“The world did not imagine that Iraqis could eliminate Daesh,” Haider al-Abadi said as the Iraqi prime minister declared victory in Mosul, and for a long time, those critics were correct. In fact, the victory celebration may still be a little premature, although Abadi’s arrival in Mosul as the last pockets of combat with ISIS remain provides a big propaganda boost for the Baghdad government:

Iraq’s prime minister entered the city of Mosul on Sunday to declare victory in the nine-month battle for control of the Islamic State’s former stronghold, signaling the near end of the most grueling campaign against the group to date and dealing a near-fatal blow to the survival of its self-declared caliphate.

On a walk through the city’s eastern districts, Haider al-Abadi was thronged by men holding cameraphones as music blared and others danced in the streets.

“The world did not imagine that Iraqis could eliminate Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “This is all a result of the sacrifices of the heroic fighters who impressed the world with their courage.”

But in a sign of how tenaciously the Islamic State has fought, even as Abadi was touring the town, the sound of airstrikes echoed through the skies and smoke rose from the last pocket of territory the militants control, thought to be no more than 200 yards long and 50 yards wide.

The eastern sector of Mosul has been liberated for weeks. The main forces of ISIS had holed up in the older sector of Mosul across the Tigris to the west, and that’s where the Iraqis still fight to eject the Daesh. On Friday, the Iraqi military expected to have it wrapped up by today, but clearly it’s not that simple. Abadi’s visit makes those predictions a little more understandable; they wanted to declare victory outright today.

Abadi is right that few people gave the Iraqis much chance in rolling back ISIS, but that was because of their shocking failures to contain them when they had the chance in 2013 and 2014. When the US left in 2011, the Iraqi military had been rebuilt into a professional force, with graft and corruption held down to a dull roar and Sunni participation giving Iraq a boost in the west. Two years later, under the leadership of Abadi’s predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, the military had fallen into corruption and Sunni leadership isolated or chased out altogether. That is one major reason that Mosul and Nineveh fell, and why ISIS still controls smaller cities and towns in the western region, such as Tal Afar.

The problem of integration of Sunni and Kurdish communities into the Iraqi government and military still exists. Iraq won back Mosul by embracing Iran-oriented Shi’ite militias and leaning heavily on Kurdish military forces. The Sunnis will not sit peacefully under Shi’ite domination, so unless Abadi has a plan to restore the Sunnis to leadership in both the military and governance, the same factors that pushed Sunni tribal leaders into the hands of ISIS remain. As long as the Sunni resentment of the Shi’a majority festers — and now with the ties to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias that may well impose Baghdad’s will in Mosul and other Sunni regions — the path will always be open to another ISIS-like group.

Ali Hashem warns of precisely this issue in Al-Monitor, after providing the historical context that made Mosul an obvious target for ISIS from the beginning:

To the IS society in Mosul and its surroundings, the Iraqi forces’ retaking of the city might be seen as the fall of “home,” but not the end of a “dream”; the collapse of a state, not the uprooting of a belief; the destruction of the base, yet the revival of a different approach. Whatever the name of the defeat is going to be, to them it is not the end of IS. The day after the “state” could be much more dangerous to world security than the day it functioned, for today it is once again an idea, and ideas are borderless, they enjoy less liabilities and are capable of flying from one place to another. Many questions should be asked in this regard: Where are the people of the caliphate heading, could they find their way back into the societies they left and are they going to be the world’s next time bombs?

People who follow what’s known to be “jihadi” paths have proven over the years to be persistent and willing to take chances more than once in order to see their causes fulfilled. It’s significant that the senior leaders of IS were imprisoned together at Camp Bucca near Basra, while others came from Abu Ghraib prison to the west of Baghdad. Some were even jailed at Guantanamo Bay. And when released, they decided to immigrate to fight and get killed in Syria. This is not because IS pays good money and provides recruits with lucrative packages, rather it is the spirit that can’t be defined or understood — the yearning to feel capable of forcing a change, the type of belief that prompts a human to give up his humanity to kill people just because they think differently.

Because of such people, IS will not be uprooted. Even if the group’s name were changed, they would always look for a similar path, just like what many former al-Qaeda members in Iraq did when they found IS.

 

The key in the short run is to destroy ISIS and as many of its fighters and leaders as possible. In the long run, Iraq has to get back on the path of multi-ethnic federalism and true power-sharing in Baghdad. Either that, or it must necessarily spin into the kind of three-state partition that Joe Biden once suggested, with the world on constant watch in the Sunni regions for the gestation of the next ISIS.

Here’s another part of the victory celebration. Don’t get too used to this.