File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks to members of the media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Coming summer big test for Iraqi government post-ISIL: Canadian commander

OTTAWA — Five years after Canadian troops arrived in Iraq to help fight Islamic State militants, a different battle is looming — one that could determine whether the region is able to finally turn the page on years of war and bloodshed.

That battle, however, won’t be fought with bullets and missiles. It is a political fight, which Canada’s top commander in the region believes could be decided in the coming months based on the actions of Iraq’s government.

“This summer will be pretty important to them, honestly, as they move out of the wet season and into the dry season,” Brig.-Gen. Colin Keiver, the commander of Joint Task Force-Iraq, said in an interview Thursday.

“The rolling electrical blackouts, potential water shortages, things like that, this will be a big test for the government of Iraq in terms of how they react and how they respond to the needs of their citizens.”

The Iraqi government has long been blasted for failing to provide basic services such as water and electricity to Iraqis, let alone cracking down on endemic corruption and discrimination against certain religious and ethnic groups.

These factors have been repeatedly cited as key contributors to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014, as the group used these grievances against Baghdad to gather support and take control of large swathes of territory.

Iraqi forces, with support from the Canadian military and other partners, were able to wrest control of that land back after years of fighting and ISIL’s last bastion in neighbouring Syria fell last month.

Yet the militant group, also known as ISIS and Daesh, remains a threat as an insurgency and there are fears that it or some new entity — what officials like to call “the Son of Daesh” — will re-emerge if the Iraq government doesn’t act.

“I think the Daesh narrative has run its course in many ways,” Keiver told The Canadian Press. “But the reality is that if the government of Iraq doesn’t start to deliver on some of these other areas, that narrative will start to resonate again because they’ll be perceived as a viable alternative.”

Keiver’s contingent includes 850 troops spread out across the region. Among them are military trainers, special-forces soldiers and medical personnel in Iraq, trainers in Jordan and Lebanon, and crews with transport planes in Kuwait.

The federal government recently extended their mission until March 2021 and Keiver said the objective is to ensure Iraqi forces can provide security so the government in Baghdad can start making changes.

Yet while there have been some signs of progress, there are also reasons for worry, starting with months of sometimes violent protests in oil-rich Basra province over a lack of services and high levels of corruption.

Deep divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq also remain a source of concern while the question of Kurdish independence, on a back burner after a referendum in 2017, continues to simmer.

Recent rains have provided some relief for what Keiver described as precursors to the instability and grievances that led to ISIL’s rise in Iraq, such as water shortages and crop failures.

That has given the government a window to act.

“And they need to start acting. There’s no doubt they need to start acting now. We all recognize that,” he said.

“The government of Iraq needs to come together now in peace in the same way that the Iraqi people came together in conflict in order to defeat Daesh.”

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Iraq

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