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.
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.
Debate intensified over U.S. military presence and Islamic State (ISIS) continued insurgency. U.S. President Trump 3 Feb said U.S. military will remain in Iraq “to watch Iran”; President Salih 4 Feb criticised statement and stressed Iraq’s sovereignty. In surprise visit to Iraq, acting U.S. Sec Defence Patrick Shanahan 12 Feb corrected Trump’s remarks saying counterterrorism goals guide U.S.-Iraq partnership. Statements come after Shiite MPs from Sadrist Sayirun alliance and Iran-backed al-Fatah coalition 31 Jan submitted draft legislation demanding end of agreements which govern presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and bilateral security cooperation. Resisting these demands, PM Mahdi 20 Feb stressed Iraq’s sovereign request for presence of U.S. troops and their importance to national security. Parliament 31 Jan passed federal budget for 2019 which signalled improved relations between Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Govt (KRG): KRG to receive same share of budget as in 2018 but due to overall increase will receive nearly 30% more funds and central govt guaranteed salaries to Kurdish public servants and security forces, even if it makes deductions from budget transfers. Sayirun and al-Fatah 11 Feb said they had agreed to form joint committee to speed up cabinet formation. In Kurdistan, two main parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), 15 Feb announced preliminary agreement on outline for next regional govt, first govt since late 2017 independence referendum. ISIS continued insurgency: near Samarra north of Baghdad, gunmen 3 Feb wounded nine people, including six Iranian Shiite pilgrims, and two roadside bombs 14 Feb killed eight members of Shiite Popular Mobilisation Forces; in Najaf, Anbar and Salah al-Din provinces, ISIS 7-17 Feb kidnapped twenty civilians, reportedly killed nine of them and released five in return for ransom; suspected ISIS sleeper cells 23 Feb killed five fishermen in Therthar Lake, 60km north of Baghdad. In north, Turkey carried out raids against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); Turkey 22 Feb said it had carried out fifteen operations in Harkuk region of Iraq, destroying PKK hideouts.
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.
Saudi Arabia has been forging links to Iraq since reopening its Baghdad embassy in 2016. Its adversary Iran has strong Iraqi ties. If Riyadh avoids antagonising Tehran, invests wisely and quiets anti-Shiite rhetoric, Iraq can be a bridge between the rival powers - not a battleground.
Though the Islamic State (ISIS) is beaten in Iraq, the battle for the country’s political soul is not over. Baghdad should act to restore local governance in Sinjar, where ISIS terrorised the local community, and encourage the district’s displaced people to return home.
September’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has pushed Baghdad to take control of Kirkuk and its oil fields from Kurdish control. To avert the threat of further direct confrontation, the two sides must agree to a reinvigorated UN-led effort to settle longstanding disputes over internal boundaries and shared oil revenues.
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.
The [Iraqi] government budget will form the bulk of [the World Bank] money, followed by private investment. Donors are seen as an added boost, not the bulk.
[The international conference in Kuwait on Iraq's reconstruction] is a signal to [Prime Minister] Abadi going into elections. This gives him something tangible to take back to Baghdad.
Tensions [within Kurdish political parties] are likely to endure, unless the Masoud/Masrour Barzani line relaxes its control and allows its rivals to fully participate in decision-making.
For the Sunnis, there's a lack of political cohesion about exactly what they want. [Iraq's] Abadi government has never needed the Sunnis more than now.
Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.
Originally published in The Guardian
The fallout continues to settle after Iraqi Kurdistan’s fraught independence referendum one year ago. In this Q&A, our Iraq Senior Adviser Maria Fantappie surveys the political landscape ahead of the first regional legislative elections since the plebiscite.
The administration just slashed the number of refugees the U.S. will admit to a record low. Its reasoning doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Originally published in Politico