Iraq has been successively ravaged by the 1980-1988 war with Iran, crippling sanctions after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, internal conflict after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and the transnational jihadists of Islamic State after 2014. Its multiple challenges further include sectarian violence and Kurdish separatism. Crisis Group aims to promote locally-centred stabilisation and better governance of post-ISIS Iraq in order to reduce the risk of violent flare-ups in liberated areas and mitigate the impact of foreign strategic competition, notably between Iran and the U.S. Through field research, advocacy and engagement with all sides, we urge countries involved in the anti-ISIS campaign to support security sector and institutional reform in Iraq as well. On the Kurdish front, we urge a return to a UN-led process to resolve the question of the disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, and of oil revenue-sharing.
Ominous developments – attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq, U.S. retaliation and turmoil at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – could drag Iraq deeper into the U.S.-Iranian confrontation and spark direct clashes between Washington and Tehran. Urgent steps are needed to break this predictable but perilous cycle.
U.S.’s killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in capital Baghdad provoked Iranian missile strikes on U.S. assets in Iraq and reinvigorated efforts to evict U.S. and coalition forces, and security forces continued to violently repress anti-govt protests. Following tit-for-tat attacks between U.S. and Iran-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah late Dec, U.S. drone strike in Baghdad 3 Jan killed ten including militia’s commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also deputy commander of Shiite militia coalition Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and Soleimani, whom Washington claimed had been planning attacks on U.S. targets. Iran 8 Jan retaliated with missile strikes on two air bases in Anbar and Erbil provinces hosting U.S. troops, causing material damage and injuring 64 U.S. soldiers. Shiite militia Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq 8 Jan called for militant action against U.S.. Numerous unclaimed aerial attacks targeting U.S. assets and PMU continued throughout month, notably three rockets 26 Jan reportedly hit U.S. embassy. Parliament by slim majority 5 Jan passed non-binding resolution tasking govt to expel U.S. and other foreign troops from Iraq. U.S. threatened govt with sanctions if it forced American troops to leave. U.S. 10 Jan rejected PM Mahdi’s request to draw up plan for troop withdrawal. Responding to call by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Baghdad 24 Jan, demanding end to U.S. military presence. Anti-govt protests persisted in Baghdad and south, clashes with security forces left at least ten dead 20-21 Jan. Sadr 24 Jan withdrew support for protests and his supporters next day left protest camps in Baghdad and southern cities; security forces proceeded to raid camps leaving at least twelve dead. Sadr 31 Jan called on his supporters to rejoin protests. Following Soleimani’s killing, NATO and U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (ISIS) suspended operations 4 and 5 Jan respectively and some participant states removed small numbers of troops. Army 30 Jan said it was resuming joint operations with U.S.-led coalition. ISIS attacks 2-29 Jan left at least thirteen security force members and two civilians dead.
Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.
Should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate to a shooting war, Iraq would likely be the first battleground. Washington and Tehran should stop trying to drag Baghdad into their fight. The Iraqi government should redouble its efforts to remain neutral and safeguard the country’s post-ISIS recovery.
Backlash to the 2017 independence referendum bolstered family rule within Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties. Internal democracy has eroded; ties between the parties have frayed. Only strong institutions in Erbil and renewed inter-party cooperation can help Iraqi Kurdistan to reach a sustainable settlement with Baghdad on outstanding issues.
The fallout is settling after the Iraqi army’s seizure of territories disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. More conflict over these areas, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk, is predictable. The UN should take advantage of today’s quiet to explore negotiations on the contested lands’ status.
In July protests against inadequate supplies of jobs, water and electricity swept across southern Iraq, reaching Baghdad. The ruling elites should heed demonstrators’ calls to improve public services and stamp out corruption – or risk reigniting popular discontent and tempting would-be strongmen to step in.
A struggle looms in Iraq over the future of paramilitary groups assembled to help the state defeat ISIS. These units remain under arms and autonomous. Baghdad should strengthen the interior and defence ministries so they can absorb the paramilitaries now undercutting the state’s authority.
The Iraqis don’t want either the United States or Iran, but if they have to have one, they would rather have both because they balance each other out.
[Iraqi] people make a direct connection between the failure and the corruption of the Shia political establishment, both politicians and some clerics, and the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
As protests continue to rage across Iraq, both government *and* civic leaders are responsible for charting a way forward and averting new violence.
[A rocket attack on Baghdad's Green Zone] was a way to test the limits of the Americans. Whoever did it is aware that the red line for the Trump administration is bloodshed.
Fifteen years after the change of order in Iraq, it’s the same problem. The central government is unable or unwilling to address problems across the board in Iraq. The corruption is endemic, the government’s inability to deal with it is endemic, and the protests are endemic.
If the group that is most adamantly in favour of combating corruption [in Iraq] is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it, frustrations could take a different turn.
A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.
Originally published in Valdai Club
Turkey’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.
Researching the talks on forming a new Iraqi ruling coalition, our Senior Adviser for Iraq Maria Fantappie finds a country whose youth, women, civil society, officials and even politicians are hungry for bottom-up change to a stalemated, top-down system of governance.
Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.
Originally published in The Guardian