Terrorism & Insurgency

Rivalries among Iraq's Sunni groups likely to hinder efforts to stabilise Ninewa province post-Islamic State

17 March 2017
Iraqi civilians flee their homes during fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, on 13 March 2017. Source: PA

Key Points

  • Current progress by Iraqi forces in Mosul, capital of Ninewa province, indicates that it is likely to be recaptured within three months; however, there is no evidence of a clear plan in place to govern the province in a post-Islamic State scenario.
  • A governance plan is unlikely to emerge until political rivalries between local actors, their respective militias, and regional backers are settled, whether through a political agreement or by force: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's attempts to manage Sunni rivalries will be hindered by the proliferation of armed militias and the lack of a unified Sunni leadership.
  • Local actors who seek to re-establish the positions and privileges they held prior to Islamic State's offensive will face strong opposition from other parties that fought the Islamic State within local Sunni militias affiliated to the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), which perceive that the fall of Mosul resulted from Sunni leaders' retreat from, if not support for, the Islamic State.


On 16 March 2017, Reuters reported that Iraqi forces were advancing on the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul's old city, from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the caliphate in July 2014.

Divided loyalties

Several contenders are competing to govern Ninewa province after the removal of the Islamic State, including all the parties that have participated in military operations. The two main political players are the former governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, who founded the Turkey-backed local militia, Hashd al-Watani (later renamed "Ninawa Guard") and the current governor, Nawfal al-Aaqoub.

Nujaifi represents the axis advocating the establishment of a Sunni federal region, which includes his brother and Iraqi vice-president Osama al-Nujaifi's Muttahidoun bloc, Sunni business tycoon Khamis al-Khanjar, former minister of finance Rafi al-Issawi, and Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This group is close to Turkey and the Gulf States, and the most strongly opposed to the participation of the PMUs in Ninewa province operations against the Islamic State.

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