The optics of the Iraqi government’s Mosul campaign are admitted by all but the most ardent Shiite partisans in Baghdad and Tehran to be bad. The city, once Iraq’s second largest, is largely Sunni Arab, though it has longstanding Christian, Kurdish, and other minority populations. While the ruling ISIL is by now almost universally hated, participation of the Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite militias in the liberation of the city rankles with some Sunni Arabs. Sunni Arabs outside Iraq in the Middle East tend to be protective of Mosul and its inhabitants, playing down any collaboration of city elites with ISIL and insisting that supporters of the terrorist organization are a small minority. As the independent London daily Elaph argues, outsiders are split on whether the Iraqi government’s reconquest of the city will lead to national integration or a breakup of the country.
Nobody has anything good to say about ISIL, however. Throughout the region, columnists directed invective at it. Abir al-Fawzan, writing in the Saudi paper Ukaz, says that “liberating Mosul from these thieves and murderers is a heroic operation.” She says the capture of the al-Nuri cathedral mosque, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first announced his “caliphate” (sort of a medieval Muslim papacy), would roll back the legend of ISIL. Of course, women have special reasons to abhor ISIL, which has practiced human trafficking, sex slavery, and extreme neo-patriarchy on a massive scale.
United Arab Emirates journalist Muhammad Yusuf, writing in Al-Bayan (“Exposition”), blames Shiite Iran for sowing sectarian tensions in multicultural Iraq. Now, he writes, Tehran is preparing Shiite militias “loaded up with hateful religiosity to enter Mosul.” Everyone, he said, is afraid of massacres and ethnic cleansing of the city’s Sunni Arabs solely because of their religion. (In past campaigns, some Shiite militias have committed reprisal killings against Sunnis suspected of collaborating with ISIL.) Yusuf insists that “there are 1.5 million people in Mosul and ISIL is a deviant minority.” Yusuf’s point of view is sectarian; Iraqi Shiites maintain that it is the Sunni Gulf monarchies that have promoted sectarianism and Sunni Arab violence in Iraq.
Mansour al-Jamri, editor in chief of Bahrain’s Al-Wasat (“The Center”), warns that even after the battle of Mosul, the Middle East will be in a more fluid situation than at any time since the imperial powers concluded the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement during World War I to carve up the failing Ottoman Empire. He says the political process needs to be dealt with “in such a way that it will encompass all the factions in society in an equitable manner, and such that a universal, national identity wins out over ethnic and sectarian ones.” Only far-sighted policy-making on the part of all groups, he says, can forestall a post-Mosul breakup of Iraq. Bahrain newspapers are especially sensitive to Sunni-Shiite conflict, because the tiny Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom has its own such problems.