Baghdad: Iraq’s premier on Monday marked a year since his country declared victory against the Islamic State group by pledging to fight corruption next, even as he faces a political crisis within his government.
A year ago, his predecessor announced the conclusion of a three-year battle to oust IS, putting an end to the so-called jihadist “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq after they seized swathes of Iraq.
It was “the biggest victory against the forces of evil and terrorism”, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said Monday at a ceremony at the defence ministry.
He said Iraq could now turn to a host of other challenges, including hundreds of thousands of people still displaced, widespread unemployment and rampant corruption.
But he did not mention the current stalemate over the cabinet, where political infighting has left eight of the 22 ministries unmanned.
“The final victory we hope for is achieving our people’s ambitions and hopes,” he said.
“Corruption was and remains one of the many faces of ruin and terrorism. If we do not eliminate corruption, our victory will be lacking.”
In a congratulatory note on Twitter, President Barham Saleh said Monday marked “the anniversary of victory over the ugliest criminal assault that history has seen,” but that it must be followed by parallel political progress.
– Green Zone reopens –
IS, which traces its roots to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, sent shockwaves across the world when it swept across a third of Iraq in 2014.
It swiftly took over Mosul, making the northern city the de facto capital of its “caliphate”.
For three years, Iraqi troops, the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units, and US-led coalition forces waged a brutal fight to oust the jihadists, finally recapturing Mosul in June 2017.
On December 9, then-premier Haider al-Abadi announced “victory” over IS, and the following day was declared a national holiday.
To mark the one-year anniversary on Monday, checkpoints and military vehicles across the capital Baghdad were decorated with balloons and elite troops put on a military exercise.
Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, Hashed’s deputy leader, issued an online statement hailing the force and also thanking Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for backing the units.
Unlike the spontaneous street parties marking victory last year, there were few public celebrations during the day Monday.
But as the sun set, cars amassed at two entrances to the high-security Green Zone, home to government buildings and Western embassies.
Starting Monday, the government will reopen a main thoroughfare running through the area for five hours every evening.
“Today we are celebrating two occasions: the victory, and the Green Zone opening,” said Hussein al-Sharfi, 30, seated in a car decorated with balloons and Iraqi flags beside the zone’s northern gate.
Just after 5:00 pm local time, security forces pulled back the yellow-painted metal barricades and dozens of cars entered the zone as a convoy of motorcycles streamed out, having crossed from the other side.
“This is the first time I see this much traffic in 15 years,” said Jabbar al-Shuwaili, a parliamentary advisor who lives in the Green Zone.
“I hope my daughter’s future will be open as the Green Zone,” he said, watching the passing cars with his daughter Rand, aged nine.
– New start? –
But beyond the celebrations, Iraq remains mired in crisis.
Parliamentary elections in May produced no clear ruling coalition, with political divisions paralysing Abdel Mahdi’s efforts to fill key ministries.
“Abdel Mahdi has found himself hostage to the very vested interests and political forces that Iraqis hoped his government would stand up to,” said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
Abdel Mahdi’s pledge to stamp out corruption is identical to the one made by Abadi when he announced the win against IS last year.
The former premier was unable to tackle embezzlement of public funds in Iraq, which is the 12th most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International.
The challenges extend beyond the political. Much of the country remains in ruins, including large swathes of the north, as authorities struggle to gather funds to rebuild.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Observers also fear an outbreak of violence either between rival political forces once united against IS, or between authorities and a protest movement angered by lack of services and jobs.
And while IS no longer holds large chunks of territory, it can still wage hit-and-run attacks that chip away at the sense of security many hoped would return.