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.
Violent confrontation between U.S. and pro-Iranian groups intensified, while stalemate persisted over formation of new govt amid ongoing anti-govt protests. Rocket attack on Camp Taji base north of capital Baghdad 11 March killed two U.S. and one UK personnel. U.S. blamed attack on Iran-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah and retaliated next day with strikes against five of its alleged weapons’ depots, killing three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and one civilian. U.S. 13 March deployed Patriot and C-Ram missile systems to Iraq to protect U.S. bases. Rockets hit Camp Taji again 14 March, injuring five U.S. servicemen and Iraqi forces. Kataib Hizbollah 14 March denied involvement in attacks; previously unknown group League of Revolutionaries (Usbat al-Thairin) 16 March claimed responsibility, calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Rockets struck Iraqi Basmaya base south of Baghdad which hosts U.S. soldiers 16 March and hit Baghdad’s Green Zone near U.S. embassy 17 March. PM designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi 1 March withdrew nomination after failing to win support of Sunni and Kurdish blocs and losing support from Shiite parties. Shiite parties organised committee to find consensus candidate but two major coalitions, Ammar al-Hakim’s al-Hikma and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon, 16 March withdrew from negotiations. In response, President Salih 17 March appointed former governor of Najaf province Adnan Al-Zurfi as new PM and tasked him with forming govt; several Shiite parties rejected nomination. Clashes between anti-govt protesters and govt forces in Baghdad and Nasiriyah 8 March left three protesters dead; clashes 10-11 March injured a dozen more. To counter spread of COVID-19, authorities 15 March suspended all flights to and from Baghdad International Airport until 24 March and imposed weeklong curfew in Baghdad starting 17 March, later extending measures till 11 April. U.S. 20 March announced “temporary” troop drawdown due to COVID-19. Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq 14 March “neutralised” eleven members of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
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.
If the United States is forced out of Iraq in an ugly, contentious fashion, it could poison the bilateral relationship. (Quoted with Maria Fantappie)
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.
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