There is a growing mood of self-confidence in Baghdad which I have not seen here since I first visited Iraq in 1977. The country seemed then to be heading for a peaceful and prosperous future thanks to rising oil revenues. It only became clear several years later that Saddam Hussein was a monster of cruelty with a disastrous tendency to start unwinnable wars. At the time, I was able to drive safely all around Iraq, visiting cities from Mosul to Basra which became lethally dangerous over the next 40 years.
The streets of the capital are packed with people shopping and eating in restaurants far into the night. Looking out my hotel window, I can see people for the first time in many years building things which are not military fortifications. There are no sinister smudges of black smoke on the horizon marking where bombs have gone off. Most importantly, there is a popular feeling that the twin victories of the Iraqi security forces in recapturing Mosul in July and Kirkuk on 16 October have permanently shifted the balance of power back towards stability. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once criticised as weak and vacillating, is today almost universally praised for being calm, determined and successful in battling Isis and confronting the Kurds.
“I detect a certain jauntiness in Baghdad that I have not seen before,” says the Iraqi historian and former minister Ali Allawi. “Al-Abadi has hardly put a foot wrong since the start of the crisis over Kirkuk.” A recently retired senior Iraqi security official adds that “it was bit of luck for all Iraqis, that [Kurdish President Masoud] Barzani brought on a confrontation when he did”. People in the capital are beginning to sound more like victors rather than victims.
Life in Baghdad is abnormal by the standard of any other city: it remains full of blast walls made out of concrete slabs that always remind me of giant grave stones. Numerous checkpoints exacerbate appalling traffic jams. Bombings by Isis are far less frequent than they used to be, but there are memories of past atrocities, such as the truck bomb in Karada district on 3 July 2016 that killed 323 people and injured hundreds more. “Many of them were burned to death in buildings with plastic cladding on the outside that caught fire like Grenfell Tower,” observed an Iraqi observer as we drove past the site of the blast.
Violence will not entirely end: the Shia majority are about to celebrate the Arbaeen festival on 10 November when millions of pilgrims walk on foot to the shrine city of Kerbala to mourn the death of Imam Hussein in a battle in 680 AD. The road between Kerbala and the shrine city of Najaf, is already decorated with thousands of black mourning flags, interspersed with occasional green and red, ones, and there are thousands of improvised tents where the pilgrims can rest and eat.
The vast numbers involved makes it impossible to protect them all, so Isis may well bomb the vast multitude of pilgrims in a bid to show that it has not been totally eliminated. Despite this the long-expected defeat of Isis is very real, but the greatest boost to public morale comes from the unexpected crumbling, with little resistance and in a short space of time, of the Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq that had ruled a quarter of the country.
Iraqi history over the last 40 years has been full of what were misleadingly billed as “turning points” for the better, but which turned out to be only ushering in a new phase in Iraq’s multi-phase civil wars that have been going on since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. All sides have become, at different periods, the proxies of foreign backers, but this period may now be coming to an end primarily because the wars have produced winners and losers.
Communal politics are not the only determining feature in the Iraqi political landscape, but the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities are its main building blocks. The Sunni, a fifth of the population, have lost comprehensively because Isis became their main vehicle for opposition to the central government. Justly or unjustly, they share in its defeat. Their great cities like Mosul and Ramadi are in ruins. Sunni villages that line the main roads have often been levelled because they were seen as the home bases of local guerrillas planting IEDS. IDP camps are full of displaced Sunnis.
Shia-Kurdish cooperation was born in opposition to Saddam Hussein and was the basis for the post-Saddam power-sharing governments. But both sides felt that they were being short-changed by the other and Baghdad and Erbil came to see each other as the hostile capitals of separate states.
Great though their differences were, they might not have over-boiled for a few years had Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) not had the astonishingly bad idea of holding a Kurdish referendum on independence on 25 September. It was one of the great miscalculates of Iraqi, if not Middle East, history: the KDP now complains that it was the victim of Iranian machinations, but its real mistake was to confront the Iraqi government when it was politically and militarily much stronger than it had been after recapturing Mosul from Isis. Regardless of which Kurdish leader did or did not betray the cause, their Peshmerga would have lost the war.
Ironically, the Iraqi Kurds are now likely to lose a large measure of the independence they enjoyed before the referendum. They have lost not only the oil province of Kirkuk, but may also lose control of the borders of their three core provinces. Iraqi regular forces are pressing towards the crucial border town of Fishkhabour between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. Al-Abadi last week turned down a Kurdish offer “to freeze” the referendum result, demanding its complete negation, though it now has only a symbolic value.
Iraqis in Baghdad are rightly wary of predictions of a return to normal life after 40 years of permanent crisis. There have been false dawns before, but this time round the prospects for peace are much better than before. The biggest risk is a collision between the US and Iran in which Iraq would be the political – and possibly the military – battlefield. Barzani and the KDP are promoting the idea of Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shia paramilitaries being at the forefront of every battle, though in fact Kirkuk was taken by two regiments from Baghdad’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service and the 9th Armoured Division.
The success of the Iraqi regular forces is such that one danger is that they and the Baghdad government will become overconfident and overplay their hand, not making sure that all communities in Iraq get a reasonable cut of the national cake in terms of power, money and jobs. A golden rule of Iraqi politics is that none of the three main communities can be permanently marginalised or crushed, as Saddam Hussein discovered to his cost. The end of the era of wars in Iraq would not just be good news for Iraqis, but the rest of the world as well.