Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud meets with Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah Saudi Arabia on 30 July 2017
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud (R) meets with Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr (L) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 30 July 2017. Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad

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.

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What’s new? After a quarter-century of estrangement, Saudi Arabia has re-opened diplomatic relations with Iraq in an attempt to counter strong Iranian influence. The kingdom seeks a role in post-ISIS reconstruction and has set about forging new political alliances.

Why does it matter? The Saudi approach to Iraq could offer a sustainable model of patient, long-term engagement. A new approach in Iraq may persuade Riyadh that leveraging its economic and cultural capital – rather than military force and zero-sum politics – will better serve its strategic interests and reduce growing tensions in the region.

What should be done? In projecting its influence in Iraq, Riyadh should resist the temptation to transform the country into the latest battleground in a cold war with Tehran. All of Iraq’s bilateral partners should see the country’s stability as their vital interest and work constructively to achieve it.

Executive Summary

Saudi Arabia is re-engaging with Iraq after nearly a quarter-century of broken ties. The rapprochement began in 2016, sharply accelerated in mid-2017 and stands to move even faster after Iraq’s general elections in May 2018, particularly if politicians open to reconnecting with Saudi Arabia succeed in forming a government. Riyadh’s strategy is to ride a wave of Iraqi national pride, reinvest economically and build relationships across ethnic and confessional lines. If its objective is to roll back Iran’s influence in Iraq, however, it will find that many Iraqis – even those who are critical of Iran’s overweening influence – view that as a red line, a way of turning their country back into an arena of regional combat. If it moves too fast and favours infusions of cash over carefully calibrated and targeted economic assistance, it will fuel rather than curb rampant corruption. And it will need to silence sectarian rhetoric to reach out across Iraq’s ethnic and religious spectrum.

Iraqis from various political, confessional and social groups say they welcome the apparent course change. In part, their enthusiasm stems from necessity. The new relationship comes amid a rare international consensus that the calm in Iraq must be consolidated, lest the country regress into violent conflict. The Islamic State (ISIS) has been purged from most Iraqi territory, national pride is swelling and investor confidence is up. Yet if the government and its partners cannot produce a tangible peace dividend, secure liberated areas, and end a cycle of sectarian and ethnic retribution, those gains could easily be reversed. Western partners have already started walking back their financial commitments, hoping their Gulf allies will fill the gap.

Saudi political and economic re-entry can capitalise on and reinforce domestic trends in Iraq, namely growing anti-Iran sentiment and an appetite for balanced regional relations.

Saudi Arabia’s renewed engagement with Iraq has advantages compared to its actions elsewhere in the region. Iraq provides an opportunity for Saudi officials to apply lessons learned from less successful interventions in Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia can play to its strengths, building political support and influence through economic incentives, while avoiding direct or proxy military action. Saudi political and economic re-entry can capitalise on and reinforce domestic trends in Iraq, namely growing anti-Iran sentiment and an appetite for balanced regional relations.

Counter-intuitively, the fact that Riyadh is starting from a low base could be a blessing in disguise. Both sides must do the hard work of rebuilding trust, creating a network of contacts and courting public opinion. The kingdom’s financial might gives it leverage, but not enough to have things its way. Riyadh will need strategic patience in order to build the influence it seeks.

Riyadh can contribute to Iraq’s stabilisation, but the relationship will have to navigate a minefield of obstacles. The first is the most fundamental: Saudi Arabia’s renewed interest in engaging with Iraq overtly derives from a desire to counter Iranian influence. Yet Iraqis want and need to prevent their country from becoming yet another theatre for Saudi-Iranian hostilities. Calibrating the speed of engagement also will be a challenge. Iraqis want to see immediate, tangible gains from Saudi Arabia’s return. But if Riyadh tries to do too much, too soon, it could become mired in bureaucracy and corruption – or even provoke an Iranian reaction. Both Saudi Arabia and Iraq will need to break old habits, such as working exclusively via political patronage and allowing inflammatory sectarian rhetoric from clerics and media commentators.

If the risks of engagement are great, the folly of not engaging would be greater still. As Saudi policymakers readily admit, leaving post-2003 Iraq without strong Arab partners kept the country dependent on Iranian security assistance, energy support, trade and political funding, and made its security institutions vulnerable to Iranian penetration. Such lopsided influence helped marginalise Sunni Arabs and set the stage for ISIS’s rise.

Seeking to undo the damage, Saudi Arabia can now help strengthen the Iraqi state so that Baghdad can play the role to which many Iraqis say it aspires: a bridge between warring neighbours, rather than a battleground. The following steps could help:

  • Saudi Arabia should prioritise economic engagement with Iraq, producing immediate, tangible gains and fostering long-term projects. Efforts should focus on reconstruction, job creation and trade, with an eye toward balancing investment across the country.
  • Riyadh should consider steps toward publicly recognising Shiite religious practice as a school of Islam, including by: moving to accept the legitimacy of Shiite theology and jurisprudence, quieting anti-Shiite rhetoric from Saudi Arabia-based clerics, issuing statements and undertaking actions dignifying Shiite rituals, curbing persistent discrimination against the Shiites in the kingdom, promoting broader religious tolerance within Saudi Arabia and encouraging its Sunni clerical establishment to engage informally with Shiite clerics in Najaf.
  • The Iraqi government should prioritise reconstruction and reconciliation among Iraqi parties and communities by passing legislation and regulations that will facilitate donor and investor interest, stepping up anti-corruption efforts, ensuring equal services and aid across the country, and promoting a non-sectarian and non-ethnic ethos among its security forces.
  • Iran should encourage and support the calibrated integration of autonomous security actors into Iraq’s national security institutions. Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies should understand that this process will necessarily be arduous – and must proceed delicately if it is to succeed. Tehran should encourage Iraq’s efforts to diversify its regional alliances.
  • Riyadh and Tehran should look for common ground to gradually build a base of cooperation, or at a minimum coexistence, in Iraq. This effort could include promoting shared interests such as a stronger Iraqi economy, the country’s territorial integrity, security sector reform and mitigation of the destabilising effects of climate change in the region.

Riyadh/Baghdad/Brussels, 22 May 2018

I. Introduction

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iraq in 1990 after Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered the invasion of Kuwait. While Riyadh gave tacit approval of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was reluctant to engage with the new political order after Saddam’s fall and as Iranian influence grew.[fn]Wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states funded Sunni Arab insurgents as well. See “The Iraq Study Group Report”, U.S. Institute of Peace, 6 December 2006; Sharon Otterman, “Saudi Arabia: Withdrawal of U.S. Forces”, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 February 2005.Hide Footnote Relations deteriorated further under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014), whom Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saw as an impossible partner inclined toward Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf official, February 2018; senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; former Iraqi diplomat, February 2018.Hide Footnote Believing that by invading Iraq the U.S. had “handed the country to Iran, as if on a golden platter”, as a senior Saudi official put it, Saudi Arabia sought to attain alternative forms of influence by funding Sunni Arab organisations and politicians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018. See also “Saudis’ role in Iraq frustrates U.S. officials”, The New York Times, 27 July 2007.Hide Footnote

The George W. Bush administration pushed Saudi Arabia to re-establish ties with Iraq and discouraged the kingdom from supporting non-state groups. A minor breakthrough came in 2006 when Iraq’s national security adviser and the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, opened a hotline between the two of them, but it ceased to function several years later when the responsible Iraqi personnel left office.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi officials viewed Iranian policy in the region as rooted in exploiting and exacerbating instability through sectarian divisions.

Real progress came only after Islamic State (ISIS) took vast swathes of Iraqi territory in 2014 and a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, showed firm commitment to rolling back the group. Abadi carved out an image as a nationalist and convinced Riyadh he was “not Iran’s man”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote In response, Saudi Arabia reopened its Baghdad embassy in December 2016. Engagement has intensified since, with visits by Abadi to Riyadh in June and October 2017 and at least three such trips by the Iraqi interior minister, Qasem al-Araji.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018. See also, “Iraqi PM arrives in Riyadh for talks on reconstruction and Iran”, The National, 21 October 2017; “Saudi crown prince, Iraqi interior minister discuss common issues, counterterrorism”, Arab News, 20 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The rationale for Riyadh’s rapprochement with Baghdad begins with a broader Saudi reassessment of foreign policy vis-à-vis its regional rival, Iran. When King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended to the throne in 2015, the Arab uprisings had overturned the regional status quo and shaken Saudi leaders’ trust in the U.S., even as long-time decision-makers (including two consecutive crown princes, Sultan bin Abdulaziz and Nayef bin Abdulaziz) passed away.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018. See also Deborah Amos, “Arab leaders feel U.S. abandoned Egypt’s Mubarak”, National Public Radio, 9 February 2011.Hide Footnote Saudi attempts to bolster certain political and armed opposition groups in Syria largely failed, while Iran gained ground. A Saudi diplomat said:

We had a little dive into supporting groups in Syria, and [discovered] we’re just not good at it. … Iran outmanoeuvred us everywhere. When you play with someone who has no red lines, you will always lose. We’re very bad at this. [We realised we have to play] another game.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018. Another senior Saudi official noted that Saudi influence in Lebanon peaked in the early 2000s, when that country’s economy was thriving, partly as a result of Riyadh’s support. Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Tehran’s influence expanded in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Right under the Saudis’ eyes, the pre-2011 geopolitical status quo was gone.

King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), assessed that Saudi Arabia’s regional policy toward Iran was too reactive – and failing. They set about formulating a new, more assertive approach, the implementation of which appears to have accelerated since MbS was elevated to crown prince in June 2017.[fn]A Saudi academic and former official said, “MbS has decided that we will go after Iran wherever they are, even in sub-Saharan Africa. This is why you see a dramatic change in relations”. Crisis Group discussion, May 2018.Hide Footnote A senior Saudi security official said in early 2018, “[Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is trying now to correct this position. We are on the front line today to push Iran to its borders”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi leaders undertook the strategic equivalent of triage: they decided which theatres could still be saved from Iranian domination and focused on those. A Riyadh-based diplomat said, “there is a sense that with Syria and Lebanon, it’s too late, but in Yemen, Iraq and Jordan there is scope to keep Iran out”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018; Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018. Officials in the Trump administration were undertaking a similar assessment. Dexter Filkins, “A Saudi prince’s quest to remake the Middle East”, New Yorker, 9 April 2018.Hide Footnote In this context, a new U.S. administration, under President Donald Trump, again encouraged Saudi Arabia to engage with Iraq, as a counterweight to Iranian influence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi officials viewed Iranian policy in the region as rooted in exploiting and exacerbating instability through sectarian divisions. Riyadh conceptualised its engagement with Iraq as a demonstration that Saudi Arabia seeks the opposite: to strengthen the state around patriotic ideals of Iraqi-ness. In taking this approach, Riyadh sought to “expose” Iranian intentions as malicious and sectarian. A senior Saudi policymaker described it this way:

Iran’s goal is to create chaos and destabilise the country …. Saudi Arabia in response pursues a strategy of reason. We try to strengthen these states and encourage patriotism among their citizens. … We are trying to put away the sectarian conflict … to expose the Iranian intervention.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Some Iraqis warn that this Saudi perception of Iran’s policy toward their country is simplistic or even unfair, particularly after Tehran’s investment in rolling back ISIS after 2014. Tehran has built alliances across Iraq’s sects, regions, and economic and political sectors over the last fifteen years, with an eye toward building a long-term regional ally.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior diplomat, Iraq department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tehran, March 2018; U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018. See also Crisis Group Middle East Report N°184, Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East, 13 April 2018.Hide Footnote An Iraqi academic explained:

The Iranians treat [the region] as a game of chess. The Saudis are rash actors. The Iranians never [make rash decisions]. There is one Iranian vision. Iran has had the same goal since 1979: to protect themselves. They never trust the Arabs and never trust the U.S., so they are creating a buffer around themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

II. The Saudi Vision

As it tries to regain a foothold in Iraq, Riyadh hopes to push back against Iranian influence, though policymakers say they realise it will not fully succeed in doing so. From minimal influence today, they ambitiously say, they would like to see the balance tilt to 70 per cent Saudi sway, 30 per cent Iranian.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, March 2018.Hide Footnote To achieve this aim, the kingdom is pursuing four tactical avenues: outreach to mainly Shiite political elites, strengthening of economic ties, cross-confessional religious engagement and spread of social good-will.

A. Political Outreach

Saudi Arabia’s political approach capitalises on an Iraqi sense of national pride that has emerged from having first survived ISIS and then having fought to defeat it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to Najaf’s religious leadership, February 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi policymakers decided to focus on Iraq’s Shiites first, because they dominate the government and represent the greatest area of tensions in the relationship.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh’s approach prioritises individual relationships over institutional engagement, as the initial outreach to the prime minister and interior minister illustrates.[fn]While high-level personal relationships continue to drive the direction of the budding ties, the two countries are also establishing ministerial-level engagement through the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, established in October 2017.Hide Footnote

The most pivotal relationship is with Abadi. Since his election in 2014, U.S. and UN officials have sought to persuade Riyadh that Abadi was not an Iranian proxy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia was impressed with the new prime minister’s determination to fight ISIS, particularly in comparison to Maliki, whose army one Saudi official said had been “defeated by 70 [ISIS] pickup trucks”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote Ultimately, it was Abadi who personally convinced the Saudi leadership that he would not bow to Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018; Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018; and Gulf official, February 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE and Bahrain, believes Abadi is the best-placed candidate to lead Iraq.

Abadi has worked assiduously to prove himself independent of Tehran, including in security policy, an area the Gulf views as being wholly compromised by Iran.[fn]An instance in early 2018 demonstrates that Abadi has navigated a balance between deference to Iran’s political influence and his desire to remain untethered to any foreign power, whether Tehran or Washington, according to Iranian and Western diplomatic accounts. In January, the Iranian Qods force commander, Qasem Soleimani, helped broker an electoral coalition between the PMUs and Abadi. According to Western sources, the PMUs had expected to have equal control over political decision-making, but Abadi insisted that he should have the last word on policy. Amid mismatched expectations, the coalition split within 24 hours. Crisis Group interviews, Tehran, Baghdad and by phone, February, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote Critically for Saudi Arabia, as well as for the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, Abadi has tried to start bringing the mostly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units, PMUs) under state control.[fn]Ahmed Rasheed, “Iraq’s Abadi in high-stakes plan to rein in Iranian-backed militias”, Reuters, 4 January 2018. The PMUs were established following a June 2014 fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, urging young men of all sects to fight ISIS out of patriotic spirit. Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s future”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 28 April 2017. The Maliki government seized the opportunity to expand pre-existing Shiite militias. Some brigades are aligned with – and many were trained and equipped by – Iran; others have committed atrocities against Sunnis. See for example, “Iraq: Possible War Crimes by Shiite Militia”, Human Rights Watch, 31 January 2016.Hide Footnote Though the PMUs are a diverse force, and not all units are allied with Tehran, policymakers in each of these Gulf states have described them as an Iranian front and their entrenchment as a roadblock in the way of closer ties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; Gulf official, February 2018; Bahrain government spokesperson, March 2018.Hide Footnote Abadi has said he aims to reduce the number of PMU fighters while bringing their heavy weapons under state control.[fn]Ahmed Rasheed, “Iraq’s Abadi in high-stakes plan to rein in Iranian-backed militias”, Reuters, 4 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE and Bahrain, believes Abadi is the best-placed candidate to lead Iraq.[fn]The UAE remains more cautious about Abadi, considering him the “best bad option” and likely still ultimately aligned with Iran. Crisis Group interviews, Gulf officials, February and April 2018; Bahraini government spokesperson, email correspondence, March 2018; former Iraqi diplomat, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote Several officials stressed the importance of Abadi maintaining the premiership after the 12 May elections and said their engagement was predicated on the assumption that he will.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018; Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January and February 2018.Hide Footnote Gulf support for Abadi was evident in an Iraq reconstruction donors’ conference hosted by Kuwait in February 2018. Gulf countries solicited a banner-headline dollar figure, offering Abadi pre-election evidence that he (and perhaps only he) can unlock Gulf funding for reconstruction.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Riyadh also has built a strong working relationship with Iraq’s interior minister, Qasem al-Araji, an ambitious politician who is closer than Abadi to Tehran. Araji is a member of the Badr Organisation, one of the primary vehicles for Iranian influence in the security sector.[fn]See for example, Guido Steinberg, “The Badr Organization: Iran’s Most Important Instrument in Iraq”, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 26 July 2017.Hide Footnote Iraqi officials and diplomats have varying views of why Saudi Arabia has prioritised ties with Araji. Some believe it is expediency. As a senior Iraqi security official said, a good relationship with the minister “will make most things move easily” for Riyadh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote The Interior Ministry would also be in a unique position to offer Saudi Arabia reassurances that its interests and investments will not be targeted by Iranian-allied PMUs.[fn]Since taking office, Araji has surprised some observers with his willingness to work with Abadi to move the PMUs under state control. A U.S. defence official said, “he has been trying to support Abadi’s approach to bring the PMUs under [the prime minister’s authority]. A lot of that is because Araji, when he became integrated into the official government process, saw that a group was operating outside his purview”. Crisis Group interview, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote Others see an attempt to “flip” Araji – a man known to have aspirations to the premiership – away from his erstwhile patrons in Tehran.[fn]The logic of this argument is as follows: within his own party, Araji would have powerful competition for a run at the premiership; he would be outranked by Badr Organisation chief Hadi al-Ameri. By switching to Saudi patronage, he might be able to subvert this hierarchy and improve his chances at moving up politically. Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Regardless of the calculations, the relationship appears mutually coveted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018. Araji visited Saudi Arabia at least three times in the second half of 2017 and met MbS on at least one occasion. “Iraq’s interior minister meets with Saudi crown prince”, The National, 19 July 2017.Hide Footnote Araji, for example, has sought to add nuance to Riyadh’s understanding of the PMUs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Beyond outreach to Iraqi Shiite government officials, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, as well as Turkey, have extended support to individual politicians and parties, including some of the top vote-winning coalitions among non-Shiite-led blocs in the May 2018 elections.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018. Turkey is one of Iraq’s largest economic partners and has also maintained close relationships with and support for some Sunni Arab politicians. Qatar supports some Iraqi political figures, including by hosting exiles and providing coverage in Qatari-owned and aligned media outlets. The political rift between Qatar and Turkey, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, is reflected in their patronage distribution in Iraq: Qatar and Turkey support Sunnis inclined toward Islamism, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE generally reach out to secular-leaning nationalists. These actions contribute to the splintering of Sunni Arab political alliances.Hide Footnote These overtures have included direct patronage, favourable media coverage and diplomatic visibility.[fn]Electoral coalitions whose members have reportedly received support from Gulf states and/or Turkey include Iraq’s Decision and Wataniya. Crisis Group interviews, Gulf official, April 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018; Western official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Confessional Engagement

As part of its re-evaluation of Iraq, Riyadh is betting on the idea that the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites place their ethnic identity above their confessional one.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi MP, Baghdad, March 2018; adviser to the National Wisdom Movement of Ammar al-Hakim, Baghdad, March 2018; Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018; Saudi academic close to government, Riyadh, February 2018.Hide Footnote Most follow the quietist religious school prevalent in Najaf, rather than the Iranian regime’s velayat-e faqih doctrine, which Saudi leaders view as deeply threatening.[fn]Practitioners of Shiism claim allegiance to a “religious reference” or marja – a grand ayatollah, whose rulings on Islamic law and practice they seek to follow in their lives. Najaf’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the most widely revered marja among Arab Shiites. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is an adherent of the velayat-e faqih doctrine formulated by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and incorporated into Iran’s 1979 constitution. Velayat-e faqih imagines a theocratic Islamic republic ultimately governed by the marja in accordance with Islamic law. The clerics’ direct role in politics in Iran since 1979 starkly contrasts with Najaf’s quietist approach of keeping religion out of politics. Khamenei has strongly promoted Qom (rather than Najaf) as the pre-eminent place of Shiite religious learning. The institution on which the marja’s authority rests is called the marjaiya; the cluster of Shiite seminaries that provide the theological and juridical underpinnings for the marjaiya is called the hawza.Hide Footnote Riyadh’s engagement seeks to emphasise the Arab/Iraqi component of Shiite identity and to elevate the religious importance of Najaf vis-à-vis the Iranian city of Qom.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018; Iraqi MP, Baghdad, March 2018; Saudi academic close to the government, Riyadh, February 2018. See also Erika Solomon, “Sunni Saudi Arabia courts an ally in Iraq’s Shia”, Financial Times, 2 April 2018. A former Saudi official said, “we would prefer an Arab base for the marjaiya, rather than Iran”. Crisis Group interview, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Riyadh is likely to welcome [Moqtada al-Sadr's] electoral success as a sign that Iraqis find appeal and salience in his non-sectarian rallying call.

Saudi engagement with Iraq accelerated after a July 2017 visit to the kingdom, and subsequently to Abu Dhabi, by Shiite cleric and politician Moqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won a plurality of parliamentary seats in the May 2018 elections.[fn]Fanar Haddad, “Why a controversial Iraqi Shiite cleric visited Saudi Arabia”, Washington Post, 10 August 2017.Hide Footnote Both a religious figure and a political activist who has pushed his non-sectarian credentials, Sadr crystallised Riyadh’s strategy of promoting Arab identity as a unifying tool.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf official, February 2018.Hide Footnote He told Saudi leaders he wanted Iraq to have more balanced regional relationships, including with the Gulf states, as well as with Turkey and Iran. Sadr offered the Saudis a set of concrete policy options, reportedly including: making sizeable economic investments, “showing up” at Baghdad events, engaging Iraqi tribal leaders and acknowledging Shiism as a valid doctrine among other schools of Islam. Sadr also asked Riyadh to open a consulate in Najaf to facilitate both pilgrimage to Najaf by Shiites from Saudi Arabia and travel to Mecca and Medina for the hajj and umra by Iraqi Shiites.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote The kingdom sent Iraq’s Foreign Affairs Ministry a formal request to open a consulate just days after the visit.[fn]“Saudi Arabia to open consulate in Najaf”, Baghdad Post, 14 August 2017.Hide Footnote Riyadh is likely to welcome the cleric’s electoral success as a sign that Iraqis find appeal and salience in his non-sectarian rallying call.

If Sadr is at the centre of Saudi religious engagement, other prominent religious families also are in Riyadh’s sights. Saudi Arabia has invited Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the National Wisdom Movement, to visit.[fn]Crisis Group interview, adviser to the National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Hakim, an Arab nationalist, a former leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (from which he split) and a loose political ally of Abadi and Sadr, hails (like Sadr) from a prominent clerical family in Najaf.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°70, snShiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council, 15 November 2007.Hide Footnote His second cousin, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim, is the second most senior cleric in Najaf after Sistani. Like the Sadrists, the National Wisdom Movement sees Saudi engagement as a way to rebalance Iraq’s regional relationships.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, adviser to the National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia also appears to be experimenting with allowing some of its Sunni clerical establishment to speak informally with Shiite scholars in Najaf.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Outreach to Najaf aligns with a Saudi domestic priority to rein in the more intolerant – and overtly sectarian – elements within the kingdom’s own Sunni clergy. As it embarks on a massive economic and social reform initiative, the leadership in Riyadh has publicly described the most austere reading of Islam among those clergy as an obstacle to its ability to govern a modern state.[fn]MbS said: “I believe in the last three years, Saudi Arabia did more than in the last 30 years. And that’s because it’s aligned with our interest as Saudis to be competitive in livability and cultural and social [stet]. And Islam it’s open. It’s not like what the extremists are trying to represent Islam after ’79”. Interviewed in Time, 5 April 2018. See also Margherita Stancati, “Mohammed bin Salman’s next Saudi challenge: Curtailing ultraconservative Islam”, Wall Street Journal, 10 January 2018.Hide Footnote To that end, King Salman and MbS have made several symbolic gestures of greater tolerance for religious diversity, including meetings with Egypt’s Coptic pope, top Vatican officials, Jewish rabbis in New York and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite cleric Hassan al-Saffar.[fn]“Why the Saudi crown prince’s first official meeting with Jewish leaders is such a big deal”, Haaretz, 29 March 2018; “Saudi king meets with top Vatican cardinal for inter-religious dialogue”, Al-Arabiya, 18 April 2018; Saudi journalist Ahmed al-Omran on Twitter, 14 April 2018, Also notable were visits by Muslim World League Secretary General Mohammed al-Issa to the Vatican and synagogues in Europe in 2017. While the kingdom has engaged in inter-religious dialogue before, including through the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, past Saudi leaders have largely avoided participating directly, leaving that task to the clerics.Hide Footnote This outreach, while suggestive of greater openness, is so far superficial and will need to extend into policy if it is to end or lessen discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite population.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain also have a security interest in a moderate Najaf, which most Shiites in the Gulf look to as a reference point. Sistani has on multiple occasions decried the treatment of Shiite populations in the Gulf, particularly in Bahrain, which expelled the cleric’s envoy in 2014.[fn]“UN rights monitor criticises Bahrain over Shiite expulsion”, Agence France Presse, 24 April 2014.Hide Footnote But in contrast to some Tehran-allied Shiite clerics, Sistani has insisted on non-violence, even amid the 2011 Arab uprisings. For this reason, the Bahraini leadership, which violently quashed its 2011 protests with Saudi support, views Sistani as a critical counterweight to Iran, which cheered on the demonstrations.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Bahraini government spokesperson, March 2018.Hide Footnote

The Wadi-us-Salaam cemetery sits just meters from Najaf's shrines. Recently, the burial ground has received casualties from the anti-ISIS campaign. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

C. The Economics of Change

Saudi Arabia is finally playing things the right way. They realised that the way to tackle Iran’s influence is through trade.

Saudi Arabia’s most powerful tool for re-engagement with Iraq is its ability to deploy funds, companies and resources. How it uses this tool could make or break the relationship. An Iraqi investor said, “Saudi Arabia is finally playing things the right way. They realised that the way to tackle Iran’s influence is through trade”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi investor, phone, February 2018. Many critics of Saudi Arabia in Iraq still encourage Saudi economic investment, according to a former security official: “If their outreach is economic, we welcome it – as long as they don’t politicise it”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Economic engagement is the one area where Saudi Arabia believes it could have an advantage over Iran. Its consumer products are of higher quality, its firms have stronger infrastructure and investment expertise, and its wallet is thicker. Saudi Arabia’s economic approach to Iraq thus far leverages those strengths.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, March 2018; Iraqi investor, phone, February 2018. In October 2017, following Abadi’s visit to Riyadh, the two countries launched a joint coordinating committee to facilitate negotiations on economic, political and other issues.Hide Footnote

Consumer goods are a particular preoccupation for Riyadh. The vast majority of agricultural and other staples in Iraq come from Turkey and Iran, providing both countries with quotidian visibility as well as foreign revenue.[fn]Data on Iraq’s trade partners is inconsistent across sources. Turkey is Iraq’s largest source of imports, with $11.9 billion in goods entering the country in 2014, according to the 2016 yearbook of the International Monetary Fund’s Direction of Trade Statistics (online). Saudi Arabia’s imports are absent from this data, but UN and other trade registers track imports in 2014 and 2015 at below $0.5 billion; the World Bank, World Integrated Trade Solutions database (online), and UN Statistical Division, Commodity Trade database (online). Iranian imports into Iraq are largely missing from international trade databases, but the Tehran Chamber of Commerce reports exports of $6.42 billion between March 2017 and March 2018. See Footnote Saudi Arabia would like to replace these products with its own; in August 2017, it opened its Arar border crossing with Iraq to facilitate trade, and it is reportedly considering opening another transit point.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, March 2018; Iraqi investor, phone, February 2018. Saudi Arabian businesses were encouraged by their reception at the October 2017 Baghdad International Fair that they would be able to reach Iraqi consumers. By both Saudi and Iraqi accounts, the Saudi booth saw significantly more visitors than the Iranian display. Crisis Group interviews, Saudi academic close to government, Riyadh, February 2018; officials at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh is also seeking lower Iraqi tariffs for Saudi Arabian goods.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018. See also “Iraq and Saudi Arabia discuss ways to develop economic and trade relations between the two countries”, Iraq’s Economic Center, 11 February 2018. Hide Footnote

The kingdom additionally appears interested in cross-border road development, petrochemicals, agriculture and infrastructure.[fn]The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, SABIC, announced in December 2017 that it will reopen its Iraq office in order to facilitate investment in the petrochemicals sector. See “Saudi’s SABIC to open office in Iraq as relations improve”, Reuters, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote For now, however, few concrete projects or investment details have emerged.[fn]Iraq and Saudi Arabia have signed at least eighteen energy-related memoranda of understanding, but the details have not been disclosed. “Saudi energy minister witnesses signing 18 MoUs in Iraq”, Saudi Press Agency, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote Both public and private investors are leery of Iraq’s prevalent corruption and red tape. Private companies are concerned that they will not be paid on time, their assets may be seized or reallocated at politicians’ whims, and their operations may suffer from enduring insecurity.[fn]Dubai-based property developer Emaar has expressed interest in a $10 billion real estate development project in Baghdad known as al-Rashid City, but the deal is on hold amid security concerns. Crisis Group interviews, Gulf official, April 2018; Western oil sector consultant, phone, February 2018. See also “Iraq set to sign deal with Emaar, Eagle Hills for huge Baghdad scheme”, Zawya, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote In addition to these concerns, a lack of skilled labour and a lengthy contract review process are deterring investors in the oil sector.[fn]A Western oil sector official said, “Iraq’s pitch to the oil sector is, ‘high risk, high reward’. But for us, it’s been high risk and marginal reward. Around the world, Iraqi oil terms are in the bottom quartile of all contracts”. Crisis Group interview, phone, February 2018. See also Robin Mills and Mohammed Walji, “Muddy Waters: Iraq’s Water Injection Needs”, Iraq Energy Institute, 19 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Strategies to mitigate these concerns include negotiating with the prime minister’s office directly rather than seeking approvals via the ministries, with their lengthy and opaque bureaucratic procedures.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh has a preference for personal over institutional relationships, but to bypass the ministries would run the risk of exacerbating and even instigating corruption among office holders. Pledges at the Kuwait conference offered another route: credit and export guarantees meant to provide the Gulf private sector with insurance for riskier investments. Another model relies on Gulf countries’ sovereign development funds and charities to allocate funding to projects, paying contractors or even carrying out projects directly. An Emirati official explained:

I see this as a new approach to foreign aid, to link it to institutions such as the Abu Dhabi Fund that have their very specific criteria. What it does is to fix the cash problem of corruption. With the Abu Dhabi Fund, the [Iraqi] government provides us with projects, [the Fund] does a technical assessment, and instead of just giving cash, which could disappear, we build relationships with local institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote

No matter their risk-hedging mechanisms, Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies may still struggle to compete with Iran’s economic heft in Iraq, because of Tehran’s head start since 2003 and its willingness to deploy resources swiftly and ask questions later. The electricity sector is an example. Emirati and Saudi companies have both expressed interest in working to improve Iraq’s power systems, and Kuwait is set to start exporting power to Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote But today, when the grid in southern Iraq reaches capacity, Iran has readily filled the gap to meet demand.[fn]“Iraq to start electricity imports from Kuwait: Ministry”, Iraqi News, 21 February 2018.Hide Footnote An Iraqi academic explained the Iranian mentality: “They say: ‘whatever you need, we will give you. We won’t ask a penny. But eventually we will get the money back from you’. They believe Iraq can pay for itself, and that Iran can have the best influence by being the first in the door”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

While the Gulf states may be able to disburse funds as fast, their success in displacing Iranian products may well depend on what financial terms they set in comparison. If Saudi Arabia is intent on entering the Iraqi market quickly, it will almost certainly fuel corruption. But if Riyadh is indeed concerned about graft, it may be unable to compete for contracts and bids when other parties offer kickbacks to Iraqi partners. Without clear terms, Saudi Arabia risks contributing to a cycle of economic predation that has weakened Iraq’s political system.

If Saudi Arabia is intent on entering the Iraqi market quickly, it will almost certainly fuel corruption.

D. Social Outreach

Saudi Arabia faces a complex challenge to rewrite the narrative of its past engagement with Iraq. The kingdom’s history of promoting a particularly arid and intolerant form of Salafi Islam, whose proponents at times cast Shiites as non-Muslims, has planted it firmly in the minds of many Iraqis as synonymous with ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018. See also, “How Muslim sectarianism affects politics and vice-versa”, The Economist, 11 September 2016.Hide Footnote Even if the state does not endorse radical clerics or the expression of their ideas, the longstanding refusal by the kingdom’s clerical establishment to acknowledge Shiite religious practice blurs the distinction for many Iraqis and creates a receptive ideological environment in which extremists can operate. Saudi Arabia’s reticence about supporting the post-Saddam order in Iraq, its discriminatory treatment of its own Shiite population and, indirectly, Bahrain’s, and the ongoing war in Yemen against the Huthi movement, which subscribes to an offshoot of Shiism, have all left deep wounds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018; senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018; former Iraqi diplomat, phone, February 2018. In early 2018, a number of buses in Baghdad carried posters criticising MbS for having inflicted civilian casualties in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. One poster called him a “criminal” (mujrim).Hide Footnote

The kingdom is attempting to repair its image through media engagement, tribal and personal outreach, and direct patronage of Iraqi tribes, communities and individuals.[fn]In February 2018, the first Saudi media delegation to visit Iraq in 28 years met senior officials, including Abadi, Araji and parliamentary speaker, Salim Jabouri. “Media Saudi editors pay landmark visit to Baghdad”, Kuwait News Agency, 23 February 2018. A senior Saudi official relayed the following anecdote: during a recent visit to Shiite tribesmen, he discovered that an Iraqi MP had a medical condition that needed treatment, at a cost of $25,000. The official asked and secured the crown prince’s permission to pay for the MP’s care in India. Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote Semi-governmental organisations in Saudi Arabia and Iraq are also exploring joint cultural festivals, parliamentary exchanges and educational links.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saudi academic close to government, Riyadh, February 2018. See also “Saudi Arabia’s use of soft power in Iraq is making Iran nervous”, The Economist, 8 March 2018.Hide Footnote All of these moves could help dull sceptics’ anger, but they will ultimately do little unless Riyadh fundamentally changes its relationship with Shiite communities across the region, beginning at home.[fn]A former Iraqi diplomat said, “Iraqi Shiites are worried about fellow Shiites in Bahrain, and they view this as clear Saudi domination. Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen will be a persistent concern for us from a humanitarian perspective and also a sign to us that there is not enough maturity in Saudi Arabia to understand that [their approach] is futile and counterproductive”. Crisis Group interview, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote

So far, Saudi Arabia’s greatest success in improving its social standing in Iraq has come through football. In March 2018, the Saudi Arabian national team travelled to Basra for a friendly game with an Iraqi team, the Lions of Mesopotamia. Thousands of spectators waved both countries’ flags in a euphoric atmosphere further amplified on social media.[fn]See, for example, the tweet by “Soccer Iraq”, 2 March 2018, Footnote Days later, King Salman called Abadi and promised to build a new soccer stadium in a yet-to-be-determined location in Iraq. By late March, the Saudi sports minister had helped convince the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA) to lift its ban on Iraq hosting international matches.[fn]“FIFA lifts three-decade ban on Iraq hosting international games”, The National, 18 March 2018; and “President of Iraq football association thanks Turki al-Sheikh for his efforts in lifting ban on Iraqi stadiums”, Saudi Press Agency, 17 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The UAE, similarly, announced in April that it would fund the $50.4 million reconstruction of Mosul’s Grand al-Nouri mosque.[fn]Dubai Media Office, Twitter, 24 April 2018, Footnote More than 800 years old, this place of worship was a defining landmark before ISIS blew up its minaret during its rule. Such gestures could help soften Iraqi antipathy for the kingdom and its Gulf allies, though their impact will depend on timely follow-through, and more importantly on the broader political and economic context in which they take place.

III. The View from Baghdad

Saudi Arabia’s nearly universal welcome in Baghdad comes with a widely shared caveat: do not engage with Iraq in order to counter Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018; senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi foreign ministry official, Baghdad, March 2018; former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; adviser to National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018; senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018; European Union official, Brussels, March 2018.Hide Footnote This reservation illuminates a fundamental mismatch between Iraqi and Saudi motivations for reopening relations. Many Saudis are happy to rebuild ties with Arab cousins – sometimes literally cousins – in Iraq.[fn]The Shammar are the largest tribe with ties to both Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Members live on both sides of the border between the two countries, as well as in Syria and Jordan; they comprise both Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s first two ambassadors to Iraq after 2016 have been members of the Shammar tribe, and both have engaged heavily with Iraq’s Shammar community.Hide Footnote But as a Gulf official put it, “Saudi Arabia today views Iraq as a zero-sum game. They believe Iran is winning”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, April 2018. A former Iraqi security official shared this anecdote to illustrate what he saw as Riyadh’s zero-sum mentality: after the 2003 invasion, then Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz asked him: “We want to know: who is the winner in Iraq?” Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Few in Iraq want to see their country devolve into another Saudi-Iranian battleground. Instead, policymakers now speak of an alternative, if highly aspirational, paradigm. Rather than a flashpoint for conflict, Baghdad could provide a theatre for de-escalation, “to pacify tensions [between] the Saudis and Iran that are putting fire to the region”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi academic close to government, Baghdad, March 2018. Proponents of this approach cite the example of Iranian and U.S. coexistence in Iraq, which developed after those two countries had battled for years.Hide Footnote In principle, Saudi Arabia and Iran could build on shared interests, such as Iraq’s economic recovery, elimination of ISIS, the country’s territorial integrity and even combatting drug smuggling.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018. Some in Iran also believe that “Iraq can be a place to de-escalate tensions in the framework of Iranian-Saudi cooperation on reconstruction of Iraq in the post-ISIS era”. Crisis Group interview, senior official at government-backed, non-profit Iraq reconstruction organisation, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia will have to be cognisant of divergent Iraqi interest groups, as well as Iran’s priorities and red lines.

Such a scenario would require at a minimum a stronger Iraqi state, able to resist regional attempts to use the country’s soil to settle geopolitical scores.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi foreign ministry official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote For now, Iraqi policymakers are prioritising Saudi Arabia’s economic engagement as the least provocative way to reopen ties. Through public and private investment, they say, Saudi Arabia could develop infrastructure, revitalise the housing sector, inject new capital into the oil industry and, ultimately, create jobs. A Sunni parliamentarian put it this way: “Wherever they go, they will find things to do”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

While many priorities are shared across constituencies, Saudi Arabia will have to be cognisant of divergent Iraqi interest groups, as well as Iran’s priorities and red lines. The various perspectives can be roughly divided into five: the federal government, Shiite Iraqi nationalists, the Najaf religious establishment, the Sunni political class and Iran.

A. The Government

Iraqi institutions have oscillated between ambition and pragmatism in their engagement with Saudi Arabia since late 2016. The new bilateral ties have been applauded amid triumphant optics: promises of reconstruction aid and cultural good-will. The Iraqi government needs Riyadh to deliver quick economic benefits to justify reopening ties and to acquire breathing room for dealing with thornier issues. Specifically, if ties are to last, current and former Iraqi officials say they need to be institutionalised rather than depend entirely on high-level personal contacts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Iraqi diplomat, February 2018; senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote This process will be time-consuming and likely fraught with disagreement. “We can’t agree to have big goals” for the relationship initially, said a senior Iraqi official.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In the short to medium term, Iraq’s government needs Gulf states to help finance reconstruction. The U.S., UK and European Union (EU) are unlikely to contribute sufficiently to rebuild destroyed cities, focusing instead on humanitarian priorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU humanitarian official, February 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018. See also Susannah George and Lori Hinnant, “Few ready to pay to rebuild Iraq after Islamic State group defeat”, Associated Press, 28 December 2017.Hide Footnote Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City and Doha are among the only bilateral donors that can credibly provide the resources needed to resuscitate former ISIS areas. Failing to do so risks undermining Abadi and his allies, who have bet their political reputations on delivering reconstruction – or worse, seeing a return of the social and political resentment that facilitated ISIS’s rise in these areas.

Inevitably, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will disagree on major technical issues concerning reconstruction and on broader aspects of their relationship. Immediately after the Kuwait conference, Gulf officials described a host of obstacles to seeing their pledges materialise.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018.Hide Footnote They would like to see stronger guarantees, for example to ensure repayment in case investments default, as well as visible attempts to curb corruption.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018. For more on anti-corruption challenges, see Douglas Ollivant, “The other battle in Iraq”, Lawfare, 11 February 2018.Hide Footnote A Gulf diplomat said, “the Iraqis have unrealistic expectations; these [pledges] are gestures, not commitments. They don’t seem to understand this; they thought checks would be arriving in the mail”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018. Another example of technocratic debate comes from a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal for a “plan of action” on cooperation with Iraq. Proposed in late 2017, the plan was still under consideration in Baghdad as of April 2018. The plan would include mechanisms to convene ministerial-level Iraq-GCC meetings to address disagreements before they escalate or erupt in the media.Hide Footnote

To succeed, the bilateral ties will need to both move big and visibly on the economy while working small and tediously day-to-day.

The May 2018 election results may encourage Gulf investors, however. Sadr’s On the Move electoral bloc, which included the Communists, was the most persistent critic of government corruption in the lead-up to the vote; its victory is telling of the frustration many Iraqis feel with state decay. Prior to the election, Sadrists said their aim was to build an anti-corruption majority bloc in parliament to begin pushing through structural change.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Ahead of the May elections, Sadr wrote: “Your Iraq remains a prisoner of corruption after it has been liberated from occupation and terrorism. So free it by your votes”. Muqtada Sadr’s Twitter account, 9 May 2018, Footnote

Still, Iraqi officials urge an adjustment of investors’ expectations. Iraq cannot wait to rebuild until it has eradicated graft from its contracting system. In order to get projects off the ground, Baghdad will need creative solutions of the sort Riyadh and its allies are already considering.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Put simply, to succeed, the bilateral ties will need to both move big and visibly on the economy while working small and tediously day-to-day.

The federal government’s priorities are unlikely to change significantly under the next prime minister, particularly if the successful coalition excludes Maliki’s State of Law and the PMUs’ Fatah list.[fn]In an initial statement on Twitter after the election results, Sadr expressed interest in working with electoral blocs, including Hakim’s Wisdom Movement and Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya, though not the State of Law or Fatah lists. Muqtada Sadr’s Twitter account, 14 May 2018, Footnote But with either or both of those blocs in opposition, the Saudi-Iraqi relationship could become a bargaining chip in parliamentary politics. Members of Fatah and State of Law are politically close to Tehran, and while still nominally supportive of Saudi investment, their members have been significantly cooler to the prospect of closer ties with Riyadh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, parliamentary candidate on Maliki’s list, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Analysts close to Maliki expect that his list can resist Saudi engagement in alliance with Fatah.[fn]The means of resistance could include the PMUs holding a tighter grip on Sunni Arab areas in which they are deployed or singling out Shiite politicians who have engaged with Saudi Arabia, either in the media or with personal security threats. Crisis Group interview, Iraqi journalist close to Maliki, phone and email correspondence, March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Shiite Politicians Seeking Regional Balance

Shiite leaders who favour re-engagement and call themselves nationalists view part of their role as demonstrating to Riyadh that their constituents favour their Arab, national and even tribal identities over their sectarian affiliation. A Sadrist MP said: “To their amazement, the [Saudis] found that Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, that they do not follow velayat-e faqih and that they want to build a modern civic state”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote With this understanding, some urge Saudi Arabia to embrace not only Iraqi Shiites but also Shiism generally as a legitimate school of Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018; adviser to the National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Even the most elementary steps toward recognition could improve Saudi Arabia’s relations with Shiites across Iraq and the region.

Pro-engagement Shiite politicians would also like to see a more nuanced policy toward the PMUs, which Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain see as an Iranian front and a threat to their own security.[fn]PMUs have reportedly been active near the border crossing at Arar, which may be an attempt to levy fees on increased economic activity. For example, these groups have facilitated pilgrims’ movement through Arar for the hajj. See “العطية: الحشد اسند القوات الأمنية في تأمين عرعر ويؤكد خفض الأسعار امام الحجاج, Alghad Press, 11 August 2017. Bahrain also has domestic concerns. A Bahraini government spokesperson wrote: “Numerous suspects received training in Iraq from terrorist organisations in an aim to commit terrorist acts in Bahrain. Many of them are still in Iraq. We are in constant contact with the Iraqi government, and we have found them to be very supportive and understanding of our concerns in this regard”. Crisis Group correspondence, March 2018. Conflict Armament Research reported in March 2018 that it had found forensic links between Iranian components of explosively formed projectiles and improvised explosive devices used in Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq. “Radio-controlled, passive infrared-initiated IEDs: Iran’s latest technological contributions to the war in Yemen”, Conflict Armament Research, 26 March 2018.Hide Footnote A UAE official said: “As of now, the whole Hashd al-Shaabi is a red line for us. … They are one group”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote Many Iraqis are offended by criticism of these forces, which took some of the heaviest casualties fighting ISIS and not all of which are close to Iran. An Iraqi security analyst said: “When the Hashd started facing ISIS in battle, the Saudi media started name-calling against them. But the Hashd were our last resort. We would consider any entity that talks about them negatively an enemy. The Saudis need to understand this”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Although the PMUs have been linked to abuses and other misconduct, including sectarian discrimination, they were also invaluable in defeating ISIS and holding territory ever since. Shiite communities have suffered thousands of losses, such that nearly every street corner of Najaf features photos of neighbourhood martyrs. A senior Shiite cleric described the situation this way:

Without the Hashd, ISIS would have invaded [all of Iraq]. I would encourage the Saudi government to hold a ceremony for the Iraqi people – Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, all – because they defeated ISIS on behalf of the whole world. I am not saying all the Hashd are good. There are more than 150,000 of them. Some we cannot control; some have made bad mistakes. Is it fair to look at just the 5 per cent who did bad things rather than the 95 per cent who did good?[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Shiite nationalists urge Riyadh and its Gulf allies to show patience in their wish to see these groups demobilised. Iraq’s next government may assume the difficult task of integrating the PMUs into formal security institutions while managing the risks and autonomy that pro-Iran brigades wield on the ground.[fn]A prime ministerial decree issued 8 March 2018 granted PMU fighters pay and benefits from the defence ministry. “رئيس مجلس الوزراء القائد العام للقوات المسلحة الدكتور حيدر العبادي يصدر ضوابط تكييف اوضاع مقاتلي الحشد الشعبي”, Iraqi prime minister’s office, 8 March 2018.Hide Footnote Some warn that certain unwelcome practical concessions may be inevitable, for example offering service or security contracts to the PMUs as part of large infrastructure development projects to both create jobs for fighters and prevent them from targeting these very endeavours.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018; oil industry analyst, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Iraqi government will almost certainly have to devote a larger portion of its budget to paying PMUs and former PMU fighters’ salaries than it would like. But releasing trained, armed men into civilian life without an economic outlet has failed more than once before in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018. Previously, disbanded armed groups have contributed to a cycle of resentment and instability. The list includes the entire Iraqi army, which the U.S. dismantled in 2003 without extending pension benefits; and the tribal Awakening Councils (or Sons of Iraq) established to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008, which the U.S. had promised salaries, which the Maliki government then mostly failed to pay.Hide Footnote As unsavoury as these options appear in Gulf capitals, policymakers there should resist the urge to make maximalist demands or give up on Iraq altogether.

C. Najaf

Najaf has a particularly delicate role in the Saudi-Iraqi relationship. Riyadh sees the Shiite clerical leadership (marjaiya) there as a counterweight to Iranian influence. As a religious leader, Sistani has been a critic of velayat-e faqih. He also has favoured an independent Iraq that can stand on its own, unbound by Iranian or other foreign power.

Many members of the Najaf religious establishment would embrace renewed ties with Saudi Arabia, including as a way to de-escalate regional sectarian tensions.[fn]A senior official at the Iraq reconstruction organisation in Tehran said, “some Shiite leaders like Ayatollah Sistani welcome de-escalating measures, as they believe this would be beneficial for decreasing sectarianism and the Shiite-Sunni dispute”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Ayatollah Sistani himself reportedly maintains a back channel for communication with Riyadh.[fn]Erika Solomon, “Sunni Saudi Arabia courts an ally in Iraq’s Shia”, Financial Times, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote But the marjaiya would equally resist any Saudi attempt to politicise Najaf or place it in competition with Iran. A senior cleric said: “Our message to Saudi Arabia is: ‘We won’t be wooed into this fight …. We say the same thing to Iran’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote Positive responses by Shiite clerics to a proposed Saudi consulate in Najaf are telling of the religious leadership’s insistence on remaining above politics and geopolitical feuds. The planned consulate would primarily serve Shiites, and it has been welcomed by many in Najaf. According to a source close to the clerical elite, “after [Saudi Arabia] indicated they wanted to open a consulate, the Iranian ambassador sent word to one of the grand ayatollahs that this is unacceptable. The cleric turned around and said, ‘Isn’t there a Saudi consulate in Mashhad [Iran]?’”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to Najaf, February 2018.Hide Footnote

It may be difficult for Riyadh to properly calibrate its engagement with Najaf – to walk the line between appropriate indications of support and excessive politicisation.

Shiite leaders close to the marja (religious reference) share their political colleagues’ support for Saudi steps toward acknowledging and better understanding Shiite religious practice. One cleric suggested that Saudi Arabia’s Sunni clergy expand its written scholarship on Shiite jurisprudence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018. A senior cleric said, “we agree to building a good relationship slowly, step by step. We have a long bad history, so we need to move slowly”. Crisis Group interview, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote Najaf would particularly applaud any Saudi efforts to limit anti-Shiite rhetoric among Sunni clerics with television or social media platforms.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Intolerant speech on Saudi television networks leaves a poisonous aftertaste, giving the impression that the kingdom subscribes to a sectarian interpretation of Iraqi society that Iraqis themselves resist. Shiite clerics suggest that, as host to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia could also open up more pilgrimage slots for Iraqi Shiites.[fn]By some accounts, the kingdom has already eased its limitations on Shiite rituals during the hajj in recent years. Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

It may be difficult for Riyadh to properly calibrate its engagement with Najaf – to walk the line between appropriate indications of support and excessive politicisation. Simple, non-confessional gestures may prove best in the short term. As in the rest of Iraq, Najaf sees Saudi economic engagement as vital to rebuilding trust.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote The senior cleric said: “We hope [the Saudis] will open many places here – academic institutions, education, business. … Help the Iraqi people recover from the mistakes of others. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and don’t make us choose sides”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote

A sign welcomes visitors to Najaf. This center of Shiite religious scholarship has seen an economic boom in recent years, amid better security and the opening of a new international airport. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

D. Sunni Arab Leaders

Some Sunni Arab leaders feel they are being overlooked in the renewed outreach from Riyadh. Sunni Arabs expect Gulf states to support post-ISIS reconstruction of their cities, and many Shiite policymakers agree.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Many Iraqi Shiite politicians hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the rise of ISIS through its longstanding promotion of Salafi Sunni Islam. They argue Riyadh should take responsibility for its alleged role by rebuilding areas destroyed in the fight against ISIS. Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote So far, however, the vast majority of investor interest has been in the Shiite-dominated south, the location of Iraq’s main oilfields, where the Iraqi National Investment Commission is seeking to direct the bulk of foreign investment in oil, gas and petrochemicals.[fn]“Iraq Investment Map 2017”, National Investment Commission, 2017. The U.S. is also concerned about the lack of regional distribution in reconstruction pledges. A defence official said, “different parts of the U.S. government were excited about what came out [of the Kuwait reconstruction conference], but we also recognised that a lot of the investment and proposals were for areas that were not actually affected [by conflict]. There are a lot of proposals for Shia areas, very few for Sunni areas, almost none for Kurdish areas”. Crisis Group interview, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote “Let the Gulf states forget about Sunni politicians, but let them not forget our areas”, a Sunni Arab parliamentarian said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In fact, some Gulf countries have quietly supported and financed Sunni Arab politicians in Iraq for many years – to debatable effect.[fn]The same phenomenon took place before the 2010 parliamentary elections, when Qatar and Turkey funded a nominally non-sectarian list headed by Iyad Allawi.Hide Footnote From at least 2017 onward, several Gulf countries and Turkey were involved in hosting events aimed at uniting Sunni Arab political leaders ahead of Iraq’s 2018 elections.[fn]See, for example, “مصدر لـ”الخليج أونلاين”: تشكيل تحالف عراقي “سني” جديد”, Al-Khaleej, 9 March 2017.Hide Footnote But each country’s support aligns with its respective interests and political preferences.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official, February 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Reflecting a broader geopolitical split in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the UAE tend to favour secular coalitions and co-tribesmen (such as the Shammar), while Qatar and Turkey have generally supported Sunni Islamists.[fn]The UAE denies funding individuals, though some politicians enjoy visibility in UAE-aligned media outlets. Crisis Group interview, Gulf official, April 2018.Hide Footnote A senior UAE official said:

A more secular Iraq is a better Iraq. We don’t want a Shiite or Sunni Iraq. … [Nationalists] is who we support. We will definitely not support, on the Shiite side, those who are pro-Iranian, and on the Sunni side, those who are pro-Islamist.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018. Both at home and abroad, the UAE is opposed to political Islamists, viewing their ideology as a gateway to extremist views.Hide Footnote

External patrons have at times channelled funding through Iraqi exiles and businessmen with their own agendas or without a clear constituency on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote “They put all their money on political figures to give life to dead horses”, an Iraqi official said. “This is not a good investment and it won’t help Iraq”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Asking Gulf countries to stop their political patronage of nationalist leaders and Sunni Arabs more broadly is unrealistic and could even undermine their ability to compete politically, as Iran also funds preferred candidates across ethnic and confessional lines.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote There is also no law on the books prohibiting foreign campaign finance.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies official, April 2018.Hide Footnote

The targeting of patronage may be improved, however, to support Iraq-based politicians with proven track records of delivering services to their constituents. Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf patrons could shift their financial focus toward improving local economic conditions, for example financing projects in the seven provinces the government has prioritised for reconstruction. In their engagement with Shiite politicians, Saudi Arabia could also push for some specific Sunni Arab demands, such as the withdrawal of PMUs from towns and neighbourhoods now that the military dimension of the fight against ISIS is more or less in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Saudi leaders took some steps in this direction in conversations with Sadr. By one account of the cleric’s visit to Riyadh in August 2017, “Saudi officials said they were worried about the future of Sunnis in Iraq and the permanence of the Hashd al-Shaabi. Sadr told them, ‘Sunnis are our brothers and we will protect them if there is any danger their well-being will be threatened’”. Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

A failure by Saudi Arabia to sufficiently engage in Sunni Arab areas could, in a plot twist, encourage these communities to turn to Iran for both economic aid and help in managing their relationship with the PMUs. A Qods force strategist said that Iran has begun improving relations with Sunni Arab groups and “can play a mediatory role [between Sunni and Shiite politicians], as it did in uniting some anti-Daesh [ISIS] Shiite and Sunni groups now equipped and mobilised in the framework of the Hashd al-Shaabi”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qods force strategist, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

E. Iran’s Response

Some parts of the Iranian government appear interested in the opportunity for Iraq to serve as a theatre of de-escalation.

Iran’s reaction to Saudi engagement is the topic of intense speculation in Baghdad political circles. Some see common interests. Iran may need to devote less blood and treasure to supporting Iraq if Saudi Arabia contributes economically.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Others warn that Iran-allied politicians and militias are planning to embarrass, politically disrupt or even attack Saudi interests in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, Iraqi journalist, March 2018. One taste of the possible disruption tactics came in late March 2018, when several hundred people protested in Baghdad against a rumoured visit by the Saudi crown prince to Iraq. The Saudi foreign ministry quickly issued a statement denying any plans for a visit. Emailed statement, Saudi Arabia Center for International Communication, 31 March 2018.Hide Footnote What is clear is that Tehran is watching Riyadh’s moves closely. An Iraqi academic close to Najaf noted, “by definition, if the Saudis are serious, we can’t expect a win-win for all. The Iranians are going to be very anxious about what that means for their influence and presence”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, February 2018.Hide Footnote

At least some parts of the Iranian government appear interested in the opportunity for Iraq to serve as a theatre of de-escalation, if it aligns with trends toward conciliation between Tehran and Riyadh – and by extension Washington – elsewhere in the region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official at Iraq reconstruction organisation, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Yet even among those in Tehran who hope for better relations expect the opposite, because they believe Riyadh “started this process only because they want to defeat Iran”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Middle East analyst, President Hassan Rouhani’s office, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Iranian officials across government downplay the Saudi role as limited and nothing to fear, particularly in weakening Iran’s influence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qods force strategist, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Iran, they say, has better trade ties, deeper penetration of the security sector and more political clout across a far broader array of actors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior diplomat, Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Tehran, March 2018. A U.S. defence official described the Iranian strategy as being “to spread the money as widely as they can”. Crisis Group interview, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote To the extent that Tehran sees Riyadh engaging with Shiite politicians, Iranian policymakers see an affirmation of just how much power the Shiite political class has consolidated – with their help.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Middle East analyst, President Rouhani’s office, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote A senior Iranian foreign ministry official said, “it is good for Iran that Saudi Arabia has decided to deal with the central government in Baghdad. Their opening a consulate in Najaf means they are recognising Najaf”.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Based on the pattern so far, Riyadh can expect a continuation of low-level harassment from Iran-allied groups in Iraq in the coming months. This could manifest itself in the anti-Saudi campaign in Iranian and allied Iraqi media outlets and PMU posturing along the Saudi Arabian border. Perceived Saudi oversteps – reaching too deeply or directly into the security establishment, which Iran has effectively penetrated but does not control – could trigger a stronger reaction.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote That pushback could include protests or threats against Saudi companies or businessmen.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, Iraqi journalist, March 2018.Hide Footnote Tehran or pro-Iranian groups could also attempt to undermine some of the Shiite politicians who have engaged with Riyadh and been critical of Iran, as has already happened. After Sadr visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, several Iranian media outlets described the cleric as a pawn in a Saudi plan to split Iraq’s Shiites.[fn]A senior official at the Iraq reconstruction organisation in Tehran said, “the Shiite groups that seek better relations with Saudi Arabia, like Moqtada al-Sadr, are not the main influential Shiite groups in Iraq”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018. See also, “اهداف و زوایای سفر مقتدا صدر به عربستان”, Mehr News Agency, 1 August 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, an Iraqi official suggested that Iran may attempt to “buy back” certain politicians being courted by Riyadh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi escalations of the war in Yemen, or in Bahrain, Syria or Lebanon, could reverberate in Iraq, where Iran has an ample supply of allies to call upon.

Gulf countries will need to have thick skins to resist withdrawing or taking rash or counterproductive steps if they face media broadsides or political setbacks in the months ahead.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE senior official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote They will need patience, a tolerance for risk and criticism, and restraint – for example, understanding that PMU behaviour is at times linked to local political disputes, not only to Tehran’s druthers.

External developments, however, may prove pivotal in determining whether a Saudi-Iranian balance is possible. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, announced on 8 May, could provoke Tehran to attack Gulf or U.S. interests in the region more directly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Abu Dhabi, April 2018.Hide Footnote Several Iranian officials attributed Riyadh’s Iraq strategy to Washington, raising concerns that an escalation in Saudi-Iranian tensions could present a risk to U.S. forces on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Qods force strategist, Tehran, March 2018; Middle East analyst, President Rouhani’s office, Tehran, March 2018; U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote The Iranian response will also depend on Saudi Arabia’s actions elsewhere in the region. Saudi escalations of the war in Yemen, or in Bahrain, Syria or Lebanon, could reverberate in Iraq, where Iran has an ample supply of allies to call upon.

IV. A Saudi-Iraqi Reset

Restarting a relationship after a quarter-century’s break will entail compromises on both sides. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies need to understand Iraq’s fragility and the urgency of stabilising it politically and economically, not weakening it further by turning it into a ring for sparring with Iran. Iraq, for its part, should take seriously Gulf concerns about corruption and security and find ways to address the most pointed issues to enable reconstruction. The following three areas merit special attention:

Facilitating Rapid Progress on Reconstruction

Riyadh and its allies will need to play the long game in Iraq and therefore may have to tolerate low or negative returns on investment in the early years. Gulf governments or public finance institutions can help make investments more attractive to the private sector, as they have begun to do with credit and export guarantees.

Saudi Arabia could also consider sending liaisons from its chambers of commerce to work in its embassy and consulates in Iraq and facilitate contacts and paperwork.[fn]Crisis Group interview, consultant to oil sector, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote Gulf countries could offer assistance to Iraq’s efforts to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Membership would reduce some of the uncertainty concerning regulations and dispute resolution that currently deters trading partners.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018. Iraq indicated its intent to restart accession talks with the WTO in November 2017.Hide Footnote More peripherally, Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE and Qatar, could loosen visa access for Iraqis seeking work or medical care, as well as for students.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi investor, February 2018; senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018; Iraqi security researcher, Baghdad, March 2018. A Qods force strategist claimed that 100,000 Iraqis travel to Iran for medical treatment each year. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In supporting reconstruction, Riyadh should use its expanding political network to give a boost to state institutions. Many communities in need of post-ISIS reconstruction remain deeply distrustful of the government’s will and ability to rebuild their areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018; and Western security official, March 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia could carry out projects in coordination with the Iraqi government, jointly branded with the kingdom’s signage. Doing so could enhance the credibility of both Saudi allies and the government.

For its part, Iraq needs to better prioritise reconstruction projects that create jobs or restore services. Some of the potential projects advertised at the Kuwait conference – such as urban metro systems – struck investors as vanity projects.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018; former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Agricultural rehabilitation, job-creating construction, housing and vital service infrastructure are better fits – and would distribute investment across Iraq’s regions.[fn]“Major Strategic Large and Medium-Sized Projects Available for Investment According to Sector”, Iraq National Investment Commission, February 2018.Hide Footnote Once projects and investors are identified, the Iraqi National Investment Commission should aim to accelerate paperwork, calling upon political leaders to lean on the bureaucracy if necessary. As is already the case, the Iraqi government should be willing to find financing arrangements that avoid injecting cash into state coffers. As an Iraqi academic put it: “Iraqis don’t want cash anymore – the model we prefer is: ‘you implement it’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Improving Saudi Arabia’s Relationship with Shiite Communities

Riyadh can knock down the single greatest public opinion barrier to its engagement with Iraq by taking concrete measures to unravel its historical denial of the legitimacy of Shiite theology and rituals. The Saudi royal family has traditionally left Islamic jurisprudence in the hands of the state-sanctioned Council of Senior Religious Scholars. Without weighing in on theology, the Saudi government could prohibit defamatory language in weekly sermons and online materials, while reviewing curriculum and other state documents for offensive material.[fn]The Council of Senior Religious Scholars and associated clerics have issued fatwas and rulings denouncing Shiite practices and customs; an anti-Shiite bias persists in school curriculums and popular conversations. “They Are Not our Brothers: Hate Speech by Saudi officials”, Human Rights Watch, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote The kingdom could legislate stronger policies against sectarian labour discrimination, criminalise disparagement of Shiites in the education system, and ensure that its own ministries and agencies deliver services equally to Shiite communities.[fn]“International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Saudi Arabia”, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2017.Hide Footnote These are major steps, but they will be necessary if the kingdom is truly intent on bettering its relationship with Shiites across the region. Some in Iran are also optimistic about this potential. A senior foreign ministry official said, “the results of the reform inside Saudi Arabia will be good for Iran, because it will reduce sectarian conflict”.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Changing entrenched Saudi Arabian biases against Shiites will take time, but signals from the leadership about what is and is not acceptable in the discourse will help.

A still stronger political move would be for Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World League, the kingdom’s global vehicle for propagating Islam, to signal alignment with the decisions of the pre-eminent Sunni scholarly centre, al-Azhar in Cairo, which recognises the Jaafari (Shiite) school of Islamic law taught in Najaf.[fn]While there has been some dissent among al-Azhar scholars, the school maintains its 1959 fatwa recognising the legitimacy of Jaafari interpretations. See “Al-Azhar verdict on the Shia”, Footnote The Saudi leadership could also speak publicly about tolerance for Shiite religious practice, as they have begun to do already.[fn]MbS said of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites: “All of us are Muslim, all of us speak Arabic, we all have the same culture and the same interest .… [W]e believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects”. Quoted in Jeffrey Goldberg, “Saudi crown prince: Iran’s supreme leader ‘makes Hitler look good’”, The Atlantic, 2 April 2018. This positive sentiment could, however, prove counterproductive if anti-Shiite rhetoric is simply repackaged as anti-Persian discourse that directs the same prejudices toward a new target.
 Hide Footnote
Changing entrenched Saudi Arabian biases against Shiites will take time, but signals from the leadership about what is and is not acceptable in the discourse will help.

Sadr’s visit to the Gulf offered additional ideas for the Iraqi context: Saudi Arabia could invest economically in Shiite communities and engage Shiite tribes who live on both sides of the Saudi-Iraqi border. As a sign of respect to Shiites in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom could rebuild the four tombs of the Shiite imams of al-Baqi’ in Medina; the kingdom demolished these tombs, which Shiite practitioners consider holy, in 1926.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Rebuilding these religious sites would be symbolically significant because past Sunni critiques of Shiite practice focus on its supposedly excessive veneration of descendants of the Prophet. A Saudi gesture toward rehabilitation of the shrines would thus be a sign of respect for Shiite rituals.Hide Footnote Numerous Iraqi interlocutors suggested that Saudi Arabia should avoid building Salafi mosques in Iraq. Shiites are highly sensitive to any indication the kingdom might encourage extremism and intolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote An Iraqi academic close to Najaf’s clerical elite said, “let them build schools in Sunni areas, be present in the Sunni areas, so long as they are sensitive about it”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote

Keeping Iraq Out of Saudi-Iranian Regional Competition

Iraq could become a de-escalation zone in Saudi-Iranian tensions. But, at a minimum, it would require its politicians and officials to proactively identify shared interests between Riyadh and Tehran and encourage both sides to move toward convergence. Some Saudi and Iranian officials are already seeing common ground, including in boosting the Iraqi economy, preventing the re-emergence of ISIS, maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and reducing sectarian conflict.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Saudi official, May 2018; Iranian foreign ministry senior official, May 2018.Hide Footnote Oil policy could also help build trust, as all three countries would prefer a higher medium-term market price.

Whether Iran and Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to actively cooperate on these and other areas of potential alignment remains to be seen, but both would stand to gain. Riyadh and Tehran are now bogged down in costly regional engagements that distract the governments from domestic priorities. None of those conflicts, or the sectarian stories grafted upon them, will be resolved without a détente between these regional giants. “We are trying to put away the sectarian conflict”, a senior Saudi official said of the kingdom’s regional goals.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote A strategist in President Hassan Rouhani’s office said, “Iran also wants to decrease tensions and revive its ties with Arab countries. Iraqi-Saudi relations would be helpful to Iran’s efforts for this purpose”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Simple first steps could include a joint statement or op-ed by Saudi and Iranian scholars or policymakers, indicating a shared commitment to Iraq’s future.

Still, for now, the potential for conflict is greater than the prospect of better ties. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq will all need to remain vigilant to managing Saudi-Iranian tensions. Particularly with Shiite religious engagement, Saudi Arabia risks provoking an Iranian reaction if it oversteps or politicises the question of the marjaiya, for example attempting to force a rift between clerics in Najaf and Iran.[fn]An Iranian Qods force strategist said, “Iran’s first priority is to maintain its social ties with Shiite communities, marjaiya and clerics in Iraq who cannot be easily influenced by people like Sadr and Hakim. Currently, the economy of Shiite cities with holy sites is greatly entangled with 4,500,000 Iranian pilgrims who visit Iraq every year”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Najaf is keenly aware of this dilemma and Riyadh should take cues from there about how best to engage on the religious front. Making clear that the invitation is on the table, for example, Riyadh could leave the time and place for any public (or private) meetings with clerics in the hands of the marjaiya. As they have avoided doing so far, Saudi leaders should not mention Ayatollah Sistani in public discussions of politics. Riyadh should take care not to put religious figures – or any Iraqis for that matter – in the position of being asked to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran as social, cultural or economic partners.

V. Conclusion

Given the host of challenges ahead, some analysts and politicians who welcome Riyadh’s return to Baghdad nonetheless fear the improvement in Iraqi-Saudi relations will not last. Leaders in both countries should be steadfast.

Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to construct a long-term policy toward Iraq that has deep social roots and buy-in. Supporting cross-confessional Iraqi political trends can offer the kingdom a new model of how to boost its influence and shore up regional stability. Whereas in Yemen Saudi Arabia played to Iran’s strengths (namely, its ability to work effectively in situations of state failure, in cooperation with non-state actors who are fighting Riyadh), in Iraq it is showing an ability to function through political and economic channels, where it possesses its own comparative advantage. For Iraq, too, there are important potential benefits: by balancing Saudi and Iranian influence, it can gain from the support of both without alienating either.[fn]A senior Iranian diplomat said, “Iran has come to the understanding that Sunnis are irrevocable parts of Iraq’s politics and thus Iran should try to keep a good relationship with moderate [Arab] Sunnis as it had done with [Sunni] Kurds. This is exactly the policy that Saudi Arabia tends to follow with regard to Shiites”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In turn, stability in Iraq could have knock-on effects for regional conflicts around its borders, most notably in Syria. A stronger, physically and institutionally rebuilt Iraq would be more resilient against a re-emerging ISIS (or any future iteration). Better relations between Saudi Arabia and Shiite communities likewise could help roll back sectarian polarisation across the region, including in the kingdom itself.

Perhaps the best way to ensure that all sides stay the course is for Iraqis and Saudis to make political, social, economic and cultural investments that engender a dynamic of interdependency between their countries. If, for example, Saudi companies invest in Iraq, and Iraqi consumers come to depend on Saudi goods, the bilateral relationship would be far more sustainable, even in the face of political disputes.

The Iraqi ideal of becoming a bridge between regional powers may be years or decades off, but this optimistic moment is a chance to lay the foundation stones. Riyadh can help, and it should have an interest in doing so.

Riyadh/Baghdad/Brussels, 22 May 2018

Appendix A: Saudi Arabia's Investment in Iraq

Saudi Arabia's Investment in Iraq International Crisis Group

Appendix B: Damage and Total Reconstruction Needs per Sector

Damage and Total Reconstruction Needs per Sector Iraq, Reconstruction and Investment: Damage and Needs Assessment of Affected Governorates, Government of Iraq and the World Bank Group
Damage and Total Reconstruction Needs per Sector Iraq, Reconstruction and Investment: Damage and Needs Assessment of Affected Governorates, Government of Iraq and the World Bank Group
Yazidis visit a cemetery during a commemoration to mark three years since Islamic State launched what the United Nations said was a genocidal campaign against them, in Sinjar region, on Iraq 3 August 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
Report 183 / Middle East & North Africa

Winning the Post-ISIS Battle for Iraq in Sinjar

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.

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What’s new? The Islamic State (ISIS) is defeated in Iraq, and its genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in Sinjar has ended. But Iran-backed Shiite militias – Popular Mobilisation Units – now control the district. Much of Sinjar’s mostly Yazidi population and its administration remains displaced. Trade is at a trickle and reconstruction has stalled.

Why did it happen?  Close to war-torn Syria, Sinjar is vulnerable to external intervention. Since 2003, a succession of outside forces has wrestled to control it – the Iraqi state, ISIS, the two main Kurdish parties of Iraq, Shiite militias, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates active in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Why does it matter? Sinjar needs political and economic reconstruction if the displaced are to return to their homes. Yet Baghdad’s weakness may compel it to channel reconstruction funds through the Shiite militias and Yazidi proxies. In Sinjar, as in other disputed territories, this move would entrench non-state groups, compromise the Iraqi state, and perhaps hinder reconstruction and return.

What should be done? Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government should seek to offset militias’ influence by winning over and empowering other local partners. Iraq’s National Reconciliation Commission should reach out to skilled administrators from Sinjar, regardless of political affiliation, to reconnect the power supply, restore health services, reopen schools and launch reconstruction.

Executive Summary

Seized by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in August 2014, Sinjar, a majority-Yazidi district on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, has been the scene of tragedy: a genocidal campaign of killings, rape, abductions and enslavement, and the surviving community’s exodus to safer-ground camps in the adjacent Kurdish region. Incremental efforts to drive ISIS out of Sinjar, starting in November 2015, have brought peace but no political or economic recovery. The district’s occupation by a succession of Iraqi and non-Iraqi sub-state actors has militarised the population, fragmented the elites and prevented the return of the displaced. Only the effective re-entry of the Iraqi state, mediating between factions and reinstating local governance, can fully stabilise Sinjar, lay the ground-work for reconstruction, allow the displaced to return and end foreign interference.

The problems in Sinjar have their origin in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. Dysfunctional governance and sectarian strife reduced the role of both the federal government and the administration of Ninewa governorate, in which Sinjar is located, to a symbolic one. Real power was exercised by the party that took advantage of the administrative and security vacuum, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP co-opted local elites to perform the routine tasks of rule. Yet it won little popularity. It treated the Yazidis, a distinct ethno-religious minority group, as Kurds, which many resent, and as second-class Kurds at that – which they resent even more. Moreover, it barely disguised its ambition, opposed by many Yazidis, to annex Sinjar to the Kurdish region.

The KDP made itself still more unpopular by withdrawing its forces from Sinjar ahead of the ISIS assault, leaving the population to the jihadists’ mercy. Affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerrilla movement in Turkey, stepped into the breach, rescuing ISIS’s surviving Yazidi victims with the help of U.S. airpower and, over time, pushing back ISIS without, however, restoring local government. These groups then ruled parts of Sinjar, with the KDP controlling others, each recruiting local fighters into their rival militias but neglecting to serve the interests of the Sinjar population, most of whom remained displaced. The standoff between the PKK affiliates and the Turkey-backed KDP kept the area contested and unsafe.

As long as the Iraqi government remains weak, Sinjar will be fought over by external forces because of its strategic location.

The escalating U.S.-supported battle against ISIS in 2017 saw the return of Iraqi state security forces to northern Iraq, accompanied by Iran-backed Shiite militias, the Hashd al-Shaabi, known in English as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). First, they defeated ISIS in Mosul, and then, in mid-October, following an independence referendum organised by the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) that backfired, the PMUs went further. Supported by the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, encouraged by Iran and given a green light by Turkey, they drove the KDP out of Sinjar and marginalised the PKK affiliates – Turkey’s target. (Turkey, along with the U.S. and the European Union, designates the PKK as a terrorist organisation.) The skeletal, KDP-leaning district council and administrative bodies, mainly composed of Yazidis, fled to the Iraqi Kurdish region, joining their Yazidi constituents. Rather than jumpstarting reconstruction and governance, PMU rule since October 2017 has further dispersed the Yazidi community.

As long as the Iraqi government remains weak, Sinjar will be fought over by external forces because of its strategic location close to the borders with Syria and Turkey. ISIS’s military defeat now provides an opportunity for the Abadi government, keen to regain sovereignty over all of Iraq ahead of national elections in May 2018, to set things right. Abadi should incorporate fighters of competing militias into a unified police force and restore governance via administrative institutions that open their doors to skilled local personnel regardless of which outside actor they aligned themselves with in the recent past.

Whether Abadi is capable of such an approach is an open question. The problems in Sinjar reflect the broader challenge of demobilising militias and integrating their fighters into state security forces, lest they undermine central authority and prevent the emergence of functioning state institutions. What happens in Sinjar may thus point to the prime minister’s political fate and the country’s general direction. One potent enemy may have been defeated, but the battle for Iraq’s political soul is far from over.

Beirut/Brussels, 20 February 2018

I. Introduction: Sinjar’s Disputed Status

Located some 50km from Iraq’s border with Syria, directly south of the Kurdish governorate of Dohuk and 120km west of the city of Mosul, the town of Sinjar, which Kurds call Shengal, sits on both a geographic crossroads and a political fault line. The town and the surrounding district of the same name belong to Ninewa governorate, of which Mosul is the capital, and are part of what the 2005 Iraqi constitution refers to as disputed territories: fourteen administrative districts spread over four governorates nominally under central state control but claimed by the Kurdish region. The status of these territories remains unresolved, but from 2003 until mid-2014 the peshmerga and security forces of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties exercised de facto control, including in disputed districts of Ninewa governorate, after the U.S. dismantled the Iraqi army and faced growing insurgency.[fn]The Kurdistan region has yet to adopt a constitution, but drafts that have circulated place the following Ninewa districts inside the Kurdistan region: Aqri, Sheikhan, Sinjar, Tel Afar, Tel Kayf and Qaraqosh (also known as Hamdaniya), as well as Bashiqa sub-district (part of Mosul district). For background on the disputed territories in Ninewa, see Crisis Group Middle East & North Africa Report N°90, Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa, 28 September 2009. In the course of fighting ISIS, Kurdish forces deployed to all these areas except Tel Afar. See Crisis Group Middle East & North Africa Report N°158, Arming Iraq’s Kurds, Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict, 12 May 2015.Hide Footnote

Sinjar’s disputed status and strategic proximity to the borders with Syria and Turkey turned it into an arena for competing interests, vulnerable to outside meddling and attacks. In August 2014, as fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) advanced into the area, peshmerga forces of the locally dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) withdrew pre-emptively, abandoning the local population.[fn]A senior Kurdistan regional government official referred to the episode as shameful for his party, the KDP. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 16 March 2017.Hide Footnote Most people in Sinjar are Yazidis, an ethno-religious community deemed heretics by ISIS followers.[fn]Yazidis are indigenous to northern Mesopotamia. Most, a population estimated at 500,000-650,000, live in Iraq, centred on Sinjar, Sheikhan, Tel Kayf and Bashiqa; some live in northern Syria; many others are scattered throughout the diaspora. Though Kurdish-speaking, they do not necessarily self-identify as Kurds. See Birgül Açikyildiz, The Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion (London, 2014).Hide Footnote The jihadists, many of whom were local Sunni Arabs who had long lived peacefully with their Yazidi neighbours, launched a campaign of killings, kidnappings and forced conversions of the Yazidis, taking women and girls as sex slaves.[fn]The UN has described ISIS’s atrocities in Sinjar as genocide. “‘They Came to Destroy’: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis”, UN Human Rights Council, 15 June 2016: See also “A Call for Accountability and Protection: Yezidi Survivors of Atrocities Committed by ISIL”, UN Assistance Mission for Iraq/Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, August 2016.Hide Footnote

Survivors fled inside Sinjar mountain, the massive rock formation that rises from the desert floor and both defines and divides the district geographically. From there they escaped westward into Syria through a corridor opened and protected by fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as U.S. airpower.[fn]For an analysis of the YPG’s role in northern Syria, see Crisis Group Middle East & North Africa Report N°176, The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote They subsequently re-entered Iraq through the KDP-controlled Samalka/Faysh Khabour border crossing, settling in camps for the internally displaced in Dohuk governorate.[fn]An estimated 180,000 were settled in these camps. “Sinjar After ISIS: Returning to Disputed Territory”, PAX, June 2016, p. 14. The real number of displaced could be much higher. See “Contamination and Damage Assessment: Province of Mosul”, Reliefweb, November 2016, Footnote

In late 2015, the KDP and, separately, fighters affiliated with the PKK wrested the area north of Sinjar mountain as well as the town itself from ISIS’s control. But they then turned on each other in a tense standoff that ensured that no Yazidis could return home. Two years later, a combination of Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs, the Hashd al-Shaabi), defeated ISIS remnants and subsequently drove KDP fighters out of the district. Afterward the PMUs used the area to advance their own (and Iran’s) interests, further dividing those Yazidis who remained by co-opting some and shunning others; this situation has served as yet another deterrent to the return of the displaced.[fn]Among Ninewa’s districts, Sinjar has seen the lowest number of returnees since ISIS’s defeat, even though it was the first to be retaken from ISIS. See “Iraq Protection Cluster: Ninewa Returnees Profile”, Reliefweb, September 2017, Footnote A Yazidi civil society activist bemoaned his community’s fate:

Alien forces are waging their wars on Yazidi lands. Sinjar mountain no longer belongs to us; it has become a square on a chessboard over which these forces compete. The Yazidis will not be able to return home for another ten years; we can no longer trust anyone to protect us. Losing Sinjar to us is like travelling with a compass that has no north.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dohuk, July 2017.Hide Footnote

This report sheds light on this small corner of Iraq, whose population is neglected while its territory is contested with unremitting ardour. It is based on several visits to the area, as well as conversations with representatives of the various parties concerned over the past two years. It forms part of a larger Crisis Group project that seeks to propose pathways toward a negotiated settlement of the vexed question of Iraq’s disputed areas. Sinjar is one of the smallest of these areas but certainly not the simplest of the country’s unresolved problems, nor the least important given its strategic location.

II. A Community Thrice Divided

A. The KDP Ascendant

When U.S. forces ousted the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, old disputes resurfaced to shape the post-regime order/disorder. A major one was the status of Iraq’s Kurds. In 1970, their leaders had negotiated an autonomy arrangement with Saddam. But autonomy was not fully realised until 1991, when the defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait provided Kurdish rebel parties, protected by the U.S., with the opportunity to carve out a zone in the north free of Iraqi control. From the parties’ perspective, the Iraqi army’s withdrawal was only partial, as the army held on to territories they considered part of the Kurdish region, a belt of administrative districts stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border that was home to Kurds as well as Iraqis from other ethnic and religious communities. The town of Kirkuk lay at the centre of these districts; its oil riches were the main stumbling block to the peaceful resolution of the disputed territories’ status. Sinjar was the western-most of the districts and strategic for other reasons.

These areas had long been the target of regime Arabisation policies, which focused on the Kurds but also the Yazidis. In the 1977 national census, Yazidis were forced to register as Arabs; in the 1980s, the regime destroyed Yazidi villages in Ninewa governorate and killed Yazidi men who had joined the Kurdish insurgency.[fn]See Human Rights Watch, Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds (New Haven, 1994).Hide Footnote In recognition of the Yazidis’ plight, the Kurdistan regional government, elected in 1992 after the U.S. established a safe zone in northern Iraq, created a directorate for Yazidi affairs.[fn]The 2005 Iraqi constitution granted Yazidis minority status, with representation in the council of representatives. On Iraq’s minorities, see “Crossroads: The future of Iraq’s minorities after ISIS”, Minority Rights Group International, June 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2003, the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), sent their fighters into the disputed territories to establish de facto control, and supported a constitutional process in Baghdad with the clear intent to resolve these territories’ legal status in the Kurdish region’s favour. While the PUK was dominant in the areas from Kirkuk southward toward Iran, the KDP reigned supreme northward to the Syrian border.[fn]For a visual representation of the shifting balance of forces in Sinjar since 2003 described in this chapter, see the maps in the appendix.Hide Footnote

The KDP ruled Sinjar [...] by using its leverage in Baghdad and Mosul to place party loyalists in the local administration and establish parallel security institutions.

Failure to resolve the disputed territories’ status politically resulted in the entrenchment in those areas of Kurdish forces, as Baghdad was weakened by insurgencies, sectarian conflict and government dysfunction. Yet Kurdish control did little to end the dispute. In 2008, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) took it upon itself to lay the groundwork for political negotiations by preparing a (yet unpublished) comprehensive study on the demographics, economics and politics of these areas,[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East & North Africa Report N°88, Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line, 8 July 2009, pp. 7-10.Hide Footnote but its efforts floundered amid the political fervour of the 2009 local and 2010 parliamentary elections, as well as resistance from Baghdad and Erbil.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°55, Oil and Borders: How to Fix Iraq’s Kurdish Crisis, 17 October 2017.Hide Footnote

The KDP ruled Sinjar and other disputed areas by using its leverage in Baghdad and Mosul to place party loyalists in the local administration and establish parallel security institutions.[fn]District and sub-district council members appointed by the U.S. in 2004 still held their positions in 2017. In February 2008, the Iraqi council of representatives passed Law 21, the “Provincial Powers Act”, regulating the appointment and prerogatives of local officials (governor, mayor, sub-district director), as well as the powers of local councils (at governorate, district and sub-district levels). The law was only partially implemented, however, and elections did not take place at the district and sub-district levels. See the English translation of the Provincial Powers Act: Footnote Sinjar became a backwater: it was under the KDP’s military control and administered de facto by the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil, but in practice neglected.[fn]The KDP’s pre-2014 co-optation policies included concessions such as paving roads to Yazidi shrines and opening the Dohuk university to Yazidi students from Sinjar, yet at the cost of limiting the Yazidis’ political representation: excluding Yazidis not loyal to the KDP from local governance, withholding and distributing public funds before and after provincial elections to serve the KDP’s electoral interests, and committing election fraud. See Christine van der Toorn, “Fake Parties, Frauds, Intimidation and other Strong-Arm Tactics”, Niqash, 9 May 2013.Hide Footnote The central state’s presence was limited to certain administrative activities, such as paying public employees, and displaying national symbols, such as the Iraqi flag atop district government buildings. The city of Dohuk in the Kurdish region replaced Mosul as the hub for Yazidis wanting to do business or pursue their studies.

Such was the scene in June 2014, when jihadist militants entering from Syria routed Iraqi security forces stationed in Mosul and the Ninewa plain. The victors declared an Islamic caliphate. Within days, state security forces across central Iraq disintegrated, leaving the disputed territories under the exclusive control of the KDP and PUK, whose peshmerga faced ISIS fighters along a front the length of the disputed territorial belt. The KDP held on to Sinjar, which ISIS besieged from three sides.[fn]From June 2014 onward, ISIS militants were in control of territories to Sinjar’s south (Baaj), east (Tel Afar/Mosul) and north (Rabiya). Only Highway 47 running westward from Sinjar to the Syrian border remained ISIS-free. In August 2014, ISIS launched an attack on Sinjar town from villages to its south, also taking Highway 47. See Christine van der Toorn, “How the U.S.-Favoured Kurds Abandoned the Yazidis when ISIS Attacked”, The Daily Beast, 17 August 2014.Hide Footnote

Two months later, on 3 August, ISIS fighters moved into Sinjar, causing the KDP peshmerga to withdraw toward the Kurdish region without a fight. Only U.S. airstrikes stopped the jihadists’ further northward advance.[fn]The reasons for the KDP’s sudden retreat from Sinjar remain contested. The KDP cites a lack of weapons, the suddenness of ISIS’s assault and the fact that peshmerga forces were overstretched, defending an extended front. Crisis Group interview, Zerevani commander, Dohuk, July 2017. The director of a Yazidi civil society organisation rejected these arguments: “After the fall of Mosul [in June 2014], there were 3,000 peshmerga in Sinjar. These were well-armed, because the local KDP peshmerga commander had made a deal with the retreating Iraqi army. He took the weapons of the 3rd army division’s 11th regiment in Sinouni, and the 2nd army division’s 10th regiment in Tel Afar. But they did not put up a fight, and their retreat was so well organised that not even one of them was killed”. Crisis Group interview, Dohuk, 17 November 2016. For other narratives that counter the official KDP line, see Matthew Barber, “The future of the Yazidi in Shingal”, Nalia Radio and Television, 31 January 2017.Hide Footnote On 13 August, local Yazidi cells of the Shengal Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê, YBŞ) – a new group of PKK fighters consisting of Yazidis from both Iraq and Syria – and the YPG deployed to Sinjar from their bases in Syria and Qandil in northern Iraq. These forces carved out a corridor to evacuate the local population via the mountain range to the north of the city (which ISIS was unable to take), and westward into Syria.

In October 2014, the KDP regained control of the towns of Rabia and Zummar to the north and east of Sinjar from ISIS, and a year later, in November 2015, a combination of YBŞ/YPG units and KDP peshmerga supported by U.S.-led coalition air power retook Sinjar town. The YBŞ/YPG – the pro-PKK – units assumed control of the district’s western part, while KDP peshmerga and their local allies dominated its east, leaving areas south of Highway 47, which connects Mosul to Syria, to ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Sinjar, September 2016.Hide Footnote For two and a half years, that front remained static, while inside Sinjar town and on Sinjar mountain the two rival Kurdish forces maintained an uneasy standoff.

B. A Growing Intra-Kurdish Struggle

Opening the escape route from Sinjar into Syria in August 2014 won the PKK and its Syrian affiliate the YPG the allegiance of disaffected Yazidis in a region where the PKK previously had had no more than a small presence in the form of sympathisers of its leader Abdullah Öcalan, and who then became the YBŞ.[fn]Saeed Hassan, a Yazidi PKK sympathiser who became a YBŞ senior commander, recounted: “After the fall of the [Saddam Hussein] regime, some Yazidis began to read Öcalan’s writings. In 2006, we organised a small conference of Öcalan’s sympathisers and founded TEVDA, or the Free Democratic Movement [Haraka al-Dimuqratiya al-Hurra]. I was its secretary-general. We did not have the resources to attract support among the Yazidis. We could not pay salaries, like the KDP did. After the fall of Mosul to ISIS, we understood that Sinjar was in danger. I went to Qaracho [YPG headquarters near Rumeilan in Syria] and asked the YPG to come and give us military support”. Crisis Group phone interview, June 2017.Hide Footnote Serhad Shengal, a Yazidi PKK-trained cadre from Syria serving as public relations officer with the YBŞ, recounted his arrival in Sinjar from the PKK’s headquarters in Qandil, a vast mountain range in north-eastern Iraq, in August 2014:

I came from Qandil and was among those who helped people escape. We did not know the area and we needed guides. There were PKK and YPG fighters, and some 300 Yazidis from Sinjar who had been advisers to the YPG. With their help we opened a corridor that allowed the people of Sinjar to escape through the plain and reach Rojava [the self-administered zone in YPG-held northern Syria].[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sinjar, 8 September 2016. The YBŞ and its female branch, the Sinjar Women’s Units (YJE), claimed to have around 1,200 fighters in late 2016. Many had been recruited from internally displaced people (IDP) camps on the western flank of Sinjar mountain, as well as from Newroz camp in Syria’s Hasaka governorate, to which nearly 500 Yazidi families were resettled in August 2014. Crisis Group interview, NGO worker, Hasaka governorate, 17 October 2016.Hide Footnote

The YPG and YBŞ also established a local political wing, the Yazidi Freedom and Democracy Party (Hizb al-Hurriya wa al-Dimuqratiya al-Ezidi), and a Sinjar autonomous council.[fn]It was called al-majlis al-ta’sisi, or foundational/constituent council, initially, and majlis al-idara al-dhatiya, or self-administration council, subsequently.Hide Footnote

The PKK may have instructed its affiliates to leap to the Yazidis’ aid, but in creating the humanitarian corridor they also established a foothold for what would soon become a critical supply channel from Iraq to YPG fighters in Syria. These fighters had filled a security vacuum in Kurdish areas there after the Damascus regime withdrew its forces in 2012, being preoccupied with fighting for its survival in other parts of the country. In its senior command a non-Iraqi group, the YPG/YBŞ appeared to have no other ambition in northern Iraq than to keep its supply channel open – unlike the KDP, which sought to annex Sinjar district, along with other disputed territories, to the Kurdish region.

As the battle to push back ISIS started up in both Syria and Iraq in late 2014, the U.S. threw its military support behind the YPG, despite the latter’s direct association with the PKK, an organisation on Washington’s terrorist list.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, The PKK’s Fateful Choice, op. cit.Hide Footnote This intervention turned Sinjar into a strategic prize: for the U.S.-YPG effort to defeat ISIS, and for the KDP-Turkish efforts to dislodge the PKK affiliates from the area, even as the KDP also was assisting the U.S. in fighting ISIS.

The main motivation for Sinjar Yazidis to join the YBŞ’s ranks has been strong enmity toward the KDP: frustration over its governance since 2003 and anger over its abandonment of the local population in August 2014. Many of the YBŞ’s recruits were youths orphaned in the ISIS rampage. The vast majority of Sinjar Yazidis had no prior affiliation with the PKK but were independent or associated with other parties that opposed KDP rule, such as the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress.[fn]A Yazidi member of the Ninewa provincial council described the motivations: “Yazidis joined in response to anti-KDP propaganda. But the goals of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress are at odds with the PKK’s ideology. While the former champions Yazidi nationalism, the PKK opposes all forms of nationalism. This partnership can be transitional”. Crisis Group interview, Dawud Jundi, Dohuk, 10 July 2017. The YBŞ recruited vulnerable boys and girls to become fighters against ISIS. See “Iraq: Armed Groups Using Child Soldiers”, Human Rights Watch, 22 December 2016.Hide Footnote

As the battle to push back ISIS started up in both Syria and Iraq in late 2014, the U.S. threw its military support behind the YPG, despite the latter’s direct association with the PKK, an organisation on Washington’s terrorist list.

When the YPG/YBŞ and, separately, the KDP wrested Sinjar town from ISIS in November 2015 with U.S. help, the Baghdad government, seeking to regain control of the disputed territories and sensing an opportunity to at least curb the KDP’s influence in Sinjar, agreed to fund the YBŞ through the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), the state agency that had been paying PMU fighters’ salaries.[fn]From late 2015 onward, nearly half of the YBŞ’s fighters were on the ONSA payroll. Within the YBŞ, these salaries were pooled and then shared among the members, providing each with about $350 monthly. See “Sinjar militia claims Baghdad providing arms and salaries”, Rudaw, 9 January 2016.Hide Footnote Thus the KDP-PKK rivalry came to intersect with the long-running feud between the federal government in Baghdad and the KDP-dominated Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Erbil, turning the Sinjar Yazidi community into double hostages.

In response to these developments, the KDP shifted from trying to restore its formal authority over Sinjar town, which had been heavily damaged in the November 2015 fighting, to establishing security control only, which it was forced to share with the YPG/YBŞ. The KDP’s administrative weight shifted to Al-Shimal sub-district, directly north of the mountain, with the pro-KDP district director (qa’im maqam), who commuted to the deserted ruins of Sinjar town from his base in Dohuk, stopping off along the way in the town of Sinouni to converse with his fellow KDP loyalists of the Al-Shimal sub-district council. Meanwhile, PKK-trained cadres took charge of administration in areas under YPG/YBŞ control, such as Khanasour on the mountain’s northern flank close to the Syrian border. The KDP controlled access to Sinjar district at the bridge across the Tigris near Faysh Khabour, allowing through only Yazidis deemed loyal to the KDP; it also constricted the flow of goods needed for reconstruction and restarting the economy.[fn]Citing security reasons, the KDP restricted traffic at the Suhaila bridge crossing, largely blocking the flow of goods essential for agriculture (such as fertilisers and spare parts for machinery) and reconstruction (such as cement and cinderblocks), and thus discouraging the return of the local population. See “Iraq: KRG Restrictions Harm Yazidi Recovery”, Human Rights Watch, 4 December 2016. Moreover, most of the estimated 180,000 Yazidis displaced in the Kurdish region carry no documents that verify their property rights, potentially making them dependent on the KDP, which controlled access to the area, to reclaim their homes and lands. See “Sinjar After ISIS”, op. cit., pp. 28-29.Hide Footnote It was common to hear local Yazidis grumble about Kurdish control, whatever its provenance, as neither group allowed them to return and rebuild.[fn]Voicing a widely heard anti-Kurdish narrative, a Yazidi tribal leader cooperating with the PMU in 2017 said: “The Kurdish parties are the reason for how ISIS could come into this area in the first place. There is no difference between the KDP and PKK. Each has come to Sinjar for its own interests and not that of the Yazidis. The KDP wants to have a land without people. We don’t want anything to do with the Kurdish parties”. Crisis Group phone interview, 19 June 2017.Hide Footnote

The KDP recruited, paid and commanded its own Yazidi security force, placing it under the nominal command of a local Yazidi leader, Qasem Shesho,[fn]The KDP-affiliated Yazidi peshmerga forces reportedly had about 8,000 members in March 2017. They receive their salaries from the KDP’s security police, the asayesh, in Sinjar and fall outside the purview of the Erbil-based peshmerga ministry. Crisis Group interview, peshmerga ministry official, Suleimaniya, 8 March 2017.Hide Footnote and limited political representation and military activity outside the party’s purview in areas it controlled. For example, Hayder Shesho, a cousin of Qasem with a militant background in the PUK and the Yazidi diaspora, returned to Sinjar after the August 2014 crisis to recruit and train an armed force of his own, which he aimed to keep independent. His attempt collapsed after the KDP detained him for a week in April 2015.[fn]Hayder Shesho’s Ezidkhan Protection Force (Hêza Parastina Êzîdxanê, HPÊ) reportedly had about 5,000 fighters in July 2017, including 400 women, and maintained a training camp in Sharaf al-Din, a town east of Sinouni. In April 2015, the KDP detained him for a week, but in 2016 he struck an agreement with the peshmerga ministry that allowed him to maintain a Yazidi security force and establish a political party. Crisis Group interview, peshmerga ministry official, Suleimaniya, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Early in 2017, tensions between the KDP and YBŞ came to a head. On 3 March, clashes broke out in Khanasour between the YBŞ and a force of Syrian Kurds raised and trained by the KDP called the Peshmerga Roj and deployed to the YBŞ-held area. There were casualties on both sides.[fn]There are conflicting reports on casualties, but it appears two people were killed and a dozen injured. Isabel Coles, “Rival Kurdish groups clash in Iraq’s Sinjar region”, Al Jazeera, 3 March 2017.Hide Footnote A week later, pro-PKK militants bussed in protesters from Syria via the border crossing it controlled, which triggered new violence.[fn]Loveday Morris, “Yazidis who suffered genocide are fleeing again, but this time not from the Islamic State”, Washington Post, 21 March 2017.Hide Footnote The KDP made no secret of its desire to expel the PKK affiliates from Sinjar, perhaps betting that Turkey, the KDP’s ally and the PKK’s mortal enemy, would do the job.[fn]The KDP has felt directly threatened by the PKK. The PKK’s Syrian affiliates control a swath of the country’s north east, where they have become a partner with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. The party also maintained strongholds in Iraq, namely near the town of Makhmour south west of Erbil, and in Qandil, a mountain range near the Iranian border. Even more concerning from the KDP’s perspective are the increasingly close relations between the PKK and the KDP’s historical governing-partner-and-rival, the PUK, which maintains good relations with Iran. A KDP official said: “Sinjar has become an issue of national security for us [KDP]. We cannot tolerate the PKK’s presence any longer. We don’t want to reach the point of confrontation, but we have had enough of the PKK, and the U.S. has not pressured them enough to find an agreement on Sinjar. We don’t have a deal with Turkey to bomb Sinjar, but we are ready to do anything to get them out of there”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Indeed, on 25 April, the Turkish air force struck pro-PKK fighters in the area.[fn]See Dilshad Abdullah, “Sinjar on the brink of major conflict between PKK, Turkey”, Al-Monitor, 9 May 2017.Hide Footnote Turkey and the KDP could do little more, as the U.S. needed a corridor to supply the YPG with weaponry. When the KDP cut U.S. non-lethal aid to the YPG across that border in March 2017, Washington briefly suspended all assistance to the Kurdistan regional government until the KDP stood down.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group's MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann meeting with YBŞ representative in Sinjar town, on September 2016. CRISISGROUP

C. Enter Shiite Militias

In late 2016, local dynamics began to change as the campaign to drive ISIS from Mosul got underway. In September and October, the Obama administration mediated security agreements between Erbil and Baghdad, and between Baghdad and Shiite political factions linked to the PMUs,[fn]The text of the agreement signed between KDP officials and Haider al-Abadi’s government has not been made public. According to a U.S. official, it held that Kurdish troops would halt their advance through the Ninewa plain at Mosul’s eastern outskirts and let elite Iraqi units take the city, while the PMUs would limit their advance to the southern Ninewa plain without entering the city. The KDP committed to returning to Baghdad all territories captured after June 2014, after ISIS’s onslaught in northern Iraq. The agreement made no specific reference to Sinjar, thus postponing a settlement for the area. Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Erbil, 16 November 2016.Hide Footnote especially those backed by Iran.[fn]The Hashd were established in response to a call for volunteer fighters from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in June 2014, after ISIS had taken Mosul, Tikrit and other cities, and threatened Baghdad. Leaders of pre-existing Iran-backed Shiite militias used the call to recruit fighters to their side; Sistani supporters agreed to be placed in the regular army or other state security forces. The latter helped retake some areas from ISIS, but their primary motivation appeared to be the protection of Shiite holy sites, whereas the former turned into auxiliaries of state security forces as they moved northward to retake Mosul. For a nuanced analysis of the Hashd, see Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 28 April 2017.Hide Footnote These deals allowed the Mosul operation to go forward without significant problems between the participants – a precarious non-coalition whose members understood and accepted their individual and separate roles in the counter-ISIS operation but always kept one eye on how that fight would position them against other rivals.[fn]Each side received what it wanted: the KDP expanded its control over some of the disputed territories in western Ninewa without sacrificing peshmerga fighters in the battle for Mosul city; the PMU was able to deploy from Salah al-Din governorate to southern Ninewa and westward to the Syrian border, thus preventing the emergence of a region controlled by Sunni militias; and the Abadi government could claim victory in Mosul city with its U.S.-trained elite forces. The PKK was not part of any deal, and neither was Turkey.Hide Footnote

In late 2016, local dynamics began to change as the campaign to drive ISIS from Mosul got underway.

As the battle proceeded in 2017 and victory loomed, the participants started to prepare for the aftermath, an expected race for the spoils. On 13 May, Iran-backed PMUs launched an attack from their forward positions near Tel Afar west of Mosul to drive ISIS from Qayrawan, a small town located midway between Mosul and the Syrian border, and surrounding villages. Pushing westward, they reached the border at Umm Jaris, directly west of Sinjar town, on 29 May, then moved south to seize a 30km strip along the border, in addition to the southern half of Sinjar district.

By that time, the Yazidi affiliates of both the PKK and KDP had fighters deployed in Sinjar town and the district’s half north of the mountain. As the PMUs, led by the Kataaeb Imam Ali, entered the area, they promoted themselves as Iraqi units operating by Baghdad’s fiat. Because the KDP refused to join the PMU-led offensive against ISIS in southern Sinjar (a mixed Yazidi-Sunni Arab area),[fn]The KDP had little interest in southern Sinjar. It wanted to annex strictly Yazidi areas to the Kurdish region, keeping out the district’s Arab areas. The Kurdish parties displayed a similar preference in other parts of the disputed territories. Nor did the YPG/YBŞ join the fight against ISIS in southern Sinjar, as its strategic objective was to maintain its Iraq-Syria supply channel in the Khanasour area on Sinjar mountain’s northern slopes.Hide Footnote local Yazidis keen to regain their lands and exact revenge on ISIS formed new battalions or joined existing ones, such as the Lalish Battalion (Fawj Lalish), which the PMUs had established in the aftermath of the ISIS attack on Mosul and Tel Afar in 2014.[fn]For example, one of the KDP’s Yazidi battalions – from Kocho, a village south of Sinjar newly retaken from ISIS – defected under the leadership of tribal leader Naif Jasso to join the PMUs. See Matthew Barber, “The end of the PKK in Sinjar: How the Hashd al-Sha’bi can help resolve the Yazidi genocide”, Nalia Radio and Television, 30 May 2017. In June 2017, the KDP expelled from the Kurdish region four Yazidi families of fighters who had joined the PMUs. See “Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Yazidis Fighters’ Families Expelled”, Human Rights Watch, 9 July 2017. The YBŞ suffered defections as well, especially when the Office of the National Security Adviser gradually stopped disbursing fighters’ salaries. In October 2016, the pay became discontinuous and by late 2017 it had reportedly stopped altogether. Crisis Group phone interview, YBŞ commander, November 2017. On the Lalish Battalion, see The name Lalish resonates with Yazidis, as it is the small town in northern Iraq where their holiest shrine is located.Hide Footnote Others, exasperated by Kurdish rule and keen to see the back of the KDP in particular, began defecting from their KDP units to join the conquering Shiite militias, deploying along the border and throughout the district.

Once they had evicted ISIS, the PMUs delegated internal security duties to the armed groups they had raised. The PMUs gained additional local acceptance by co-opting Yazidi tribal leaders with a history of cooperation with local Sunni Arab leaders who had refused to side with either the KDP or ISIS.[fn]Yazidi tribal leaders operating as part of the PMUs reported that strategic coordination happened directly with PMU deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis regarding recruitment of fighters, payment of salaries and deployments within Yazidi-populated villages. Crisis Group phone interview, Yazidi leader operating with the PMU, 19 June 2017.Hide Footnote

Thus, when the Kurdish independence referendum, staged on 25 September 2017 by Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region and leader of the KDP, backfired, the PMUs could build on the advantageous position they had create in Sinjar earlier that year. On 16-17 October, facing advancing Iraqi army divisions and PMUs across the disputed territories, Kurdish forces withdrew precipitously from most of those areas, allowing the army and PMUs to deploy there. In Sinjar, KDP fighters fled northward to the Kurdish region on 17 October. The army’s 15th division took position at the main border crossing to Syria at Rabiya, an Arab town between Sinjar and the Kurdish region, while PMUs and PMU-affiliated groups deployed along the border between Rabiya and Umm Jaris.[fn]On the Kurdish referendum crisis, see Crisis Group Report, Oil and Borders, op. cit. On 17 October, all KDP-affiliated forces – the security police (asayesh), the Zerevani special forces and KDP-trained Syrian peshmerga units (Peshmerga Roj) – withdrew from their positions in Sinjar district to reposition north of the Tigris. Crisis Group phone interviews, Rabiya tribal leader, 17 October 2017; PMU Yazidi commander, 20 October 2017.Hide Footnote The army and PMUs did not challenge YPG/YBŞ forces in Khanasour, who therefore continued to control a 15km stretch of the border.[fn]The YPG-controlled border crossing at Makhfar Jarbiya – a large covered checkpoint on the road to Hasaka in northern Syria – has seen a lively trade in persons and goods.Hide Footnote

D. An Administrative Vacuum

The KDP’s departure ended the intra-Kurdish standoff and thereby reduced the likelihood of renewed fighting. Yet the PMUs’ presence and their control of border crossings with Syria in southern Sinjar ushered in a new phase of militia domination that poses a challenge to Baghdad’s authority, given the PMUs’ unclear status within the Iraqi security forces, and has done little to bring the kind of peace that would allow displaced Yazidis to return.

The PMUs have pursued the same divide-and-rule, co-optation and security-control approach as their Kurdish predecessors. Since October 2017, they have tolerated the presence of Yazidi militias, but only to integrate them under the PMUs’ chain of command, taking advantage of intra-Yazidi divisions and the community’s lack of cohesive leadership.[fn]Qasem and Hayder Shesho’s forces remain deployed in Sharaf al-Din and Sinjar town, while YBŞ fighters keep a presence in western Sinjar district between Khanasour, Majnouniya and Jeddala. Since both Qasem Shesho’s militia and the YBŞ are no longer receiving salaries, and the future of Hayder Shesho’s forces remains uncertain, the PMUs may expect these militias’ Yazidi fighters to defect to the PMUs. According to a YBŞ commander, many of the Lalish Battalion’s fighters are YBŞ defectors. Crisis Group phone interview, YBŞ commander, 27 November 2017.Hide Footnote Murad Sheikh Khalo, a Yazidi PMU commander, said:

Now that the KDP has withdrawn, we have opened up recruitment into the Hashd [PMUs] and we now have about 3,000 fighters. We hope to attract into our ranks all those who were previously enrolled in other militias. The Yazidi fighters with the YBŞ can stay with them as long as they agree to integrate either in the Iraqi security forces or in the PMUs and answer to our chain of command.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, 22 October 2017. According to Sheikh Khalo, two Yazidi PMU brigades (liwaa) of 1,000 fighters each are deployed along the Iraq-Syria border.Hide Footnote

The KDP’s departure left an administrative vacuum in Sinjar that further militates against an expeditious return of the displaced. Yazidi technocrats who fled to the Kurdish region after August 2014 remain there; moreover, in October 2017, the KDP-backed district council and administration moved from Sinouni to Dohuk, carrying out their functions from the small town of Sumeil ever since. Yazidi professionals, such as doctors and teachers, who left Sinjar have yet to return to restart health facilities and schools. A Yazidi NGO official said that, for this reason, even if the PMUs were to appoint a new administration, they would have trouble finding skilled personnel to run it.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Yazidi NGO official, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote In this way, and by controlling a large population of displaced Yazidis whose vote it could try to muster in 2018 elections, the KDP still holds the key to Sinjar’s revival.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Hayder Shesho, Yazidi commander, 25 November 2017. Local elections are scheduled to be held alongside national elections on 12 May, but there has been some suggestion that they may be postponed, or postponed in only some governorates such as Kirkuk and Ninewa, because of instability in the disputed territories and backroom discussions about power-sharing as a way of managing a fraught political situation.Hide Footnote

III. Weak State, Strong Militias

A. PMU Rule

Since mid-October 2017, Iran-backed PMUs have had the military and political upper hand in Sinjar. Formally integrated into the Iraqi security architecture, they operate as a parallel institution to the state security forces, with their own chain of command.[fn]The Law of the Popular Mobilisation Authority, issued in November 2016, placed the PMUs under the prime minister’s direct command. While the Hashd comprise fighters concerned with Iraq’s self-defence who placed themselves under army command in 2014, many commanders and fighters joined pro-Iran militias that arose from the post-2003 security vacuum (following the Coalition Provisional Authority’s dismantling of the army). The law’s original text is available at: See also Mansour and Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future”, op. cit.Hide Footnote PMU commanders determine who deploys on the Iraq-Syria border in southern Sinjar, who controls strategic roads and which army or PMU units the growing number of Yazidi recruits should join.[fn]A YBŞ commander said: “The Iraqi army is not present in Sinjar district; they deployed in Rabiya. While army Major General Abdul-Karim al-Shweili told us we could stay on the border in positions abandoned by the KDP, Abu Ali al-Qurawi, who is only a major in the PMUs but reports directly to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, decided otherwise, and he had the last word”. Crisis Group phone interview, 24 November 2017.Hide Footnote Their military chain of command is reflected in political decision-making. They have co-opted Yazidi tribal leaders, with Sheikh Khalo acting as point man answering to the PMUs’ Shiite commanders and their deputy leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.[fn]Abu Ali al-Qurawi, a Shiite commander, is Muhandis’s envoy to Sinjar. He is assisted by a security director who is a Shiite Arab from southern Iraq. They both have personal ties to Sheikh Khalo.Hide Footnote

Through Sheikh Khalo and his local network of loyalists, PMU commanders, acting outside the law, appointed a new Sinjar district director and began to appoint directorate heads.[fn]Iraqi law provides that only the district council can appoint the district director.Hide Footnote A YBŞ commander criticised the new PMU-imposed administration as “a de-facto administration”:

No one has been consulted. The PMUs came as a representative of the state, but in reality they are only serving the personal interests of a few Yazidi figures connected to them. These guys have nothing in Sinjar; they are only making business from the Yazidi cause.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, 26 November 2017. An Arab tribal leader from Rabiya mentioned in the immediate aftermath of the KDP’s withdrawal that it was likely that the Iraqi government would appoint Naif Jasso, a Yazidi tribal leader from Kocho who enjoys legitimacy among Yazidis, as Sinjar’s new district director. Crisis Group phone interview, 17 October 2017. The PMUs sidelined Jasso, however, and gave the position to a less popular Yazidi tribal leader whom PMU commanders could more easily control. The PMUs have no legal authority to make such appointments. Crisis Group phone interview, Yazidi NGO official, 17 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Sheikh Khalo saw things differently:

The new district director and administrators have been selected according to their loyalty to the unity of Iraq. The former [KDP-backed] district council and administration have expired. I am arranging meetings with all the ministries in Baghdad in order to bring services back to Sinjar.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Sheikh Khalo, 24 November 2017.Hide Footnote

This may be true, but by monopolising the appointment of Yazidi administrators and managing the relationship with Baghdad, the PMUs have been imposing their rule. By way of example, a Yazidi NGO representative said: “If I want to register my NGO in Baghdad, I can do so only through the PMUs. But if I agree to this, I’d become part of their patronage network”.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote  Also, to reach PMU leaders, local actors say they have had to go through the PMUs’ Yazidi intermediaries.[fn]

A YBŞ leader said, for example: “I asked Abu Ali al-Qurawi for an appointment with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, but it does not work that way: I have to pass through their appointed Yazidi intermediaries. I am still waiting”. Crisis Group phone interview, 25 November 2017.

Hide Footnote

Undertaking Sinjar’s reconstruction under these conditions would give power and resources to a handful of local Yazidi leaders who represent only part of the local population, including those who remain displaced. If PMU rule continues unchallenged until the parliamentary and local elections, scheduled for 12 May 2018, these leaders may use the PMUs’ military power to secure positions in the district and sub-district councils, thus leaving them in control of a strategic passageway to Syria.[fn]As of February 2018, the federal government was refraining from any form of engagement with the KRG, arguing that if the Kurds are genuine in their wish for independence, there is nothing more to talk about. The KRG and some Kurdish parties have tried to make overtures to the Baghdad government, but it is unlikely there will be any significant interaction until after the 12 May parliamentary elections, when Kurdish parties may become indispensable in attempts to form a new federal government. This could provide leverage for a pushback against PMU control of disputed areas such as Sinjar.Hide Footnote In other words, having overseen operations that recaptured Sinjar from ISIS, the Iraqi government has acquiesced to control of much of the area by actors only loosely affiliated with the state.

B. A Weakened Baghdad

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has the ambition to restore the federal government’s authority over all of Iraq, but he is saddled with a weak and dysfunctional state apparatus hollowed out by corrupt political parties. To succeed, he would need to engage with the PMUs and their local subsidiaries in areas they helped retake, along with the army, from ISIS and the KDP, while seeking to counterbalance them by winning over and empowering other local leaders who previously sided with the KDP.

In Sinjar, competing co-optation policies by non-state actors have profoundly divided local elites. To restart local institutions, and allocate funds for service provision, Abadi would need to enlist Yazidi politicians and technocrats who have gravitated toward either the PMUs or the Kurdish parties. That task is daunting. The PMUs’ strength acts as a disincentive for local politicians to challenge their control. Moreover, few Yazidis have personal, political or business connections with Baghdad-based politicians any longer; to the extent that they do, those perceived as associated with the KDP may be particularly distrusted in Baghdad, especially after the 25 September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum.[fn]A Yazidi NGO official said: “There is a witch-hunt climate in Baghdad. If you have any previous relation with the Kurdish parties, or your NGO was registered in the Kurdish region, Baghdad politicians find you suspect, a person they cannot trust”. Crisis Group phone interview, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Baghdad ministries themselves suffer from a corrupt and parasitic bureaucracy that concentrates decision-making in the hands of specific figures [...] many of whom have developed business and personal relations with PMU leaders.

The logical way for the government to proceed would be to empower local councils, including in Sinjar, with reconstruction funds channelled through the Ninewa governorate administration in Mosul. Yet that course of action would pose its own set of problems: Ninewa’s governor and governorate council are accused of having mismanaged funds, directing the monies to their own preferred localities.[fn]According to an NGO official dealing with post-ISIS reconstruction: “The Ninewa provincial council has allocated many of the funds it received from Baghdad to Mosul city and Tel Afar, while neglecting areas such as Sinjar. At the same time, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has its own reconstruction campaign whose funds do not pass through local administrations, but the UNDP is reluctant to operate in contested areas such as Sinjar”. Crisis Group phone interview, 24 November 2017. International agencies are reluctant to operate in unstable areas such as Sinjar because of security concerns, as well as scepticism about the utility of starting reconstruction when control is in the hands of non-state actors and remains contested.Hide Footnote Baghdad ministries themselves suffer from a corrupt and parasitic bureaucracy that concentrates decision-making in the hands of specific figures, including officials charged with post-conflict reconstruction, many of whom have developed business and personal relations with PMU leaders. PMU networks thus tend to be more efficient channels for the disbursement of reconstruction funds in areas they control in the disputed territories.[fn]The PMUs are present in the disputed territories mainly in areas inhabited by Shiites, especially in Diyala governorate, the Tuz Khurmatu district of Salah al-Din governorate and small parts of Kirkuk governorate. Their presence in Sinjar, which has no Shiite population, is explained by their link to Iran, which has an interest in controlling part of the border with Syria.Hide Footnote The problem is that the PMUs have their own favoured local beneficiaries. A Yazidi NGO official said:

The National Reconciliation Commission plans to appoint a representative committee to help the government bring back institutions to Sinjar. If PMU-empowered Yazidi leaders will have the last word on who will be in this committee through their personal connections, the process will fail.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Yazidi NGO official, 25 November 2017. An initial list of proposed committee members had 80 names, but Yazidi PMU leaders appeared to have a strong voice in who to include, as figures such as Hayder Shesho, who worked closely with the Kurdish parties over the past year, were absent. Crisis Group phone interview, NGO official advising the government’s National Reconciliation Commission, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote

So far, the government’s efforts to reach out to Yazidi partners other than those associated with the PMUs have been uncoordinated and timid. The Office of the National Security Adviser continues to communicate with the YBŞ, while the army has attempted to strike a deal with Hayder Shesho to integrate some of his forces.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, YBŞ leader, 25 November 2017; Hayder Shesho, 25 November 2017. Shesho has started bringing electrical power from Mosul to Sinjar north of the mountain, where he has his headquarters (in Sharaf al-Din). Crisis Group interview, journalist who visited the area in January 2018, Brussels, February 2018.Hide Footnote The only way for Baghdad to reassert sovereignty and gradually disempower the PMUs’ pervasive networks may therefore be to reintegrate the PMUs’ Yazidi fighters into the local police force and lure back Yazidi technocrats previously working in KDP-backed institutions, despite their history of association with a party that sought to wrest Sinjar from the federal government’s control.

While the Baghdad government may not yet have the strength to proactively reassert its administrative authority in Sinjar, its legal authority gives it some leverage to prevent matters from completely escaping its control. Until now, it has not endorsed the PMU-appointed district director and sub-district administrators. Its approval of these appointments would effectively hand over the district to the PMUs. It is wise for Baghdad to continue to withhold its blessing if it wishes to return Sinjar to state authority.

C. Regional Power Plays

Baghdad’s failure to restore its sovereignty in Sinjar through means other than the PMUs – which are only nominally government agents – is emblematic of the challenge it faces elsewhere in the disputed territories. In Sinjar, it may help formalise the PMUs’ patronage networks within local councils, further marginalising Yazidi technocrats associated, however loosely, with the Kurdish parties, and discourage the return of effective local governance as well as the displaced population. Sinjar Yazidis who have tied their lives to the Kurdish region may choose to stay there as second-class residents rather than returning to their neglected, militia-dominated home territory that has become a battleground for regional powers pursuing strategic objectives unrelated to the population’s wellbeing.

Sinjar sits at a strategic crossroads. Through its allied Shiite militias, Iran benefits from a corridor into Syria through territory wrested from ISIS. Since October 2017, the PMUs have seized additional areas adjacent to the border, either patrolling these lands themselves or delegating the task to affiliated Yazidi fighters. A YBŞ commander noted ruefully: “Yazidis working for the PMUs are handing Sinjar to the Iranians, who will use it for their own interests, whatever these may be”.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, YBŞ commander, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Turkey wants to see the PKK’s affiliates removed from Sinjar, and had hoped, in October 2017, that the Iraqi army and PMUs would take care of the matter. Ankara did not oppose the Baghdad government’s retaking of the disputed territories after the ill-fated Kurdish independence referendum. Masoud Barzani had staged the plebiscite over its express objections, and Ankara wanted to teach him a lesson.[fn]Turkey decided not to oppose the Iraqi army’s move into the disputed territories because it was upset about the referendum and saw an opportunity to mend its relations with the Baghdad government, which had frayed after 2011. And while it wanted to teach Barzani a lesson, it also acted to limit the damage to the Kurdistan regional government, keeping Turkey’s border at Ibrahim Khalil open (despite pressure from Iran to close it) and the oil flowing through the Kurdish pipeline into Turkey. Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, January 2018.Hide Footnote When the Iraqi army attempted to retake the entire border area with Syria, Washington reportedly intervened, thus keeping open two separate corridors into Syria – both the KDP’s and the YPG’s. A Turkish official said Washington, in doing so, had made “a big mistake”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Turkey wants to see the PKK’s affiliates removed from Sinjar, and had hoped, in October 2017, that the Iraqi army and PMUs would take care of the matter.

While the army and PMUs did not engage in direct confrontation with the YBŞ/PKK in Khanasour, they appear to be trying to erode the group’s role in Sinjar by encouraging the defection of its Yazidi fighters, pushing PKK-trained cadres to Syria or Qandil, and cutting the ties between the YBŞ and the YPG.[fn]As a PMU commander put it: “Foreign fighters should leave Sinjar, and if they refuse we will expel them”. Crisis Group phone interview, 22 October 2017. The YBŞ seems determined to resist. One of its commanders said: “The Iraqi army asked us to lower the YBŞ flag and keep only the Iraqi one, and to dress in Iraqi uniforms, not the YBŞ’s. But we suffered more than 285 martyrs [fatalities among its fighters] in Sinjar. We are ready to fight to the death to keep our positions”. Crisis Group phone interview, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote Breaking the YBŞ’s bond with the YPG in Syria could represent a convergence of Iranian and Turkish interests: this move would allow both Ankara and the Syrian regime to prevent the Syrian Kurdish region from slipping out of the economic embargo that has threatened to strangle it, and eventually permit the regime to retake it from the YPG. As a result of this pressure, non-Iraqi, PKK-trained YPG/YBŞ cadres have either left Sinjar or assumed a lower profile, sensing their vulnerability to a possible Turkish attack or a clash with the PMUs.

D. Breaking Dependency Patterns

Sinjar’s Yazidi community, traumatised by genocidal violence and displacement, now has fallen victim to competition among armed groups with foreign patrons, preventing the population’s return to their lands and livelihoods. The ordeal of 2014 and subsequent standoff in Sinjar have left many Yazidis in a state of existential anxiety over their future in Iraq. Over the past three years, the contrast between the proliferation of competing groups, each with its own political symbols hoisted in public spaces, and the meagre trickle of returning residents has been stark.

Events in Sinjar over the past few years enabled external actors’ co-optation of Yazidi elites, but they also prompted growing criticism of these patterns of dependency. The younger generation of Yazidis in particular feels a sense of subjugation.[fn]A Yazidi leader said: “We, Yazidis, are often victims of our own actions. Before the events of August 2014, we received funding to pave Sinjar’s streets. A member of the district council, a Yazidi, took the money and used it to buy the worst quality of material. I asked him why, and he answered: ‘For us, Yazidis, this is good enough’”. Crisis Group interview, Dohuk, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote The youths’ activism is challenging traditional power structures, as they urge their community to become master of its own destiny. A Yazidi civil society activist said:

In the past, religious and tribal leaders were our only point of reference. But because they let themselves be used, they failed. There are respected tribal leaders and younger religious figures who have started showing a different approach, but we desperately need a new type of leadership that refuses to be someone else’s pawns. Yazidis should stop feeling as if they don’t deserve anything.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yazidi civil society activist, Dohuk, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The greatest challenge Sinjar’s Yazidis face will be to restore the ties that linked community members to their lands, to one another and to their cultural heritage, all of which ISIS’s jihadists, many of whom were local Sunni Arabs, were set on violently severing. Today, Yazidi community and culture are threatened by the local power struggles that have been unleashed. An important step toward a better future should come through new leadership not beholden to militias but willing and able to reinvigorate local institutions. It would be best for this revival to occur under Baghdad’s formal authority, but with a great deal of local autonomy, as provided for by the Iraqi constitution and law.

IV. Conclusion: Returning Sinjar to Its People

Liberated from ISIS fighters intent on annihilating the Yazidi minority and freed of the KDP and PUK bent on annexing Sinjar to the Kurdish region, Sinjar nonetheless remains a disputed district. Yazidis displaced in the Kurdish region may see their temporary exile turn permanent, as most of the district remains off limits to them due to militia control and lack of reconstruction and development. Yazidi elites have been increasingly fragmented and disempowered by a decade-long competition between the Kurdish region and Baghdad, an intra-Kurdish feud between the KDP and PKK/YPG/YBŞ, and, most recently, the military and financial tutelage of the PMUs.

Baghdad’s continued absence from Sinjar will have negative repercussions for both the Abadi government and the Yazidis seeking to return to a normal life. The most viable way forward for Baghdad would be to leverage what its rival, the KDP, has built over the last decade: a local administrative elite that will formally remain in power until elections in May 2018. Even though this elite largely comprises personnel who either support the KDP or have proved willing to work with it, they possess the skills needed for the restoration of functioning governance institutions in Sinjar. With the KDP militarily excluded from the area, this elite could proffer its administrative and technocratic know-how without the KDP imposing political restrictions on the allocation of reconstruction funds based on loyalty.

Under this logic, and acting through the National Reconciliation Commission, Baghdad could lead the way by restoring local governance through an administrative body composed of Yazidis who have worked with all sides: the KDP-backed council, the PMUs and the YBŞ. This initiative could bring technocratic skills back to Sinjar, diminish Yazidi dependence on external powers, facilitate the provision of international reconstruction aid and improve prospects for the return of the displaced. The task will not be easy, but it is consistent with the government’s ten-year reconstruction plan, published in June 2017, that seeks IDP returns, the rebuilding of damaged infrastructure and steps to effect intra-communal coexistence.[fn]

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A reinvigorated role for Baghdad in Sinjar also may help the federal government in reaching a much-needed compromise with the Kurdistan authorities over the future of the disputed territories generally, including the status of Sinjar. The Kurdish referendum debacle has left Kurdish parties with a dilemma: postpone negotiations with Baghdad and thus allow the PMUs to gain strength in the disputed territories; or support Baghdad’s attempt to restore local institutions, staffed by local elites willing to work with both the federal government and Erbil. Either way, the Kurdish region’s hold and claim on the disputed territories will be diminished. But dealing with Baghdad would enable the creation of a formal framework for negotiations supported by UNAMI and the international community to determine these territories’ status within Iraq, based on the constitution.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Oil and Borders, op. cit. No serious effort to resolve the disputed territories question can be undertaken before the May 2018 elections and the formation of new governments in both Baghdad and Erbil. (Elections for the Kurdish national assembly are due to take place in 2018 but have not yet been announced.) Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Erbil and Suleimaniya, January 2018.Hide Footnote

The tragedy Sinjar and its people suffered in 2014 attracted global attention. The Abadi government should take advantage of whatever international support it can mobilise for Sinjar’s reconstruction, given the sympathy the Yazidi plight has generated, to focus resources on improving the district at long last and reconnecting it to the centre. Doing so would benefit the Yazidis and show that the Iraqi leadership is prepared not only to win the battle against ISIS but also to rebuild Iraq by protecting and reconciling its diverse communities.

Beirut/Brussels, 20 February 2018

Appendix A: Map of Iraq


Appendix B: Maps of Presence of Armed Forces in Iraq's Sinjar Area

The Struggle for Sinjar. Since 2003, a succession of outside forces has wrestled to control Iraq’s northern district of Sinjar. For true peace and the return of its Yazidi population, Baghdad must now rebuild Iraqi state governance in this remote area. Mike Shand/CRISISGROUP

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