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.
At the advent of President Joe Biden’s tenure, the U.S. confronts numerous foreign policy problems old and new. His administration should discard failed approaches, such as over-reliance on coercion, as it works to craft policies in service of a more peaceful world.
Islamic State (ISIS) launched one of deadliest suicide attack in years in capital Baghdad; tensions persisted between U.S. and Iran-backed militias and anti-govt protests resurged in south. Twin suicide bombings in centre of Baghdad 21 Jan killed at least 32 people and wounded over 110 in one of deadliest attacks on civilians in Baghdad in years; ISIS next day claimed responsibility. PM Kadhimi 28 Jan said security forces killed senior ISIS figure Abu Yaser al-Issawi. Earlier in month, thousands of protesters 3 Jan gathered in Tahrir Square in Baghdad to commemorate one-year anniversary of U.S. killing of Iran’s Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani and paramilitary coalition Popular Mobilisation Unit’s (PMU) deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, calling for retaliation and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq; PMU chairman Faleh al-Fayadh, and leading member of Kataib Hizbollah and acting deputy chairman of PMU Abu Fadak attended rally. Iraqi court 7 Jan issued arrest warrant for U.S. President Trump, citing investigation into U.S. killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. Outgoing U.S. administration 8 Jan sanctioned al-Fayadh over human rights violations, which Iraqi MFA 9 Jan denounced as “unacceptable”; U.S. 13 Jan also added Fadak to list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. In south, anti-govt protesters 8-10 Jan took to streets in Nasiriyah city in Dhi Qar province, demanding release of detained activists; clashes between protesters and security forces 10 Jan reportedly killed one policeman and wounded dozens more police and protesters. After army commanders 10 Jan sent soldiers to calm down tensions, soldiers and police reportedly clashed as former defended demonstrators; authorities same day detained those involved in violence and launched investigation; protesters 12 Jan continued to gather in Nasiriyah. Prominent activist Alaa al-Rikabi 15 Jan announced formation of Imtidad party, seeking to represent “October Revolution” protest movement formed in 2019. Cabinet 19 Jan postponed general elections, initially scheduled for 6 June, until 10 Oct due to incomplete technical preparations. Deadlock in parliament over 2021 budget persisted over Kurdish region’s budget and govt’s proposal to increase taxation on salaries and pensions.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remain uprooted and unable to go home after the war to defeat ISIS. The worst off are those, mainly women and children, perceived to have jihadist ties. Iraq and its partners should find ways to end their displacement.
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 comparison to previous protests [in Iraq's Kurdish north] these are significant as the current fiscal crisis affects larger swaths of the population.
The trend here is that the U.S. is withdrawing (from Iraq). If they are not doing it now, then they are doing it eventually.
It seems that what is left of ISIS networks now is that they are getting organized in smaller groups of five or six people who may not be connected to each other even.
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.
The new Iraqi prime minister has several daunting tasks. Not only must he navigate the politics that delayed his cabinet’s formation, but he must also deal with plummeting state revenues, simmering public discontent and – last but hardly least – rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
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.