In mid-2014, jihadist fighters belonging to ISIL carried out a military offensive that within a matter of weeks left the group controlling large sections of Iraqi territory, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city, and important industrial centers, and, for a time, appeared to pose a direct threat to the government’s control of the capital, Baghdad. The country’s descent into generalized sectarian warfare and a collapse of authority at the center was avoided thanks a political deal that resulted in the ouster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had blatantly exploited sectarian tensions for political gain, and his replacement by Haidar al-Abadi, whose chief political asset is the fact that, unlike Maliki, he has done nothing in the past to alienate non-Shiite groups.
Abadi’s government, formed in haste against the backdrop of crisis, meets the basic criteria for inclusiveness that is essential to any possibility of stability, and military assistance from an international coalition that includes both the US and Iran, as well as the engagement of Kurdish militia forces (peshmerga) in the battle against ISIL, succeeded in halting the advance of the jihadis, providing an opportunity for the Iraqi military to regroup.
However, the prime minister’s task has been made doubly challenging by a precipitous fall in global oil prices since mid-2014, a development that has negative connotations for the availability of funds required to ensure a functioning state. Making matters worse, the revenue shortfall holds the potential to revive a battle between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish government over control of the oil produced inside Iraqi Kurdistan, which posed a danger to national unity even before ISIL emerged as an existential threat to the Iraqi state last year.
Abadi has managed to resolve (at least temporarily) a long-standing irritant to relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the national government, namely, control of the key security posts. After the Parliament rejected his first choice to head the Interior Ministry, Abadi appointed Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite, and, perhaps more significant, a member of the Badr Organization, a group with close ties to Iran whose affiliated militia has been fighting ISIL alongside government forces. Badr militiamen have been accused of committing atrocities against Sunnis alleged to have collaborated with ISIL, a charge that does not lend itself to engendering trust among Sunnis in a central government that has become heavily dependent on Shiite militias for national security.
As the military prepared for an offensive to reclaim control of the occupied city of Tikrit in early March, Prime Minister Abadi pointedly warned soldiers to refrain from reprisals against the city’s Sunni inhabitants. The fact that he felt the need to issue such a directive underscores the very real danger that the battle against ISIL could deepen divisions within Iraq, rather than preserving national unity. ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is well aware of that possibility, and attacks calculated to sow sectarian hostility—most of them involving suicide bombings in Shiite-majority areas of the capital—are a key element of the group’s strategy.