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MENASource June 10, 2024

ISIS fell, but the conditions that created the terrorist group still exist in Iraq

By Abbas Kadhim

Its 2014 general elections were lauded as proof of Iraq’s dedication to the democratization process initiated after the 2003 US invasion, marking another milestone on the road to consolidating democracy. The two-term prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, came to the negotiating table armed with a landslide electoral mandate. He also had some major achievements during his eight years in office, including the trial, conviction, and execution of dictator Saddam Hussein and the negotiated 2011 withdrawal of US forces that restored full Iraqi sovereignty. However, Prime Minister Maliki lacked popularity where it mattered: the political elite, who decided the post-election phase and did not favor giving him a third term in office.

While all eyes were on the government-formation disputes, a terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) raided the city of Mosul in Nineveh province on June 10, 2014. It captured the entire territory in a matter of hours, with a brazen goal of establishing an Islamist caliphate that included Iraq, Syria, and eventually the entire region, and ruling under its version of Islam. The complete meltdown of three divisions of the Iraqi Army emboldened the terrorists and allowed them to take most of Salahuddin province. With most of Anbar province already in its hands since January 2014, ISIS secured complete control over one-third of Iraq’s territory within a few days.


The Iraqi government became paralyzed by the lack of progress in the post-election political negotiations, the continued meltdown of the armed forces, and the lack of military support from the international community. On June 13, 2014, as ISIS was about to close in on Baghdad, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious scholar, issued a rare fatwa calling on Iraqi “citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” Tens of thousands volunteered to defend the country and help the government fight the most existential threat Iraq faced since its founding in 1920.

Fighting and defeating ISIS was one of the most important accomplishments of the Iraqi population, showcasing the resilience of people who stood up for their national dignity and defended their liberty at a time when no one else was ready or willing to defend them, including their government. Although other countries were involved—Iran supplied weapons to Baghdad shortly after the ISIS invasion, and the United States formed a coalition to provide advice, logistics, and air support starting in August 2014—none of these efforts would have mattered if Iraqis had not risen to defend their nascent, albeit flawed and uncertain, democracy.

Had Iraqis given up in the critical moments after June 10, 2014, as their armed forces had, their democratic dreams would have witnessed a catastrophic end much like what occurred in Afghanistan under similar circumstances in 2021. Self-organized ordinary Iraqis refused to see their country delivered to a terrorist organization or leave themselves at the mercy of religious extremists. Their acts of valor in the early days of the crisis restored morale to the Iraqi armed forces and revived the international community’s faith in the future of Iraq. What followed was a matter of time to plan and manage the battle of liberating the territories that ISIS captured and stop its rule of systemic civilian oppression and mass murder.

In the years following the 2017 defeat of ISIS, Iraq has progressed positively despite serious challenges. Having endured the painful lessons of 2014, it reorganized its armed forces to prevent a similar security collapse. Those forces stand today among the most confident and combat ready in the region, and some of their components, such as the counterterrorism force, perform at par with elite international peers. Iraqi leaders and their counterparts in allied countries, the United States in particular, have gained confidence in the efficiency and performance of the Iraqi armed forces, prompting discussions to transition the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, which is led by the United States and includes eighty-four other nations, into bilateral agreements between Iraq and coalition members, focusing on continued security cooperation and capacity building for the Iraqi security forces.

In January, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced “the commencement of the first round of bilateral dialogue between Iraq and the United States of America to end the mission of the Coalition in Iraq.” The Iraqi government also requested that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) terminate the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) mandate by the end of 2025, arguing that Iraq now has mature institutions to cooperate directly with international organizations like other nations do. On May 31, the UNSC voted unanimously to approve the Iraqi request. The Iraqi government described these developments as the end of contingency relations and the inauguration of a new era of normal cooperation with the international community while leaving internal Iraqi governance to its institutions, which have acquired adequate maturity and competence.

What Iraq needs to ensure its success on the path of security and self-governance is to tackle the two most pressing challenges: economic uncertainty and corruption. Iraq continues to depend on a rentier economy, fully dependent on oil revenues, which fall short of supporting the governmental operational cost or leaving extra funds to invest in building a robust economy. Iraq’s only way out of the current economic quagmire is a diversified economy that encourages investment and a private sector. The Iraqi government must move away from the old philosophy and practice of a state-controlled economy to a new direction where its role is to create a healthy environment in which private businesses can thrive. In contrast, the Iraqi government is a regulator in most sectors where governments have not traditionally performed adequately.

The same attention needs to be given to the malignant threat of corruption.

After two decades of political change, the Iraqi political elites have coexisted with a deeply entrenched culture of corruption, and many high-level officials have contributed to it. Normalized and systemic financial, political, and administrative corruption has denied the Iraqi people the opportunity to build a functional state and heal a society that was traumatized by five decades of wars, international economic sanctions, and terrorism. Efforts to combat corruption continue to be limited in scope and target only insignificant perpetrators. To secure a permanent defeat of ISIS and prevent its return, or the emergence of a similar threat, it is important to eliminate conditions that helped such a group thrive to begin with. The pervasive culture of corruption and a poor economy have been among the leading conditions that contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Now is the time to address those conditions.

Dr. Abbas Kadhim is director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative. Follow him on X: @DrAbbasKadhim.

Further reading

Image: A picture shows the destroyed Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri. On 10 June 2024, the 10th anniversary of ISIS capturing Mosul will be commemorated. The crisis led to over half a million displacements, genocidal acts against the Yazidi minority, and tragedies like the Camp Speicher massacre. As well as the significant destruction Sunni-majority areas faced.