Iraq has been successively ravaged by the 1980-1988 war with Iran, crippling sanctions after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, internal conflict after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and the transnational jihadists of Islamic State after 2014. Its multiple challenges further include sectarian violence and Kurdish separatism. Crisis Group aims to promote locally-centred stabilisation and better governance of post-ISIS Iraq in order to reduce the risk of violent flare-ups in liberated areas and mitigate the impact of foreign strategic competition, notably between Iran and the U.S. Through field research, advocacy and engagement with all sides, we urge countries involved in the anti-ISIS campaign to support security sector and institutional reform in Iraq as well. On the Kurdish front, we urge a return to a UN-led process to resolve the question of the disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, and of oil revenue-sharing.
Backlash to the 2017 independence referendum bolstered family rule within Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties. Internal democracy has eroded; ties between the parties have frayed. Only strong institutions in Erbil and renewed inter-party cooperation can help Iraqi Kurdistan to reach a sustainable settlement with Baghdad on outstanding issues.
Govt continued to stay neutral amid intense U.S.-Iran rivalry, Islamic State (ISIS) continued low-intensity insurgency and Turkey clashed with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in north. U.S. 6 May approved deployment of aircraft carrier and bomber task force to Persian Gulf in response to “Iranian threats”. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 7 May made surprise visit to Baghdad and reportedly warned Iraqi leaders of their responsibility to protect U.S. troops and citizens against possible attacks by Iranian-backed militia. President Salih 8 May reiterated govt’s neutral stance in U.S.-Iran standoff and PM Mahdi 15 May denied threats to U.S. assets from Iran or Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units. U.S. 15 May decided to pull some diplomatic staff from Baghdad and Erbil; U.S. oil company ExxonMobil 18 May evacuated foreign staff, after it signed $53bn deal with Baghdad 7 May. Unidentified assailants 19 May fired rocket at Green Zone in Baghdad which landed a mile from U.S. embassy. ISIS continued low-intensity attacks: in Salah al-Din province, suspected ISIS fighters 8 May killed seven in al-Mazari village; in Nineveh province near Mosul, militants 9 May targeted village chief and his family, killing five; in Baghdad, suicide bombing same day killed eight; in Mosul province, explosion 26 May killed five in market in Rabia. In Kirkuk province, gunmen 16 May killed nine police officers in two separate attacks; coordinated explosions 31 May killed at least three in Kirkuk city centre. Anti-corruption protests 16 May broke out in Najaf and clashes with security personnel left four dead. In north, Turkey and PKK continued to clash: at Sherwan Mazin border crossing, PKK 4 May killed three soldiers; Turkey same day reported 28 militants “neutralised” in subsequent pursuit; cross-border air raids 1-16 May hit PKK targets in Hakurk, Zap, Metina and Gara areas; Iraqi Kurdistan officials 14 May reported one civilian dead in Turkish drone strike.
The fallout is settling after the Iraqi army’s seizure of territories disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. More conflict over these areas, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk, is predictable. The UN should take advantage of today’s quiet to explore negotiations on the contested lands’ status.
In July protests against inadequate supplies of jobs, water and electricity swept across southern Iraq, reaching Baghdad. The ruling elites should heed demonstrators’ calls to improve public services and stamp out corruption – or risk reigniting popular discontent and tempting would-be strongmen to step in.
A struggle looms in Iraq over the future of paramilitary groups assembled to help the state defeat ISIS. These units remain under arms and autonomous. Baghdad should strengthen the interior and defence ministries so they can absorb the paramilitaries now undercutting the state’s authority.
Saudi Arabia has been forging links to Iraq since reopening its Baghdad embassy in 2016. Its adversary Iran has strong Iraqi ties. If Riyadh avoids antagonising Tehran, invests wisely and quiets anti-Shiite rhetoric, Iraq can be a bridge between the rival powers - not a battleground.
Though the Islamic State (ISIS) is beaten in Iraq, the battle for the country’s political soul is not over. Baghdad should act to restore local governance in Sinjar, where ISIS terrorised the local community, and encourage the district’s displaced people to return home.
Fifteen years after the change of order in Iraq, it’s the same problem. The central government is unable or unwilling to address problems across the board in Iraq. The corruption is endemic, the government’s inability to deal with it is endemic, and the protests are endemic.
If the group that is most adamantly in favour of combating corruption [in Iraq] is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it, frustrations could take a different turn.
The [Iraqi] government budget will form the bulk of [the World Bank] money, followed by private investment. Donors are seen as an added boost, not the bulk.
[The international conference in Kuwait on Iraq's reconstruction] is a signal to [Prime Minister] Abadi going into elections. This gives him something tangible to take back to Baghdad.
Tensions [within Kurdish political parties] are likely to endure, unless the Masoud/Masrour Barzani line relaxes its control and allows its rivals to fully participate in decision-making.
For the Sunnis, there's a lack of political cohesion about exactly what they want. [Iraq's] Abadi government has never needed the Sunnis more than now.
Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.
Originally published in The Guardian
The fallout continues to settle after Iraqi Kurdistan’s fraught independence referendum one year ago. In this Q&A, our Iraq Senior Adviser Maria Fantappie surveys the political landscape ahead of the first regional legislative elections since the plebiscite.
The administration just slashed the number of refugees the U.S. will admit to a record low. Its reasoning doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Originally published in Politico