The Mosul district of Gogjali was captured from the Islamic State group weeks ago. So the commander of Iraqi troops here was alarmed when a surprise attack by militants sparked an hour-long gun battle with his forces. None of his men were hurt, but the assault meant IS sleeper cells remained among the mainly Sunni Muslim population.
Using loudspeakers, troops on Thursday called on all adult men to report to the main square. About 400 showed up. Under heavy guard and forbidden from using cell phones, they sat on the ground — clearly anxious they were about to face mass reprisals. Instead, the commander delivered a speech, demanding information but also seeking reconciliation.
“I am a Shia, but it’s not true what you hear that we are here to fight Sunnis,” Col Munir Abdul-Aziz, a burly man in his 40s, told them. “We are here to save you from the terrorist Daesh (IS) which has no religion,” he added.
It was a sign of how, in the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s military and politicians are making a concerted effort to bridge the country’s bitter Sunni-Shia divide.
Those tensions helped bring the rise of the IS and have been further inflamed by the fight against the militants. Unless they are eased, militant violence is unlikely to end.
Sunni bitterness toward the Shia-led government in Baghdad fuelled support for the IS among the community. The minority community has long complained of discrimination under Shia domination, and the militants were seen by some as protection against the heavy handedness of security forces and the abuse of the Shia militias.
That support helped IS take over much of northern and western Iraq, starting in late 2013, through its stunning blitz in the summer of 2014 that captured mainly Sunni Mosul.
In the campaign to retake territory from IS the past year, the tensions have been stoked by abuses committed against Sunnis by government-sanctioned Shia militias. Sunnis in areas from which IS has been pushed out have reported extrajudicial killings by the militiamen, looting and random destruction of property.
The latest generation of Iranian-backed Shia militias gained considerable power after the military melted down in the face of IS in 2014. The militias have been powerful fighters in the campaigns against the Sunni extremists since.
But the government was adamant in excluding the militiamen from the battle to retake Mosul, the last major Iraqi urban centre still held by IS.
The policy has seemed to bring successes.
The Iraqi military and security forces are predominantly Shia, but Sunnis have a significant presence in the ranks. Reports of excesses against Sunni civilians have been negligible.
Shia politicians have been trying to reach out, arguing that the brutality of IS rule shows that Iraqis — Shias, Sunni and Kurds — are better off living together in harmony.
“What we need is a societal reconciliation,” Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared in a news conference this week. “This (Shia-Sunni) conflict cannot be allowed to continue.”
The Sunni-Shia rivalry is not the only one bedeviling Iraq. There are longtime differences over territory and oil between the Baghdad government and the self-ruled Kurdish region.
It may take more than gestures and rhetoric to convince Sunnis that their marginalisation has ended.
“We should not have gone to war against Daesh before settling our differences first,” said Sunni lawmaker Thafer al-Any. “But, let us see how things are handled after Daesh is defeated. It is difficult to imagine that Iraq will stay united without a political settlement.”
But Sunni do see positive signs, and the fight against IS has brought together fighters from the country’s Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians in a loose alliance.
“The attitude of the army toward us in Mosul was 99 percent positive,” said Zoheir Hazem, a Sunni who belongs to Mosul local council. “The army is doing a good fighting job and humanitarian job.”