressured to return to the pre-IS conditions that allowed the assault in the first place and without any resistance.”
There are already signs that the long-awaited battle to retake Mosul will herald a more profound political struggle for influence in northern Iraq — one that pitches the weak federal government in Baghdad against its long-time internal rivals, and where Turkey and Kurdish factions are likely to forcefully pursue their own interests.
While the Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has sought to paint the battle against IS as the defining mission for his embattled administration, risks are rising that a Mosul victory will only spark a struggle for political influence in the north, mirroring the political complexity of the fight for Aleppo in neighbouring Syria.
The defeat of IS in Iraq, in short, removes one symptom of a crisis afflicting the country but does not address the cause. A factor in the rise of IS was the marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni community during the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr Abadi has sought to accommodate Sunnis more than his predecessor, but with only limited success: Sunnis remain excluded from key positions in Iraqi political life, and see no willingness in Baghdad’s Shia leadership to share power equitably.
The defeat of IS in Mosul and elsewhere will, therefore, not eradicate Sunnis’ resentment at their exclusion. While the majority of Sunnis do not approve of the extreme ideology of IS, or its brutal measures, they have low expectations of the central government’s ability or desire to help them, and are likely to be attracted to any other group that emerges to fight their cause.
Many IS members, for their part, will merge into the civilian population and plan isolated acts of terrorism directed against the Iraqi government and Shia targets — a process which is already under way.
The Abadi government recognises the threat of sectarian violence, and says that the battle for the centre of Mosul will be conducted exclusively by the Iraqi army, as Kurdish and Shia fighters remain outside the city. Nevertheless, although many senior Shia officers appointed by Mr Maliki have been fired, Shias still dominate the ranks of the army, and some units in the Mosul campaign fly flags reflecting their sectarian affiliation. So the risk of Sunni-Shia clashes in or around Mosul cannot be excluded.
Turkey, which has control of a military base on Iraqi territory north of Mosul, has said that it will not stand back if Turkomens or Sunnis are targeted by Shia militias.
Iraqi Christians and other minority groups fear that, once again, they could find themselves caught in the crossfire of sectarian violence. The possible dangers that they face were recognised by MEPs last week, who passed a motion by 488 votes to 11 calling on EU member-states to refer cases of IS genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities to the International Criminal Court.
The motion also urged the Iraqi authorities to make every effort to protect civilians, hospitals, and schools as they progress towards the centre of Mosul.
Space for children Children fleeing Mosul are arriving at camps, showing the effects on their physical and mental health of two years’ living under IS occupation, World Vision reports.
“Many children have been stuck in their homes while bombings, sniper fire or chaos rules around them. Others have witnessed the death of family members,” the charity’s programs manager in northern Iraq, Aaron Moore, said.
“One little boy, who is five-years-old, arrived at the camp too terrified to speak. He saw his 15-year-old brother killed while they fled ISIL. He was not mixing with the other children: he was simply staring at them.
“Many children don’t want to play. When painting, they have been recreating war scenes with tanks and war planes.”
The charity has set up “child-friendly spaces” in northern Iraq as part of its emergency response work to the conflict (Feature, 11 March).