And still they continue to surface. Traumatised, hungry, wounded, they stagger out from the tunnels and cellars that had become the only refuge left. These last remaining civilians trapped for months in the hell that is Mosul are a pitiful, nightmarish curtain call to what has gone on in this city these past three years.

To speak of victory in Iraq’s second largest city seems a strange choice of word. Yes, the Iraqi Army has been victorious in its battle with the Islamic State (IS) and, yes, the city’s citizens have been liberated from the jihadist’s brutal rule, but what a price has been paid.

Loading article content

The battle to retake Mosul has been the biggest urban conflict since the Second World War. Much of the city lies in ruins and over one million people have been displaced from their homes. Untold thousands have been killed and we might never accurately know what the actual human cost has been.

Ordnance disposal experts say it could take more than a decade to clear the city of explosives. The intense fighting has meant that for miles within the city its ruins are littered with unexploded artillery shells, rockets and hand grenades.

During its three-year occupation of Mosul, IS also mined and booby-trapped swathes of the city, especially around key infrastructure and installation points.

“They want to keep the water from running, they want to keep the lights out and they want to keep people from coming back to their homes,” was how one expert summed up the situation to the Washington Post last week.

As if all this was not challenge enough, an even bigger problem now looms over the future of Mosul and indeed Iraq itself.

Last October, as the military offensive to retake the city got fully underway, I spoke with Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to Masoud Barzani president of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region that has its capital in the northern city of Erbil, just east of Mosul.

At the time I asked Hawrami how confident he was, on a sliding scale of one to 10, that the political situation in Iraq following Mosul would be stable and positive? His answer summed up the concerns of many.

“It’s a five” he replied. “It’s fifty-fifty.”

Like many other senior Iraqi Kurdish and Arab officials I talked to, Hawrami confided that the failure to agree any post-Mosul liberation political and territorial strategy between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad would mean that future instability was almost unavoidable.

Many Western, Iraqi and Kurdish officials remain astonished that Iraqi authorities neglected to prepare a post-battle plan for governance and security.

A high-level committee ostensibly formed by the Kurdish region, the Baghdad government and a US-led military coalition to help Mosul leaders rebuild the city has never managed to convene. As a result, almost inevitably and even before the battle for Mosul was over, there were tell-tale signs of the sectarian fault lines that exist opening up that could lead to another conflict in Iraq.

These past few weeks human rights observers have raised the alarm over the number of unsolved killings in and around Mosul City and in particular the corpses washing up along the Tigris River.

According to some like Human Rights Watch the evidence points to Iraqi Government forces killing suspected IS members or collaborators without trial or due process.

Other victims could well be ordinary Sunnis killed in reprisal attacks by Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) who accompanied the Iraqi Army during its Mosul offensive but may now be taking the law into their own hands.

There have been multiple reports of these PMUs beating and detaining Sunni men and boys fleeing the fighting in the city, the kind of behaviour that drove some Sunnis to turn to IS in the first place.

“PMU militias have carried out a systematic pattern of violations, including enforced disappearance, extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings and torture of Sunni Arab men and boys, seemingly in revenge for IS attacks,” concluded Amnesty International in a recent report.

Whatever the truth, the evidence and suspicions continue to underline the volatile sectarian politics that remain the backdrop to the retaking of Mosul.

In short, the victory risks triggering new violence between Arabs and Kurds over disputed territories or between Sunnis and Shiites over claims to power, egged on by outside powers that have shaped Iraq’s future since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority-rule and brought the Iran-backed Shiite majority to power.

Right now the situation on the ground around Mosul is chaotic while the wider political picture is immensely complicated.

Perhaps the best way to understand what the future holds for Iraq and the wider region is to see Mosul’s liberation as only the first act in a tense political drama.

In the country’s north it is has long been obvious that Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad will struggle to reassert its control. The Iraqi Kurds, who played a crucial role in the early stages of the battle against IS and campaign to retake Mosul, are now set on an independence referendum in their autonomous region that will take place in September. Local Sunnis meanwhile remain distrustful of – if not outright hostile to – the Iranian-backed Shiite PMU militias that helped the Iraqi Army during their own deployment at the height of the Mosul offensive.

In this context of violence, trauma and suspicion, securing peace will be far harder than winning the war. Little of what is playing out on the ground right now since the retaking of Mosul augurs well.

Above all else it is the potential for a political showdown between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) in Erbil in the north of the country that could present the most dangerous flashpoint. The wounds of Mosul will have far from healed when the Kurds ballot on their future relationship with Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region, told Reuters news agency recently that the timing for independence after the referendum was “flexible but not open-ended”.

It was an assurance of sorts that things would not be rushed into but did little to assuage growing concern in some political quarters that the real purpose of the Kurdish independence referendum is not immediate secession, but to strengthen Kurdish claims over the disputed territories, such as the oil-rich region and city of Kirkuk, whose future has been a bone of contention for decades.

During a recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan political leaders from the region’s main political parties including the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, or Movement for Change, left me in little doubt about the appetite for Kurdish secession.

Hoshyar Zebari, an internationally-respected former finance and foreign minister and member of the KDP, echoed that view recently, saying the time was ripe for Kurdish independence.

“We lost hope and faith in the new Iraq that we had built. The [Iraqi] government has failed us on each and every constitutional provision and article to establish a new country with equal citizenship, with no discrimination, with partnership. All those dreams have evaporated,” said Zebari.

Zebari himself is no stranger to the political tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, having devoted over a decade in the Iraqi government trying to make power-sharing work, between the two political blocs.

In a recent interview he also touched on that other thorny issue of what he, like many Kurds, regard as Iran’s insidious influence on the predominately Shia government in Baghdad. This feeling of course has been compounded recently by the activities of the Iranian-backed Shiite PMU militias that were active with the Iraqi Army in the Mosul campaign.

According to Zebari, and many other Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Tehran’s ambitions in the region are in little doubt. The Iranians, they insist, are aiming to carve out a corridor for Shiite forces through the north of Iraq and policed by Shiite recruits like the PMUs

“They are breathing down our neck all along the Kurdish frontline from Sinjar to Khanaqin,” Zebari stressed.

“So far we have been accommodating, patient, coordinating to prevent skirmishes or flashes but this is building up,” he warned recently as the PMUs made their presence felt in and around Mosul.

Without doubt the post Mosul scenario is a pivotal moment for Iraqi Kurds and de-facto the future of Iraq as a whole.

Despite Western opposition that has repeatedly stated that it prefers a united Iraq, the KRG will run its referendum on September 25 to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections on November 6.

While the results of the referendum will not be binding, the ballot, nevertheless, is expected to deliver the political ammunition the Iraqi Kurdish leadership needs to begin negotiating the break up with Baghdad or, in the worst case scenario, unilaterally declare independence.

“If talks fail,we will get back to the decision of people in the Kurdistan Region,” said Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, in a recent interview with Kurdistan24 news channel. “We will think about the interest of the Kurdistan region people and homeland. We will not wait to know what others approve or disapprove.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss such talk as mere posturing. Time and again during recent visits to Iraqi Kurdistan I heard Kurdish leaders emphasising the same position and response.

If the Erbil-Baghdad political stand-off poses one threat to the post-Mosul stability of Iraq then Sunni-Shia tensions pose another. It is worth remembering that when IS seized Mosul in 2014 it did so comparatively easily because some of the city’s largely Sunni population felt neglected by Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government.

It’s probably fair to say that some Sunnis even regarded the Iraqi Army as little more than an occupying power given the support that it had from Shia Iran.

If tensions are to be prevented from rising again to the point of open conflict then enormous efforts must be made to bring Sunnis properly and meaningfully into the political fold. This includes Mosul itself. If past experience is anything to go by in other cities liberated from IS, like Fallujah and Ramadi, then the Iraqi government will need to up its game, failing as it has to effectively address Sunni concerns in both places.

Given the ongoing sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shias throughout the Middle East few are optimistic about the chances of their peaceful coexistence in a unified Iraq, not least in one where the Kurds have already staked their claim to secession.

Which takes us back to the city of Mosul itself where the immediate and enormous practical challenges it presents sit against this wider political backdrop.

First and foremost let’s not forget that IS still control the Iraqi cities of Tal Afar and Hawija not far from Mosul. While considerably smaller they will still prove tough nuts to crack even though for some time the Iraqi Army and PMUs have surrounded them.

What comes next in Mosul itself will be the measure of what lies ahead. It will require careful planning, diplomacy, implementation and coordination among the Iraqi government, US military, diplomatic entities, aid and UN agencies.

The desperate humanitarian situation including addressing acute water, power and medical shortages and developing a strategy for helping remaining displaced Iraqis to return home has to be a priority.

With over a million people from Mosul and 3.3m across Iraq uprooted, the task is daunting. So, too, is the task of providing immediate security in terms of clearing unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive booby-trap devices.

If the post-liberation landscape of Mosul is little more than one giant minefield then the political landscape is no less combustible. Mosul, its citizens and indeed Iraq as a whole face a difficult and dangerous time ahead. The agony is far from over.