A member of Iraqi Federal Police waves an Iraqi flag as they celebrate victory of military operations against the Islamic State militants in West Mosul, Iraq July 2, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqis celebrated “Victory Day” on Monday, one year after major combat operations ended against Islamic State in Iraq. It was a momentous day for many, especially across central and southern Iraq, where national pride is running high and confidence in the security forces has been bolstered. In some regions, however, particularly in Mosul and in the Kurdish autonomous region, the anniversary brought mixed feelings, concerns for the future and rancor at Baghdad’s policies.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said December 10 marked a victory over terrorism and the liberation of communities occupied by “ISIS criminals.” “The victory came at great human suffering... it must be consolidated by ending incubators of extremism through economic regeneration, political reforms and combating corruption.”
Locals are proud of the victory over Islamic State. A government video shows the battle against ISIS extremists with footage of battles stretching from 2014 to 2017. It shows the liberation of areas such as Ramadi and Fallujah.
“Don’t let anyone belittle our victory [over] ISIS. Iraq has always been a tough place throughout history,” one writer noted on Twitter. “They said that Iraq as we knew it was finished and broken,” she wrote. “People had mocked Iraq, but Iraq had shown that it could defeat ISIS and rise from the ashes.”
Iraqis have pointed to a variety of heroes in the battle for the country. Some see the counter-terrorism Iraqi Special Operations Forces as the main symbol of victory. A new commander, Lt.-Gen. Abdul-Wahab Al-Sa’adi, was recently appointed to head the black-clad unit that led many battles. Others are celebrating Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and his fatwa in 2014 that galvanized many Iraqi Shi’ites to volunteer for the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi) which helped blunt the ISIS drive on Baghdad between June and August 2014.
It was a “miracle from a divine shield,” wrote one man. Many of those who were celebrating pointed out that terrorism has decreased in the past year. They are angry at foreign commentators who tend to portray Iraq as chaotic and present only problems. Why not present the positive? they wonder, and note that security forces have stopped an ISIS resurgence.
However, Iraq has many issues to face in the coming year. The Norwegian Refugee Council released a report this week showing that 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many of whom live in camps. Steven Fagin, US consul in Erbil in the Kurdish region, visited a displaced persons camp at Bajed Kandala near Dohuk where he saw 10,000 internally displaced persons. The United States Agency for International Development and the UN are supporting the IDPs.
There are also some 300,000 Yazidi IDPs in Iraq who were forced to flee in August 2014 when ISIS began a systematic genocide of Yazidis. They want to return home but the government refuses to open a road to Sinjar and has not invested in basic services. There are more than 3,000 Yazidis still missing, many of them women and children who were sold into slavery by Islamic State. The 70-nation international coalition has not devoted resources to finding the missing, instead concentrating on the continued war against ISIS in Syria.
The victory also tends to ring hollow in the Kurdish region. Many recall that a year ago Iraq sent its tanks into Kirkuk and forced the Kurdish Peshmerga out of the city. Dozens of Kurds were killed in the fighting. The Kurds had defended the city between 2014 and 2017 after the Iraqi Army fled in the face of ISIS in 2014. Yet in 2017, after the Kurdistan independence referendum, the central government pushed the Kurdish forces out. Since then, many Kurds have complained of abuses and insecurity. This week, at least two former Peshmerga were reported killed in Kirkuk by unknown gunmen. For many Kurds, the notion of “Victory Day” in October does not recall a victory, but a bitter memory of humiliation in 2017.
There are concerns in Mosul about rebuilding the city, the western half of which was partially destroyed in the war. Mosul Eye, a blog that covered ISIS atrocities and life in Mosul during the ISIS occupation, wrote that the day of victory was only part of the goal. “We are still waiting for the triumph of humanity to achieve victory by restoring Mosul.”
This paints a complex picture of Iraq today. Different regions see the victory differently. The government in Baghdad is still being formed and there are disputes in the South about rampant corruption and environmental disasters. There are also concerns that ISIS terrorists still exist in rural areas. One year after ISIS, Iraq has made impressive gains in restoring security and getting the economy back on its feet. The next year will show if that trend continues.