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.
Ominous developments – attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq, U.S. retaliation and turmoil at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – could drag Iraq deeper into the U.S.-Iranian confrontation and spark direct clashes between Washington and Tehran. Urgent steps are needed to break this predictable but perilous cycle.
Following PM Mahdi’s resignation, wrangling over his successor extended political paralysis; security forces continued deadly crackdown on anti-govt protests; and in response to increasing attacks on U.S. assets, U.S. airstrikes on Iran-backed militia triggered violent protest at U.S. embassy raising risk that U.S.-Iran tensions fuel further escalation in Jan. After parliament 1 Dec accepted PM Mahdi’s resignation, two main parliamentary coalitions both claimed constitutional right to name new PM by virtue of being largest bloc; President Salih 15 Dec tasked parliament speaker to determine largest bloc. Parliament 24 Dec passed electoral law allowing people to vote for individual candidates instead of party lists. Iran-backed bloc proposed governor of southern Basra province Asaad al-Eidani, but Salih 26 Dec refused to appoint him PM “to avoid more bloodshed” and offered his resignation to parliament. Protesters 1 and 3 Dec stormed Iranian consulate in Najaf. U.S. 6 Dec sanctioned leaders of Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) for roles in repressing protests. In capital Baghdad, gunmen night of 6-7 Dec killed at least 22 protesters and three policemen. Drone 7 Dec hit home of Moqtada al-Sadr, Shiite cleric and leader of Reform and Construction parliamentary bloc, causing no casualties. Attacks on U.S. assets intensified: unidentified assailants 3, 5, 9 and 11 Dec launched rockets at military bases housing U.S. troops; rocket attack on base outside Kirkuk 27 Dec killed U.S. contractor. U.S. Sec State Pompeo blamed “Iran’s proxies”. U.S. airstrikes 29 Dec hit bases of Iran-backed Kataib Hizbollah militia, part of PMU, in Iraq and Syria killing at least 25 fighters. In response, supporters and members of Kataib Hizbollah protested outside U.S. embassy, 31 Dec broke into compound. Islamic State (ISIS) attacks in Diyala and Kirkuk provinces left at least 26 security force members dead. Police 3 Dec announced capture of alleged deputy of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. Security forces 15-31 Dec killed 57 ISIS militants in Diyala, Nineveh, Erbil and Salah al-Din provinces.
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.
A struggle looms in Iraq over the future of paramilitary groups assembled to help the state defeat ISIS. These units remain under arms and autonomous. Baghdad should strengthen the interior and defence ministries so they can absorb the paramilitaries now undercutting the state’s authority.
[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.
If the group that is most adamantly in favour of combating corruption [in Iraq] is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it, frustrations could take a different turn.
The [Iraqi] government budget will form the bulk of [the World Bank] money, followed by private investment. Donors are seen as an added boost, not the bulk.
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.
Researching the talks on forming a new Iraqi ruling coalition, our Senior Adviser for Iraq Maria Fantappie finds a country whose youth, women, civil society, officials and even politicians are hungry for bottom-up change to a stalemated, top-down system of governance.
Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.
Originally published in The Guardian
Despite their traumatic history, Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to their country’s political failures. Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy visited Baghdad in October-November 2018 and returned with portraits of its people’s search for normalcy.