Physical and Societal (Re)construction in Nineveh post Islamic State

Dylan O’Driscoll, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), University of Manchester

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30,The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

The Nineveh province of Iraq, a northern governorate which includes Mosul, suffered enormously from the summer 2014 conquest by the Islamic State (IS) and its subsequent recapture by the Iraqi military and a U.S.-led international coalition. Significant post-conflict reconstruction efforts will be needed to grapple with the scale and scope of the damage across multiple levels. However, a broader definition of reconstruction than the conventional understanding underlying international policy making is needed in order to avoid repeating old mistakes. Rather than focusing simply on physical rebuilding, or the reconstruction of political institutions and public services, reconstruction must also take into account the societal rebuilding which needs to take place. This in turn requires attention to the issue of militias and their ties to political parties and ethnic groups – and the full participation of the people of the province in the process by which reconstruction policies are determined and implemented.

Nineveh, located in northern Iraq along the borderline between Sunni Arab and Kurdish dominated areas, is an area where ethnic groups have long needed to interact for trade, access, services, governance, and land ownership.  The multiple grievances connected to IS, such as crimes carried out by individuals, justice, collective guilt, etc., are only a part of what needs to be overcome in order to prevent future conflict. My research in Iraq between 2016 and 2017, including interviews with members of the Nineveh Provincial Council (NPC), the national government, residents of Nineveh, and local and international NGO workers, suggests the need for a societal understanding of reconstruction.  The reconstruction of shared space is an important factor, but the addressing of grievances and mistrust needs to happen alongside physical reconstruction.

Reconstruction needs to be depoliticised and must address both the physical and societal needs of citizens.  But viewing reconstruction as an inherently political process means that policy and analysis must take into account the political power dynamics at play between members of the NPC, as well as between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the NPC, the KRG and Baghdad, and Baghdad and the NPC. The competition for control between these actors, or the act of preventing others from gaining control, or benefiting from reconstruction of areas that they control, is the greatest obstacle to reconstruction in Nineveh, as the process becomes politicised and the best interests of the population are not taken into account.   A social understanding of reconstruction can help to bridge the divide between the politicisation of the process and the technical aspects of physical rebuilding.

Reconstruction or Construction 

Reconstruction cannot simply rebuild structures which existed prior to IS’ conquest of large swathes of Iraqi territory. There were a number of factors that facilitated the rapid rise of IS and the ease in which it gained control of the area.  In my interviews, Nineveh residents consistently referred to Nouri al-Maliki’s (Prime Minister between 2006-2014) centralisation policies as leading to considerable alienation. Much of the local population came to feel that they had little stake in Iraq as an entity (O’Driscoll, 2017). This marginalisation was reproduced at the provincial level, with politics controlled by a select group, which was frequently accused of corruption by both Baghdad and the local population.

The security sector faced particularly severe challenges. Maliki’s aim for control over all security institutions changed its very fabric, with the result being the population seeing the army as foreign, and accusations of corruption and theft. For example, during interviews with local residents in 2016 many recounted incidents of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) abusing the locals, detaining people under false accusations, and looting local businesses (O’Driscoll, 2016a).  Maliki’s restructuring of the ISF under his control culminated in the security forces (with little connection to the city) fleeing in the face of 800 IS fighters in the summer of 2014, leading to the loss of the city and the declaration of the caliphate (O’Driscoll, 2016a).

There are a number of lessons that can be taken from the pre-IS period in order to ensure past failures are not reproduced. Firstly, processes that limit political control at the provincial level should not be reconstructed. Additionallyt, local voices also need to be heard and decentralisation should not be only to the province, but also within, to the districts and sub-districts. Governance in Nineveh (and across Iraq) also needs to become more transparent and accountable to the people, as corruption has long affected the process. Secondly, security cannot feel imposed from Baghdad and must have a strong sense of local ownership, whilst still operating within the national system. Finally, the competition over the disputed territories negatively impacts the province; focus needs to move away from ownership and control and towards the development of these long-neglected territories. In short, reconstruction which simply restores these problematic practices will likely lead to the resurgence of old problems.


Reconciliation is probably one of the hardest issues to address in Nineveh, given the scope and nature of the atrocities on all sides.  Establishing legal processes viewed as fair and impartial is critical, and communities need to agree to only seeking justice through the courts, rather than taking it into their own hands and thus potentially continuing the cycle of violence. Therefore – although time is rapidly running out for this initiative – a regional system to bring guilty parties to justice in a transparent and fair manner needs to be established, which will also strengthen and support the process of regional governance. Reports of endemic abuses of the judicial process risk severely undermining the prospect of overcoming these divides and blocking progress towards societal reconstruction.

Although a clear differentiation of the level of participation within IS by those found guilty should be formed, there is no need for an amnesty for guilty parties if they tell the truth, as was the case in South Africa and Chile, as IS has been territorially defeated – it is not a ‘voluntary’ power handover (Van Zyl, 1999). There is however, as highlighted by Haugbolle (2018), the need for truth and a narrative of what has happened in order to create a common history and allow for the process of moving forward to begin. Part of this involves guilty parties being brought to justice, another part is creating an understanding of what led people to support or join IS, particularly those that did not necessarily do so by choice. Finally, documenting the various stories (narrated from different ethnic standpoints) regarding the recent events allows the communities to understand that they are not the only ones that have suffered (Gibson, 2004).

Additionally, notions of collective guilt from the other communities towards Sunni Arabs must be countered, as this not only hinders reconciliation, but also wider governance. There is a common misconception within the minority communities of Nineveh – as voiced on numerous occasions in interviews between 2016-2017 – that the majority of Sunnis are complicit in the actions of IS and that they have not suffered as a community. The suffering of Sunnis should not be denied and should be included in the shared narrative of truth to strengthen the process of reconciliation (O’Driscoll, 2016a).

Physical (Re)construction

The slow reconstruction of parts of Nineveh and the initial slow return of IDPs, followed by the increase of IDPs returning to non-reconstructed and dangerous ruins, does nothing to counter the previous alienation of some of these communities (Barbarani, 2018). The financial constraints are obviously significant, even following the investment promised in the recent Kuwait conference (Mostafa, 2018), but the ignoring of the basic needs of whole communities, and preventing NGOs from acting, does nothing to help heal the society.[1] The sense that neither Baghdad nor Erbil want to spend money on areas they may lose control of remains. Simplifying the return process (for more see Parry, 2018) and increasing efforts to rebuild homes and communities is intrinsic to building a much-needed form of civic nationalism where Iraq is defined by common citizenship, and liberty and equality take precedence over religious or ethnic identity.

Corruption has also traditionally hindered reconstruction in Iraq and it is imperative that this is addressed in Nineveh (Dodge, 2013; Le Billon, 2005; Looney, 2008). Transparency is key. It is important that it is clearly demonstrated how much money is given to each smaller government unit and that they answer to the NPC (and their voters) who in turn report to Baghdad.[2] Moreover, subcontracting full contracts needs to be made illegal, as this has long been a method in Iraq to pass contracts from one group to another in processes of cronyism and clientelism, which negatively impacts both politics and the reconstruction process. There needs to be an independent oversight to the awarding of contracts including an audit to ensure the work is carried out. Moreover, the contracts should be performance-based with staggered payments to guarantee quality and efficiency (O’Driscoll, 2016a).

As argued by Sharp (2018) space is incredibly important and construction itself can be a violent process that reinforces divides. It is therefore important that (re)construction takes place with a clear plan of how the space will be occupied and how it can be utilised to bring all communities together. The reconstruction of Mosul needs to ensure that all communities maintain a strong link to, and a sense of ownership of, it.  Mosul is an important hub with education, hospitals, services, markets, and public space for those from all over Nineveh Province. From a governance perspective, it is important that Mosul city becomes a political sphere where minorities can negotiate their grievances with Sunnis and each other. Through minorities actively participating in power sharing within Nineveh Province, they would be more likely to form alliances with each other in governance and negotiations for legislation (Erk & Anderson, 2009). These alliances could potentially counteract some of the key issues the minorities have with each other by preventing zero-sum-game negotiations against one another, which would thus enhance reconstruction. However, these dynamics depend significantly on elections and who gains power.

2018 Elections

The competition between Baghdad and Erbil for control of the disputed territories and the votes of the minorities living there has traditionally hampered the development – and to a certain extent the security – of these areas, as this competition has revolved around winning over minority politicians, rather than winning over the population by providing for their needs. For instance, in my interviews in 2016 with Yazidis in particular (but also Christians and Shabaks) there were accusations that both Baghdad and Erbil were attempting to physically control the territory without taking responsibility for delivering services and developing the area. This is further exacerbated by the internal issues between the communities (particularly Shabak, Yazidi, and Christian) over whether they should become part of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) or not (Fitzherbert, 2015; Salloum, 2016).

Elections in Nineveh are critical, as the province has been denied this right under IS’ rule and the population have been let down significantly by their politicians who have largely focused on maintaining power and gaining finances and influence, rather than governing in the interest of the needs of the population. The former governor was dismissed on corruption charges and the current governor has been suspended on corruption charges (Aldroub, 2017). The political system in Nineveh is clearly not working and needs to be reformed, and the people need to be given the chance to decide who leads this change. New political actors have emerged during, and since the fall of, IS’ reign and they need to be given the opportunity to represent their communities and drive the new political era in Nineveh and the broad process of reconstruction as presented in this paper. For this reason the up-coming local elections, currently scheduled for December 2018, are extremely important, as they will decide the local actors who will push forward with reconstruction and give more local legitimacy to the process (Sattar, 2017).

The recent parliamentary election, or more precisely the current government formation process, is also important for Nineveh, as it will decide the direction Iraq takes. If Haider al-Abadi manages to form the government and remain as Prime Minister he may finally be able to deliver on his promises for political reform and decentralisation, both of which are imperative for Nineveh.[3]  However, in the parliamentarian elections, political division in Nineveh may ultimately cost the province, as a combined list from Nineveh would have given it much more power in negotiations for the future and reconstruction of the province. Particularly, as there are no clear winners in the election and there will be much political manoeuvring in order to create alliances for the ultimate prize of the premiership.[4] Nonetheless, the fact that Abadi’s list won the most votes in Nineveh is a huge positive for the province and for societal reconstruction at both a national and provincial level, as it demonstrates a clear move away from the sectarianism that IS, and even previous governments, represented, and a move towards civic nationalism.

Emerging Issues

The rise of ethnic and religious militias to fight against IS in Nineveh has reinforced divisions that need to be bridged if a more comprehensive approach to reconstruction is to take place. There is little trust between communities in Nineveh, and between them and Baghdad or Erbil, or between Baghdad and Erbil. This halts (re)construction, as competition over power takes precedence. Considering the traumas – including mass slaughter, kidnapping, slavery, and rape – inflicted on the minority groups of Nineveh, the notion of continuing to “govern” together with Sunni Arabs in a local administration is hard to accept for many. This is especially so since their communities constitute an overall minority to the Sunni Arabs living in Nineveh.

This mistrust has led to calls for the creation of new provinces in Tal Afar where Turkmen form the majority, in Sinjar where Yazidis form the majority, and from Christians in the Nineveh Plain (Bassem, 2016). In interviews with members of these groups in 2016 they argued that having their own province would be the only way of protecting their rights and protecting them from any future emergence of extremist groups. However, the creation of these provinces ignores issues of interdependence, denies the importance of inter-ethnic tolerance and aims to avoid the necessity of overcoming differences and past grievances. The social and political segregation does nothing to advance the reconstruction of the region and ignores the fact that these micro communities actually rely on each other on a macro level. The wider Nineveh province provides a shared political arena in which issues can be addressed, resolved and overcome, and provides an important economic, social, and educational base in Mosul. Any creation of these micro provinces would only entrench divisions and competition for land and resources (O’Driscoll & van Zoonen, 2016). This is especially dangerous given the fact that these communities have recently mobilised into various armed factions, which increases the likelihood of the situation leading to a zero-sum game for control of the area (O’Driscoll, 2016b).


In order to overcome the significant negative impact of IS, and also the dynamics that facilitated its rapid rise, reconstruction needs to be redefined to go beyond physical rebuilding and the reconstruction of political institutions and public services, to include the rebuilding of society. Once formed, the new government needs to focus on this broader understanding, and the makeup of the NPC needs to be based on these principles following the provincial elections later this year. It is imperative that the new government demonstrates to the people of Nineveh, and the rest of Iraq, the value it places in rebuilding the society, whilst it is important that the NPC moves beyond competition, and new politicians who have begun to emerge are given the chance to lead a depoliticised physical and societal reconstruction process.

Thus, reconstruction in Nineveh is not a simple process, as it is closely connected to the internal and national political dynamics, reconciliation, security, justice, and competition on multiple levels. Therefore, in order for reconstruction to be successful it needs to connect all these elements in one package. However, it is important that past failures – particularly those that contributed to the rapid rise of IS – are not reproduced and rather that new processes that encourage unity and levels of political autonomy are created. The reality of ignoring the reconstruction of Nineveh will have a lasting impact on the sense of belonging of those from Nineveh in Iraq and the fostering of any sort of Iraqi unity or civic nationalism, which will only act to reinforce the divisions that have consistently led to internal conflict since 2003. Failure to use the gains made from the significant defeat of IS, and the resulting emergence of the roots of civic nationalism, for the type of complex reconstruction proposed in this paper will only continue the cyclical process in Iraq of grievances being addressed through violence.


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[1] In interviews with INGO workers in 2017 many voiced difficulties in gaining permission to access these communities.

[2] In interviews with NPC members there were countless accusations of corruption.

[3] Abadi became Prime Minister in 2014 despite the fact that Maliki won the election, as a result (alongside the focus of defeating IS) Abadi did not have enough power to implement his reforms.

[4] With 329 seats in the parliament 165 are needed to form a majority government. However, the highest number of seats won was 54 by the Saairun Alliance (Sadr), followed by 47 by Fatah Alliance (Amiri), and 42 by Nasr Alliance (Abadi).