For the past three years, Iraq has been held together by one common goal: the defeat of the Islamic State. In pursuit of this objective, the United States provided air support to Iranian proxies; Baghdad made concessions to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over disputed oil exports; and political parties contained protests against rampant corruption to preserve a sense of unity. This balancing of tensions, a consensus of sorts, saved Iraq. Then, on December 9, Haider al-Abadi, the country’s prime minister, gave a televised address in which he declared “final victory” over ISIS—effectively ending the consensus. Now, the question is whether he can tackle the myriad challenges rushing to greet him.
Pessimism would seem appropriate. The KRG has already made one bid for independence. Splinter groups from ISIS and local militias are conducting attacks and assassinations in Diyala province. Insurgency is flaring across the disputed territories, a strip of land running from Khanaqin on the Iranian border through Kirkuk which is contested between the KRG and Baghdad. Organized crime is strangling Basra, and Iraq’s anti-corruption commission is struggling to enforce its writ. Then there is the matter of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of volunteer formations and militias, some of which are beholden to Iran. In 2015, Abadi ordered that all of its units be placed under his office’s command in the fight against ISIS. The PMF’s existence stands as a pointed reminder that Abadi’s government is a long way from establishing unqualified control of Iraq. And yet his decision to declare the end of the war against ISIS must be seen as a sign of confidence.