Land Grabs in Iraq

The Competition Over ISIS-Freed Territory

Iraqi Sunni Muslim fighters from the Popular Mobilization Force in Anbar province, January 9, 2016. Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

With the fall of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seemingly imminent, nearly every Iraqi political group and its associated militia have been rushing to take control of the newly liberated territories in the governorates of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Salahadin. Those that have been the most successful are the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an umbrella of over three dozen mostly Shiite armed groups formed in 2014 to fight ISIS, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main Kurdish political parties in Iraq. (The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has been notably slow in reclaiming its own land.)

Some of the land that is up for grabs is rich in oil, and control over more territory would mean gaining more political leverage in Baghdad. What is more, the five governorates, in which the territories are located, were disputed even before the ISIS takeover in 2014. Both the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad claimed sovereignty. But ISIS’ takeover has essentially reset the political and military landscape in these areas, allowing these political and military forces to put down new roots.

In seeking to govern and secure areas that are either predominantly Sunni, Kurdish, or a mix, Shiite and Kurdish groups have had to resort to crossing both ethnic and sectarian lines to win the support of locals and recruit soldiers into their military forces. For their parts, the PMU and KDP have tried to recruit Sunni Arabs, who constitute roughly 25 percent of the country’s total population and live in those nearly liberated territories. They have been left with little to no representation, political power, or security because even before ISIS, strong Sunni leaders had been pushed out from the central government’s decision-making and weak leaders had lost credibility with the local population.

The two groups are also recruiting Kurds living in the towns of northern Diyala (Jalaula, Khanaqin, and Mandali) and northern Salahadin (Tuz Khurmatu). Some of the districts are controlled

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