Soldiers in Mosul celebrate victory over the extremist Islamic State group in July 2017. (photo: FADEL SENNA)
Compared to the years that came before, most Iraqis would have to agree that 2017 was a good one. Despite the violence and destruction that came with the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, some good things did happen. There are ongoing sectarian and ethnic tensions, but there are also some events almost everyone can agree were positives: victory over the Islamic State, upcoming elections, a lower body count in places like Baghdad than have been seen for years and yes, some world-class football.
The new year began with a wave of deadly bombings in Baghdad, Najaf and Samarra that saw a large number of locals killed and wounded. Iraq’s defence forces were busy fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State and to many ordinary Iraqis, it was somewhat surprising that the extremists were still able to carry out attacks against civilians while they were being battered by the Iraqi military.
A Union For The Future
By the end of January, many Iraqis were talking about a relationship they saw as a sign of the times. Amid fierce fighting around the northern city of Mosul, which had been under the control of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, for almost three years, a soldier from the country’s counter terrorism forces, had fallen in love with a woman from Mosul. Iraqis focused on this relationship, seeing it as a sign of a positive future. Unfortunately, Rabah was later badly injured during fighting and lost his left leg.
Soldier Fahd Rabah at his weddding.
Our Man From Saudi Arabia
On February 25, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, arrived in Baghdad – the first visit of this kind since 1990 and supposedly a new and historic start to better relations between the two nations. In the past Saudi Arabia has accused Iraq of simply being a vassal of Iran and Iraq has fired back, saying that the Saudi Arabians are funding extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, operating on Iraqi soil.
The foreign minister’s visit was seen as the first steps to a new détente, and possibly also a way for Iraqi politicians who are concerned about increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, to balance things out.
On July 30, Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads a theological, political and military movement, went to Saudi Arabia to meet the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. This was another historic move towards better Iraqi-Saudi relations as al-Sadr leads a major Shiite Muslim movement and Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country.
The heads of Shiite Muslim groups with close ties to Iran were openly critical of the move, attacking al-Sadr online and via media outlets they fund. Al-Sadr has always held strong views about non-interference in Iraqi affairs and other Iraqi groups welcomed his visit to Saudi Arabia, seeing it as an important step towards the ending of sectarian conflicts in the region.
Later on in the year al-Abadi returned the favour, traveling to meet Saudi leaders on October 21. After the formation of a Saudi-Iraqi coordination council, the aim of which was to strengthen ties between the two nations, a number of other Iraqi and Saudi delegations – military, economic and sporting – followed.
The Beautiful Game
After a 14-year ban on international games in Iraq – instated after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq – FIFA, the international governing body for football, decided that friendly matches between international sides could once again take place in the country. As a country, football is one thing that has been known to unite Iraqis, and locals were optimistic that the FIFA ban would eventually be lifted completely, allowing competition games to be played here.
Later on in the year the southern city of Basra – which has one of the three stadiums that FIFA said could hold friendlies - hosted a match that drew attention, between the so-called World Stars team and the Iraqi all-stars. The Iraqis eventually lost but the match drew over 65,000 spectators to the game.
The match between the World Stars and Iraq's best footballers in Basra.
The Liberation of Mosul
On July 10, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced that the IS group had been pushed out of Mosul. The announcement came after a months-long battle and heavy losses from both security forces and civilians trapped in Mosul. There was also major destruction in the city and over the years that the IS group were in control, various important heritage buildings were destroyed. This included the leaning minaret of the Al Hadba mosque, that is often seen as a symbol of the city.
A New Kind Of War
On September 14, fighters of the IS group launched an attack in the relatively secure province of Dhi Qar. Around 60 Iraqis were killed and hundreds more injured. Although the IS group was being defeated on various battle fronts around the country, the deadly attack in an unexpected area put authorities on high alert and potentially changed national security planning.
Farewell Mam Jalal
On October 3, former president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, passed away in a hospital in berlin. The senior Kurdish politician had not been on active duty for some time having had a stroke in 2012. Talabani’s death was significant to the country’s Kurdish population as he was the founder of one of the two major political parties up north, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. But it was also seen as a sad occasion by Iraqis in the rest of the country because Talabani had always been a sympathetic figure, an elder statesman who could resolve the biggest problems between the Kurds and the Arabs - and also a chap who liked a good joke.
In a significant move for the country’s future, Iraqi authorities pledged to hold elections in May 2018 and Prime Minister al-Abadi announced his support for the decision. It’s still hard to know whether these will go ahead or not as Sunni Muslim leaders have asked they be postponed because of the logistical difficulties, given the fact that many Sunni Muslim cities and areas need reconstruction after being under IS control and because many of the Sunni Muslim locals from those areas remain displaced.
The Iraqi PM announces victory over the IS group.
Democracy In Action?
Late in October, Iraq’s parliament brought out the controversial personal status law once again, to vote on amendments. The law is seen as imperilling women’s rights in the country, as it changes rules around inheritance and marriage. In particular, the section that allows the marriage of minors is contentious. The first vote on the law saw major protests and much anger in Baghdad.
Just over a month later, Iraqi politicians postponed further debate of the amendments.
Taking It All Back
In mid-October, Iraqi Kurdish military were forced to withdraw from some of the country’s disputed territories in northern Iraq – territory that the Kurdish say belong to them but which the Iraqi federal authorities say belong to federal Iraq. This includes the city of Kirkuk, which is often referred to as a flashpoint for exactly this reason. The pushback from Baghdad came after Kurdish politicians facilitated a referendum on independence for the semi-autonomous northern region.
This brought the relationship between the country’s Arab and Kurdish politicians to a new low. It also saw the world’s, and local, media digest and then disseminate a lot of misleading information. From the point of view of Iraqis in the rest of the country, they have always considered Kirkuk a city that belongs to all Iraqis, not just the Kurds. Over the past few years, the Iraqi Kurdish military have been in charge of Kirkuk and this angered many ordinary Iraqis. This is why, as controversial as the topic is, some locals saw the Kurdish withdrawal as another victory for Iraq.
Less Bloodshed Than Before
In December the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq announced that death toll for violence had fallen to its lowest level for five years, in the months of October and November. Most ordinary Iraqis consider this a result of their own military’s ongoing success fighting the IS group.
Victory Over Extremism
December 9 is a day that will always be remembered in this country. On this day, Prime Minister al-Abadi announced Iraq's victory over the Islamic State group and said that the extremists had been pushed out of all of the cities they had once controlled. Many locals took to the streets to celebrate the victory and the government organized a congratulatory military parade.
A victory parade by the Iraqi military celebrating the defeat of the IS group.
The last month of the year, following the announcement of victory over the IS group, was notable for several important events. The most senior Shiite Muslim cleric in the country, Ali al-Sistani, called for the militia groups that had been fighting the IS group to disband. The militias had originally formed after al-Sistani asked volunteers to fight the extremists in mid-2014 and now he called upon them to go back to their ordinary lives or become part of the official security forces.
His announcement is particularly important for the country’s democratic future as the militias are seen as powerful and not all are beholden to the Iraqi authorities. How they are dealt with and their own reactions, will have a major impact on where Iraq goes from here.
Christmas In Mosul
The first Christmas service was held at Mosul’s only functioning church, Saint Paul's, after three and a half years of extremist rule in the city. The IS group had driven all of the city’s Christians out after they took control, telling them they had to convert to Islam or leave the city. Many fled to nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, others immigrated.