Iraq’s Great Victory in Mosul Is Being Undermined

The Mosul offensive has come to an end. The Islamic State has been militarily defeated and its remnants destroyed within the city.

This is a victory for the state of Iraq. A new nation, remade after the evil of Ba’athism was removed from power, it has faced down a grave threat, and given much in a struggle against an existential enemy of the free world.

But this victory has been marred – and will continue to be diminished – by worrying reports reaching outsiders from Mosul.

Journalists are beginning to pick up on troubling stories, stories amplified by social media of sectarian crimes being committed by victorious Iraqi forces after recapturing the last stretches of Mosul from ISIS.

This is an entirely negative development – both in purely moral, humanitarian terms, and also tactically.

A thinking being cannot but be repelled by footage purporting to show Iraqi forces throwing people off cliffs, or executing people in the street, without trial or deliberation.

Whether these videos are exactly as they seem is almost immaterial. In this case, perception is all that matters. Though some in the West gloat at these pictures, taking it as read that all who suffer in them are ISIS and therefore deserving, this outcome is a tragedy for Iraq.

The international coalition planned the Mosul offensive cleverly and orchestrated it deliberately. It was not meant to turn out like this.

The whole point of taking Mosul using Iraqi state forces alone, rather than ethnic or religiously sectarian militias, was to avoid population-cleansing afterwards. The ambition was to build an image of unity.

The crimes of Iranian-supported and -organised Shiite militias are legendary, not least because the horror of these stories grow and mutate in the imagination. Practical examples abound: worried Sunnis can point to the desecration of corpses by men such as Abu Azrael, a celebrated Shiite jihadist and militiaman.

They can look to what happened in Ramadi, where much of the city was destroyed by sectarian militias, and see, fearfully, a reflection of a possible future.

The real tragedy of all this is that the recapture of Mosul is or should be an unambiguous triumph for Iraq. It is a new nation and has rebounded from defeat in 2014. In retaking Mosul, its soldiers have paid a heavy price for an offensive the whole world was rooting for.

Iraq has improved its tactics. It has managed to minimize overt Iranian influence on the latter stages of this offensive. In doing so, Iraqi forces bore the brunt of the fighting and some elite units, such as the Special Operations Forces (popularly known as the Golden Division), have taken notably high casualties.

But all of this risks being sabotaged by trigger-happy soldiers taking revenge on suspected ISIS remnants in Mosul. Many of those killed cannot be ISIS; they were instead trapped in the areas where militants fought to their last.

Those civilians are just as much victims of ISIS as any other inhabitants of Mosul, but their presence in is taken for complicity. This in an offensive which has featured conclusive evidence of Islamic State fighters using civilians as human shields.

Some of the reports have been truly awful; and the videos purporting to show torture and executions are already floating around on social media.

Such indiscriminate reprisals are sure to fuel Sunni fears and possibly lay the groundwork for long-term problems.

If an ISIS-like organisation either survives this current conflict or becomes a standard to which disaffected Sunnis flock, the Iraqi state and its international allies will have failed.

Mosul was a battlefront and a warzone. Its buildings and streets have taken a battering, as has its population. They now need help rebuilding, and Iraqi authorities must receive assistance, moral and financial, strategic and tactical, to begin doing so.

But the new Iraq’s military triumph in Mosul is already being undermined, both internally, by dissolute elements in its armed forces, and externally, by those who have decided that defeating ISIS in Mosul is not a victory worth the name.

This cannot be allowed to continue. Iraq’s victory is being undermined and traduced, and this is a real worry for anyone who cares about future of the country and its people.

This piece was originally published at The Washington Examiner.

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