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.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remain uprooted and unable to go home after the war to defeat ISIS. The worst off are those, mainly women and children, perceived to have jihadist ties. Iraq and its partners should find ways to end their displacement.
Mass protests spread in Kurdish region amid clashes between Kurdish armed factions; meanwhile, tensions ran high between U.S. and Iran-backed militias. In Kurdish region, after hundreds of protesters 2 Dec gathered in Sulaymaniyah city to demand disbursement of unpaid salaries, week-long protests spread to other parts of province. Authorities responded by detaining hundreds, shutting down opposition media and using water cannons and live ammunition; clashes left nine people dead, including eight protesters, and 60 injured. Kurdish Peshmerga and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants 13 Dec exchanged fire in Duhok province, killing one Peshmerga soldier and one PKK militant. Peshmerga 16 Dec reportedly foiled attack by Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and PKK militants attempting to infiltrate Kurdish region in Ninewa province; first direct clash between Peshmerga and YPG. Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani 22 Dec asked U.S. govt to deploy observers to patrol border with Kurdish-controlled north east of Syria. Meanwhile, unilateral ceasefire announced by pro-Iran militias faced strains as roadside IEDs 9, 10 and 23 Dec hit convoys belonging to U.S.-led international coalition forces; U.S. missile defence system 20 Dec intercepted eight rockets targeting Baghdad’s Green Zone near U.S. embassy, injuring one Iraqi soldier; U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo 20 Dec blamed attack on Iran-backed militias and U.S. President Trump 23 Dec warned Iran against further attacks on U.S. targets. Islamic State (ISIS) continued deadly assaults across country: ISIS militants 3, 5, 7 and 9 Dec attacked security checkpoints in Diyala, Kirkuk and Anbar, killing dozen Iraqi soldiers and wounding several more. In response, U.S.-led coalition 5 Dec launched airstrikes in Salah al-Din and Kirkuk provinces, killing at least 11 ISIS militants. Amid worsening economic situation, leaked 2021 draft budget 18 Dec prompted national outcry on grounds that it confirmed govt’s intention to devalue Iraqi dinar and cut public sector salaries; cabinet 21 Dec approved 2021 draft budget.
Federal forces now patrol Kirkuk, the diverse, oil-rich province disputed between the central and Kurdish regional governments. The arrangement is unsettling communal relations, with Kurds feeling excluded. With outside help, Baghdad and Erbil should design a joint security mechanism including a locally recruited multi-ethnic unit.
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 comparison to previous protests [in Iraq's Kurdish north] these are significant as the current fiscal crisis affects larger swaths of the population.
The trend here is that the U.S. is withdrawing (from Iraq). If they are not doing it now, then they are doing it eventually.
It seems that what is left of ISIS networks now is that they are getting organized in smaller groups of five or six people who may not be connected to each other even.
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.
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.
A surge in street protests in Iraq has left some 110 people dead and exposed a rift between the government and a population frustrated by poor governance, inadequate services and miserable living conditions. To avert further violence, the authorities and protesters should open dialogue channels.