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.
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.
Iranian President Rouhani visited Iraq for first time as president and leading Kurdish parties agreed to share power in Kurdistan, as Islamic State (ISIS) kept up insurgency. Rouhani visited Iraq 11-13 March, meeting President Salih and PM Mahdi and signing MoUs for joint projects involving energy sector, trade and railway infrastructure. In Najaf, site of Shiite shrine, Rouhani met Shiite cleric Sistani, who insisted that Iraqi govt must take control of Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) Shiite militias, some of whose factions are considered loyal to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). U.S. Treasury 6 March blacklisted PMU faction Harakat al-Nujaba close to IRGC. U.S. 19 March granted govt new 90-day sanction waiver so it could continue importing energy from Iran. In Kurdistan, two leading parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), 4 March reached deal to speed up formation of regional govt, allocating high executive and security positions to KDP and making PUK junior partner. Parliament 27 March voted to sack Ninewa’s governor Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan after at least 90 people killed in ferry accident in provincial capital Mosul. ISIS-related clashes continued: insurgents 6 March ambushed PMU on Mosul-Kirkuk road, killing six; in Mosul, car bomb killed two 8 March; in north Baghdad, militants 19 March killed three soldiers; security forces arrested five alleged ISIS members in east Mosul 20 March. After Syrian rebels Syrian Democratic Forces transferred some 400 suspected ISIS foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq, Iraqi authorities 15 March initiated court proceedings against fourteen French nationals. In north, Turkish air raids 3-6 March targeted Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) positions in Haftanin and Hakurk areas; Iraqi army 17-19 March clashed with PKK-backed Yezidi militias in Sinjar district, five militia members and two soldiers killed; talks late month between militias and army chief of staff eased fighting.
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.
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