By rights, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should have been met with celebrations in the land of his birth. After all, Iraq has endured more suffering than any other nation — and bears more scars — from the depredations of Islamic State. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi should have been the one to share with his countrymen the news from Barisha, Syria, that the monster of their worst nightmares is no more.
Instead, at al-Baghdadi’s death, Abdul-Mahdi was hunkered down in his palace while his countrymen called, in ever larger numbers, for his ouster. The city from which Islamic State’s leader took his nom du guerre was convulsed in yet another night of violence, as security forces and Iran-backed militias cracked down on Iraqis protesting against corruption and misrule.
When Baghdad should have been celebrating the ignominious end of the false caliph, authorities were announcing a curfew.
Al-Baghdadi would have derived some comfort in the last few days among the living from the turmoil engulfing his homeland. After the calm that briefly followed the extirpation of Islamic State at the end of 2017, Iraq was once again experiencing conditions most propitious for the terrorist organization’s regeneration under his successor.
In many ways, the country is in even greater chaos than in the spring and summer of 2014, when Islamic State stormed the western and northern provinces, taking city after city while the Iraqi state crumbled. Then, Iraq was a deeply corrupt state with an inept military, its society riven with sectarian hatreds. Islamic State was able to capitalize on the resentment of the minority Sunni sect.
But majority Shiites were, for the most part, united behind the government in Baghdad. Their support allowed Abdul-Mahdi’s predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, to fight back against Islamic State, with the help of the U.S. military and militias trained, armed and commanded by Iran.
Now, the Shiites are leading the protests against the government — and against the security forces and militias they once acclaimed as heroes. The Sunnis, meanwhile, have new resentments: Their cities were destroyed in the war against Islamic State, and Abdul-Mahdi’s government has been slow to release funds for reconstruction. They are anxious, too, about the growing influence of the Shiite militias, and of Iran.
The quality of the Iraqi military is significantly better than it was in 2014, but Abdul-Mahdi’s decision to sack the general who led the fight against Islamic State indicates that all is not well among the men in uniform. The integration of Shiite militias into the military has not gone as smoothly as Baghdad — and Tehran — had hoped.
It doesn’t help that the American military footprint in Iraq depends on the whims and political calculations of the White House’s mercurial occupant. The churlish reception accorded to U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria into Iraqi Kurdistan augurs poorly.
On top of all this, the Iraqi government is even more corrupt that it had been five years ago — not least because there is more scope for graft, thanks to growing oil exports. By Transparency International’s reckoning, between 2015 and 2018 Iraq has slipped seven places on the list of the world’s most corrupt countries, to 168th (out of 180).
Can Islamic State take advantage of Iraq’s chaos? It is no longer the irresistible force it had seemed when al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate. At their peak, his fighters represented the most successful military force in modern Arabian history. Now, the group has no Syrian stronghold from which to mount an assault on Iraq, and thousands of fighters are in prison camps.
But even before al-Baghdadi’s death, Islamic State had been rebuilding its networks in northern Iraq. The group had also switched to the suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks of its early days. The draw-down of U.S. troops from Syria and the distraction of the Syrian Defense Forces will likely reopen spaces for Islamic State fighters to regroup.
The loss of their leader will undoubtedly slow the resurgence, but developments in Iraq will give the terrorists something to cling to as they mourn him. Rather than Abdul-Mahdi celebrating the tidings from Barisha with his countrymen, it may be al-Baghdadi’s successor who rallies his supporters with the news from Baghdad.
Also read: End of the Caliph: What does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death mean for ISIS