What the government of Iraq needs to do is develop a comprehensive roadmap to social cohesion that addresses the root causes that led to the rise of IS in the first place.
When it swept through Iraq, it did so with lightning speed - the reason being that there were large swathes of the country that felt politically and economically marginalised and discriminated against by the central government. They were primarily Sunnis and became soft targets for an extremist group that sought to capitalise on their marginalisation and frustration, as well as their need for an income.
Those underlying conditions in Iraq still exist, and even with IS routed from its strongholds, there is always the potential for another insurgent movement to emerge in a different form, given the existing disillusionment within segments of the society.
If Iraq is to move beyond its perpetual cycle of political violence it will need to find a way to address the concerns of the Sunni community, as well as those of other minorities. Failure to do this will lead to further bloodshed and cycles of revenge.
One of the fundamental challenges will be to transform the image of the Iraqi military as being a partisan one which has discriminated against Sunnis. There is enough evidence that segments of the military have been sectarian since 2003, often humiliating people at checkpoints, engaging in arbitrary arrests and demanding bribes. All these factors pushed Sunnis into the arms of IS. There have also been a number of Shia paramilitary groups backed by Iran which are feared by the Sunnis.
Some of these paramilitary groups, such as the Hashd al-Sha’abi, have played a key role in the battle of the Iraqi security forces against IS. In this last push against IS in Mosul, it is the Hashd al-Sha’abi which effectively severed its supply lines to Syria and drove it out. Out of recognition of Hashd al-Sha’abi's contribution, its forces were incorporated into the Iraqi army in November, but this has also brought its own complications.
There were numerous reports of members of Hashd al-Sha’abi having brutally interrogated residents, beatings, killings, kidnappings and the recruitment of child soldiers. But due to their instrumental role in capturing Anbar, Diyala, Tikrit, Baij and Mosul, these human rights abuses were overlooked. Now with these unreformed members as part of the national army, it is understandable that Sunni communities are fearful that their rights will again be violated.
Iraq has always been a kaleidoscope of various ethnicities and religious sects, and for as long as it is perceived that one group is exerting its hegemony over the others, there will never be peace. But in the history of Iraq, these communities had peacefully coexisted, but the legacy of colonialism was to prop up certain groups at the expense of others. This has led to a trail of tears.
Nineveh, the second largest province in Iraq, is a perfect example of Iraq’s pluralist history. Nineveh used to see Christians, Jews, Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Turkmen and Yazidis living relatively peacefully together throughout the region’s history. When TE Lawrence had made his map exploring colonial partition of the Middle East based on ethnicities, he had two question marks over Nineveh. That is a testament to the type of pluralistic society it was in those times.
But given the dynamics of Iraq’s more recent history which saw Saddam Hussein creating Sunni dominance over other groups, and then the post-Saddam government being more Shia in character, the fault lines in Iraqi society have become increasingly toxic and violent.
It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the government to make all groups feel included as the country moves forward, whether in terms of the composition of the military, the public service or the distribution of resources.
Through its brutal campaign of repression, IS had become the enemy of all Iraqis, and most will welcome its demise. But now that the common enemy has faded into the woodwork, there is always the danger that Iraqis could turn on one another in orgies of revenge.
Despite the fact that in February, Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr had put forward a plan for social reconciliation, and reconciliation committees have been established, these efforts have been largely dismissed by Iraqis. This makes the job of the central government that much harder.
For the sake of Iraq’s stability and ensuring its territorial integrity, it is imperative that a roadmap be developed without delay.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor