In Iraq, the war against terrorism is far from over

As we witness the final moments of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria, we in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have been welcoming back Yezidis, who by some miracle survived the genocide and escaped the terror group’s last wretched days in Baghouz, Syria. For the people of the region, the liberation of the last territory held by this perverse death cult is a welcomed milestone.

But this is not really an end, just the beginning of the next phase of our war against terrorism. If we are to win the post-caliphate peace in Iraq, we will need the full diplomatic and military support of the United States and its partners.

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The defeat of the caliphate has been a huge achievement. Nearly five years ago, ISIS was at our doorstep, threatening to overrun the Kurdistan Region’s capital of Erbil. Fortunately, with the help of coalition air power, we halted their advance, eventually rolling back their territorial claims by hundreds of square miles. We had set the stage for the liberation of Mosul, which was ISIS’s last big stand in Iraq. This came at an enormous cost to the Kurdistan Region; more than 1,800 Peshmerga fighters were martyred, and over 10,000 wounded. Iraqi security forces and militia groups suffered many thousands of casualties as well.

ISIS may no longer be issuing currency and authorizing marriage certificates, as it did for four years, but these terrorists number as many as they did in 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the caliphate, and they are growing every day. Since then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of ISIS in December 2017, nearly 1,000 soldiers and civilians have been killed and more than 1,800 injured.

Intent on inflicting maximum, long-lasting damage, ISIS is tearing at the fabric of Iraqi society. Their killings target local leaders and ordinary people. Last month, ISIS murdered more than a dozen people gathering desert truffles, a favorite tradition for Iraqis.

All of this is happening in a society that is yet to even begin to deal with the scars of the genocide and war of the past five years. Distrust between communities is high. Tens of thousands of homes remain destroyed, and cities are rigged with explosive booby traps. More than 1.4 million displaced Syrians and Iraqis have taken shelter in Kurdistan Region alone and cannot return home because of the violence.

Most importantly, the root causes of ISIS have not been addressed. Although the new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mehdi, is taking important steps to mend the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil, there has not been the kind of national reconciliation project that needs to involve individual citizens of different sects and religions.

Nearly 200,000 Kurds were displaced after Kurdistan’s independence referendum was met with aggressive action by Shi'a militias and Iraqi security forces in Kirkuk and other disputed areas on Oct. 16, 2017. Even today, there is an abnormal situation in Kirkuk, with a security vacuum and a local government that clearly is out to oppress the Kurds. The acting mayor of Kirkuk has re-started the Arabization of the city, not allowing displaced Kurds to return to their homes. Looting and kidnappings have increased in the city, and ISIS terrorist activity is on the rise.    

If anything, the sectarian situation has gotten worse. More than 60 Shi’a militias are active in Iraq, some of them likely guilty of committing war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch. The territories that are disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, such as Sinjar and the Nineveh Plain, are under de facto control of these militias, further exacerbating the situation. These territories are the homelands of the Yezidi and Christian populations, and the presence of sectarian militias prevents them from resuming their lives there.

In Kurdistan, our Peshmerga soldiers worked closely with American and international forces to fight terrorism and bring security and peace to the region. Although ISIS no longer holds physical territory, they remain well-funded, large in number and prepared to attack. The war is not over, and we need the United States to remain engaged to finish the fight.

Staff Brig. Gen. Hazhar Omer Ismail is director of coordination and relations at the Ministry of Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, and co-founder of Peshmerga Reform Plan.