Iraq has been successively ravaged by the 1980-1988 war with Iran, crippling sanctions after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, internal conflict after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and the transnational jihadists of Islamic State after 2014. Its multiple challenges further include sectarian violence and Kurdish separatism. Crisis Group aims to promote locally-centred stabilisation and better governance of post-ISIS Iraq in order to reduce the risk of violent flare-ups in liberated areas and mitigate the impact of foreign strategic competition, notably between Iran and the U.S. Through field research, advocacy and engagement with all sides, we urge countries involved in the anti-ISIS campaign to support security sector and institutional reform in Iraq as well. On the Kurdish front, we urge a return to a UN-led process to resolve the question of the disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, and of oil revenue-sharing.
Memories of the Islamic State’s 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak in Iraq and Syria colour views of its present capacity, leading officials and observers either to exaggerate or understate its threat. In Iraq, the group does pose a danger. Gauging it properly is key to containing it.
Iraqi security forces conducted military operation against Islamic State (ISIS) in north, suspected Iran-backed militias stepped up attacks on U.S. targets, and PM Kadhimi’s reforms to address dire economic conditions sparked protests. ISIS activity decreased but individual attacks continued; ISIS fighters 13 June attacked Kakai villages near Khanaqin in Diyala province (east), killing six and wounding six more. Security forces early June launched military operation against ISIS in disputed Kirkuk province in north, reportedly killing at least two ISIS fighters; 21-25 June reportedly destroyed over 30 ISIS targets between Diyala and Salah al-Din. Meanwhile, Parliament 6 June approved final seven ministers of PM Kadhimi’s new cabinet; 10 June voted against PM Kadhimi’s reform to reduce salaries for ministers and parliamentarians; govt reduction in citizens’ pensions sparked protests in following days in capital Baghdad and southern governorates; armed men 9 June reportedly killed one protester in Najaf city. Following first round of U.S.-Iraq “strategic dialogue” 10 June, U.S. representative announced reduction of military presence over coming months and support for Iraq’s energy sector while Iraqi delegation reaffirmed commitment to protect U.S. and coalition forces. Suspected Iran-backed militias 10-18 June launched rocket attacks targeting Baghdad International Airport, Camp Taji and Baghdad’s Green Zone near U.S. embassy; no casualties reported. New Shiite militia Zulfiqar Forces 13 June issued statement in name of “Islamic Resistance”, condemning U.S.-Iraq “strategic dialogue” and threatened to attack U.S. targets; marks seventh new pro-Iranian militia since U.S. killing in Jan of Iran’s Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilisation Unit deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; U.S. General McKenzie 18 June said U.S. will not succumb to Iranian pressure. Kurdistan Regional Govt 3 June lifted COVID-19 lockdown imposed 1 June after protests in Sulaymaniyah province erupted over lack of work opportunities. Turkey mid-June launched airstrikes and ground offensive against Kurdistan Workers Party in north, leading to death of one Turkish soldier 28 June and at least one civilian; Iraq’s Joint Operations Command 15 June condemned violation of its territory (see Turkey).
Federal forces now patrol Kirkuk, the diverse, oil-rich province disputed between the central and Kurdish regional governments. The arrangement is unsettling communal relations, with Kurds feeling excluded. With outside help, Baghdad and Erbil should design a joint security mechanism including a locally recruited multi-ethnic unit.
Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.
Should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate to a shooting war, Iraq would likely be the first battleground. Washington and Tehran should stop trying to drag Baghdad into their fight. The Iraqi government should redouble its efforts to remain neutral and safeguard the country’s post-ISIS recovery.
Backlash to the 2017 independence referendum bolstered family rule within Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties. Internal democracy has eroded; ties between the parties have frayed. Only strong institutions in Erbil and renewed inter-party cooperation can help Iraqi Kurdistan to reach a sustainable settlement with Baghdad on outstanding issues.
The fallout is settling after the Iraqi army’s seizure of territories disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. More conflict over these areas, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk, is predictable. The UN should take advantage of today’s quiet to explore negotiations on the contested lands’ status.
In July protests against inadequate supplies of jobs, water and electricity swept across southern Iraq, reaching Baghdad. The ruling elites should heed demonstrators’ calls to improve public services and stamp out corruption – or risk reigniting popular discontent and tempting would-be strongmen to step in.
If the United States is forced out of Iraq in an ugly, contentious fashion, it could poison the bilateral relationship. (Quoted with Maria Fantappie)
The Iraqis don’t want either the United States or Iran, but if they have to have one, they would rather have both because they balance each other out.
[Iraqi] people make a direct connection between the failure and the corruption of the Shia political establishment, both politicians and some clerics, and the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
As protests continue to rage across Iraq, both government *and* civic leaders are responsible for charting a way forward and averting new violence.
[A rocket attack on Baghdad's Green Zone] was a way to test the limits of the Americans. Whoever did it is aware that the red line for the Trump administration is bloodshed.
Fifteen years after the change of order in Iraq, it’s the same problem. The central government is unable or unwilling to address problems across the board in Iraq. The corruption is endemic, the government’s inability to deal with it is endemic, and the protests are endemic.
A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.
Originally published in Valdai Club
Turkey’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.
A surge in street protests in Iraq has left some 110 people dead and exposed a rift between the government and a population frustrated by poor governance, inadequate services and miserable living conditions. To avert further violence, the authorities and protesters should open dialogue channels.