The Iraqi army is standing at the gates of Tikrit to defeat "Islamic State" terrorists. But the war cannot be won by military means alone, writes Kersten Knipp. It requires a political solution.
The war against "Islamic State" (IS) in Iraq is being waged in Tikrit. But whether it is won or lost will be decided in Baghdad. Only there, in the capital, can the political future of the country be decided, only there can Iraq decide what it wants to be: A territory shared by three groups whose only common ground is the borders they share.
Or, a state in which these three groups - Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds - have actively decided to live with each other as a state, and recognize and respect their common institutions.
Or, whether they want to live confined within the restrictions of religious sectarianism and ethnicity with an uncertain and, possibly, dark future. In Baghdad's Parliament it will be decided whether Iraqis want a society that transcends religious boundaries.
What happens next
The signal Baghdad sends to Tikrit will have a fundamental impact on the morale of the soldiers. Before the gates of the city, there is a colorful fighting coalition made up of Shiite militiamen and volunteer Sunni soldiers. What binds them together is their will to fight the common enemy, "Islamic State." That will take weeks or months, but even now, there are many questions about what happens afterward. What happens if - hopefully - the terrorists are defeated? What will become of the relationship between Sunnis, Shiites and the Kurds in the north?
Within a fairly short period of time IS has managed to turn a number of Sunni communities, which at one point had welcomed their triumph, against them.
People simply don't like to see neighbors being crucified or pushed from the tops of buildings or whipped for nothing.
The fruits of war
Fighting terrorists and butchers out of passion is one thing, but forming alliances with the enemies of one's enemy is another. Sunnis and Shiites have formed a coalition out of convenience. And both have ulterior motives.
The Shiites - at least a great many of them - dream of claiming and consolidating the power they have seen as theirs since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The Sunnis, on the other hand, hope to bring the territory reclaimed from IS under their own control and use this as leverage in negotiations over future political arrangements.
In the last few months, as the Shiites used their war against IS as a pretense to force the Sunnis from their land and occupy their homes, Sunnis have realized just how important it is to form a united front. "We will take back what the Sunnis took away from us centuries ago," was the slogan used to motivate the Shiites to raid and pillage the territories.
Their anger brings back memories of the last decades of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror. At the beginning of his regime, religious tensions were manageable. But he ended up playing both groups against each other and causing a flare-up of sectarian conflict. He had no problem killing vast numbers of Shiites. Casualty figures can only be estimated, but they are probably somewhere in the millions. Something like this is hard to forget.
The Sunnis, on the other hand, remember the recent years living under Shiite President Nouri al-Maliki. Instead of initiating a national reconciliation after the fall of the dictator, he continued Saddam's policies of dividing the people; only this time, in the opposite direction. He turned the tables in favor of the Shiites, so that they ended up bullying the Sunnis. And another thing is making the Sunnis uneasy: the hegemonic aspirations of Iran, which is not only sending its military advisers to Tikrit for humanitarian reasons.
A dictator and a revanchist
Iraq had the misfortune of first being governed by a dictator, only to have a revanchist replace him. If the fighters before the gates of Tikrit manage to defeat the IS terrorists, they will be confronted with another task: doing away with the legacy of two statesmen whose politics drove the country into the ground.
If they fail at this, they can say at least they defeated IS. But it won't be long before the next generation of terrorists takes up arms. IS is a demon that can only be defeated in the Parliament of Baghdad.
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