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Same-Day Analysis

Rivalries among Iraq's Sunni groups likely to hinder efforts to stabilise Ninewa province post-Islamic State

Published: 3/17/2017

On 16 March 2017, Reuters reported that Iraqi forces were advancing on the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul’s old city, from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the caliphate in July 2014.

IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • Current progress by Iraqi forces in Mosul, capital of Ninewa province, indicates that it is likely to be recaptured within three months; however, there is no evidence of a clear plan in place to govern the province in a post-Islamic State scenario.
  • A governance plan is unlikely to emerge until political rivalries between local actors, their respective militias, and regional backers are settled, whether through a political agreement or by force: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s attempts to manage Sunni rivalries will be hindered by the proliferation of armed militias and the lack of unified Sunni leadership.
  • Local actors who seek to re-establish the positions and privileges they held prior to Islamic State’s offensive will face strong opposition from other parties that fought the Islamic State within local Sunni militias affiliated to the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), which perceive that the fall of Mosul resulted from Sunni leaders’ retreat from, if not support for, the Islamic State.


Political instability; Civil war

Sectors or assets


Divided loyalties

Several contenders are competing to govern Ninewa province after the removal of the Islamic State, including all the parties that have participated in military operations. The two main political players are the former governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, who founded the Turkey-backed local militia, Hashd al-Watani (later renamed “Ninawa Guard”) and the current governor, Nawfal al-Aaqoub.

Iraqi civliians flee their homes during fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, on 13 March 2017.


Nujaifi represents the axis advocating the establishment of a Sunni federal region, which includes his brother and Iraqi vice-president Osama al-Nujaifi’s Muttahidoun bloc, Sunni business tycoon Khamis al-Khanjar, former minister of finance Rafi al-Issawi, and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This group is close to Turkey and the Gulf States, and the most strongly opposed to the participation of the PMUs in Ninewa province operations against the Islamic State.

Nujaifi’s Facebook page shows posts highly critical of the Ninewa provincial council. This probably reflects its perceived sympathy towards Baghdad alongside his own designs to return to govern the province. An IHS Markit source close to the KDP leadership in Erbil noted that the Nujaifi family, which has governed Mosul since the Ottoman era, see this as an entitlement. However, Nujaifi is a particularly divisive figure in Ninewa, given his calls to build stronger ties with the Kurds and his reported plan to partition the province into separate parts, some of which would be incorporated into the Kurdistan Region. His legitimacy is also undermined by his perceived retreat from Mosul as Islamic State militants approached.

Governor Aaqoub, by contrast, advocates a stronger relationship with Baghdad and opposes the federal project. He is allied with Parliamentary Speaker Salim al-Jubouri and his Islamic Party along with Ahmed Masaari, the head of the Ittihaad al-Quwa (Union of Iraqi Forces, the Sunni coalition of which Muttahidoun and the Islamic Party are both part) and the Turkmen Front.

Meanwhile, Arab Sunni MPs and tribal leaders from Ninewa remain deeply divided over multiple issues including Turkey’s role, relations with the Kurds, whether the province should remain under Baghdad’s control or form an autonomous region, and the Shia-dominated PMUs’ presence in the province. Sunnis disillusioned with Baghdad and marginalised under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki are more likely to favour an alliance with the KDP and Turkey, while those with Arab nationalist inclinations and at odds with the Sunni elite represented by figures such as the Nujaifi brothers (Atheel and Osama), view co-operation with Baghdad as better serving their interests.

Turkey, which aspires to empower Iraq’s Sunnis, has been unable to unify their ranks and a significant number are deeply hostile both towards Turkey and the KDP. This group includes Ninewa MPs Abdul Raheem al-Shammari, Abdul Rahman al-Luaizi, and Ahmed al-Jubouri, which are more likely to align with Baghdad.

Baghdad’s governance plans

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hopes to unify Ninewa’s political players in a post-Islamic State scenario. His vision includes both the Ninawa Guard, whose salaries he agreed to pay, and local Sunni tribal PMUs, participating in political and security arrangements. However, an attempt by Abadi in December 2016 to assign the Ninawa Guard and Nujaifi a role in the city’s security was quickly abandoned after Maliki’s allies in government reactivated the arrest warrant issued against the former governor for having invited Turkish forces into Iraq.

Furthermore Ninewa tribes that fought that Islamic State and later joined the PMUs are likely to oppose any involvement of Nujaifi’s Ninawa Guard. Such groups believe they have more right to run Mosul than Nujaifi’s force, which they claim played no significant role in the fighting. Abadi is nevertheless hoping to include Nujaifi in post-liberation arrangements with the probable intention of distancing him from the Turkey/KDP alliance and to discourage the Muttahidoun bloc from continuing to push for a Sunni region.

The PMUs are yet to clarify whether they will remain in Ninewa following the defeat of is the Islamic State. However, according to the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), one of the Shia militias in the PMUs, their priority is to remain in Ninewa to prevent the division of the province and the formation of a region that could be annexed by the Kurdistan Region.

Outlook and implications

Post-Islamic State, the disparate armed groups and militias in Ninewa will struggle to secure territory because Mosul’s centres of power have been disrupted after two years of Islamic State rule. Such forces are unlikely to operate successfully without a new political settlement addressing the new alliances that have emerged since 2014.

Such a settlement appears unlikely given regional agendas, the proliferation of armed militias, and the lack of unified Sunni leadership. Ultimately, the political allegiances of Ninewa’s key actors are likely to depend on Sunni Arab perceptions of who presents the larger threat: the Kurds and Turkey or the Shia and Iran. Local elections in the province, which would clarify which group has more support, were postponed by Iraq’s Higher Election Committee. Elections are otherwise slated for September in the remainder of Iraq.

In the interim, the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on the western side of Mosul is likely to create greater urgency for effective governance. Dissatisfaction is likely to mount over both the central and local government’s handling of humanitarian issues. There appears to have been inadequate preparation for the number of internally displaced persons fleeing the city. Should this continue to mount alongside potentially stalled reconstruction of the city post-liberation, this will encourage local calls for a military governor in Mosul, at least for a temporary period.

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