iraq-8aug16
A boy with a hunting rifle runs through the British Cemetery in central Baghdad during a sandstorm, March 2003. MAGNUM/Moises Saman

Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”

Iraqi youth who came of age during the post-2003 turmoil share a sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. Across the political spectrum, they feel trapped: join a protest movement or militia, or emigrate. Even amid the severe challenges the government and its partners face, this generation must be prioritised, lest Iraq’s most important resource become a major security threat.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Beset by political dysfunction, endemic corruption and a jihadist threat, Iraq is squandering its greatest asset: its youth. By failing to provide a vision and concrete prospects for the future, it is pressing young men into the straitjacket of jobs-through-patronage, pushing them into combat with either the Islamic State (IS) or Shiite militias or inducing them to emigrate. Arguably, the government faces more pressing challenges: pushing IS out, ensuring that subsequent governance does not further alienate the local population, instituting overdue reforms and tackling corruption. Yet, it will not succeed if it does not at the same time develop a strategy for creating a meaningful place in politics and society for the young. They are the country’s most important resource; abandoning them could turn them into the most important threat to national and regional security.

The leadership’s inability to forge a future for “Generation 2000”, which grew up after Saddam Hussein’s fall, has turned it into easy quarry for predators, be they IS, Shiite militias or populists preaching Iraqi nationalism. The potential for mobilising large numbers of young men at loose ends as pawns in violent conflicts has enabled both IS and Shiite militias to gain recruits. In the process, it has compounded sectarian polarisation and widened the divide between street and elites. Fed by fresh pools of fighting-age men, local tensions and conflicts proliferate and escalate, destabilising the country and the surrounding region. The most powerful Shiite militias receive training and advice from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed as proxies outside Iraq as well.

The familiar expression “youth radicalisation” distorts the reality that an entire generation is adrift, in need of a dramatically new state-led approach. Young Iraqis whose formative years were in the post-2003 turmoil have much more in common than they suspect, whatever side of local conflicts they are on, but they have been increasingly socialised within communal confines and left to the mercy of radical groups that promote dehumanised, even demonised perceptions of one another.

Before violence engulfed Iraq again, with the rise of IS, youth had attempted to peacefully hold the political class accountable for years of dismal governance. Sunni Arabs staged sit-ins in several towns in 2013, questioning national leaders, including senior Sunnis. They met with repression, leaving scores dead, many more in prison. These events paved the way for IS, which seized Falluja, the Sunni town nearest Baghdad, Mosul and other majority-Sunni towns in June 2014.

The collapse of the Iraqi army triggered a Shiite call to arms. Militia commanders quickly tapped into youthful disappointment with the Shiite political establishment, turning it into sectarian mobilisation against IS. By summer 2015, IS’s battlefield fortunes had turned, even as it continued to control territory and population. The absence of services, especially electricity shortages in the searing summer, stimulated a popular movement in Baghdad and other majority-Shiite areas reflecting a general sense of frustration with the political establishment.

Youths flocking to either side of the sectarian divide faulted ruling elites on the same grounds but ended up fighting each other. The political class’ response has been to protect its interests by divide and rule, redirecting anger into fratricidal tensions. Iraq’s external supporters compound the problem by boxing a rudderless generation into distinct categories – fighters, protesters or emigrants – and taking a different approach with each: a military campaign to defeat IS, pressure on the government to institute reforms to undercut demands and an effort to strengthen border controls to keep out migrants. Putting the emphasis on fighting IS, in particular, translates into tolerance of the Shiite militias, whose rise has contributed to sectarian polarisation and empowered a militia culture that compels young professionals to emigrate while boosting commanders’ political ambitions.

The government’s reform capacity may be limited, yet it must address its youth crisis as its top priority if it is to hold Iraq together. It will need the help of its sponsors, Iran included, which appear more concerned with the fight against IS. It should start by devising a youth policy, presented as a multiyear plan premised on the notion that young people need avenues for participation and advancement outside the political parties’ discredited co-option via patronage.

A first step would be to acknowledge that, isolated within the Green Zone, it has limited tools to harness youths’ energies, but also to recognise that it has advantages over non-state actors, including ability to legislate. Rather than create new structures and methods, it should embrace those used by the militias and IS and absorb youths into the state’s legal framework, security forces or civilian agencies, including as volunteers in public works. It should convert the volunteer combat groups set up in 2014 (hashd al-shaabi) into a civilian mobilisation directed to rebuilding communities within the framework of local administrations. It should likewise recruit Sunni youths in areas IS vacates and engage them in local reconstruction projects. Paying a new cohort of state employees salaries and benefits is a challenge, when reduced oil income forces significant belt-tightening, but the government should build a fund for this purpose and at least give written guarantees of a steady income, a pension and other benefits. It should also organise any further military recruitment strictly under the army.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and UN agencies must ask if their policies actually help the government in such an approach. External aid that reaches youths solely through local intermediaries risks further isolating the government in the Green Zone and reinforcing young people’s isolation in their communities, while driving them toward more dependence on local patrons and militia commanders. Unless such support gives the government a central role, it will contribute to the state’s erosion and encourage local struggles over power and resources without an effective national arbiter. Just as a country’s progress can be measured by the extent to which it engages its youth, so its demise as a viable entity can be predicted by the absence of a forward-looking youth policy and the drift of a generation into self-destructive combat or desperate flight. Iraq’s youth and the country deserve better.

Introduction

Two years after the Islamic State (IS) captured major Sunni population centres, Iraqi government forces struggle to regain them in a multi-front war, supported by a U.S.-led coalition and Iranian military advice. As they make halting progress, a largely youth-led protest, which erupted in August 2015, forced Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce an ambitious reform program to replace his party-dominated government with a technocratic cabinet and tackle corruption.[fn]See, International Crisis Group, “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, 24 August 2015.Hide Footnote In February 2016, the protests surged again, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, an activist cleric able to claim distance from the establishment and with unique appeal to Baghdad’s Shiite slums. The crisis climaxed on 30 April. Sadr’s followers scaled the walls of the Green Zone, the Baghdad area where government institutions are located, and stormed parliament to press Abadi on his promises. Tensions abated only as Abadi announced an offensive in Falluja, under IS control since 2014. Young men recruited into Shiite militias fought an enemy there drawn from the same pool of Iraq’s young, but Sunni. Others fled domestic turmoil for Europe.

These seemingly separate events are different faces of the same phenomenon. A pervasive aimlessness and lack of prospects among youths has fuelled recruitment to IS and Shiite militias, brought protesters into the streets and convinced others to emigrate. Iraqis between fifteen and 24 are nearly 20 per cent of the population.[fn]See “Demographic Indicators”, Central Statistics Organisation. A 2014 Index Mundi database reports that the fifteen to 24 age group has been steadily increasing in the last 30 years and is now some 6.5 million out of 32 million.Hide Footnote They grew up in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion in a deeply dysfunctional state, dependent on local patrons or Baghdad politicians who offered access to jobs, resources and careers. Economically and communally diverse, what unites these youths is a profound sense of hopelessness, disempowerment and lack of direction. A local NGO leader in Baghdad stated bitterly:[fn]Crisis Group interview, director, Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), Baghdad, 23 July 2015.Hide Footnote

I call them the “wearied” generation (al-jil al-taabaan) or the generation of chaos (jil al-fawda). The state has unravelled, the family structure is crumbling, and these young people cannot find work. They have come into a world that offers them no points of reference.

This report, which is based on research, including extensive interviews, conducted in Baghdad and the provinces, retraces the phases of this young generation’s emergence over the past fifteen years (outside the Kurdish region, where different forms of these dynamics are at play). While it refers at times to the situation of women, its primary focus is on young men, who are the ones to join fighting groups and the first in their families to go abroad in search of better opportunities. Women are active in some street protests and join settled husbands abroad; while they do not become fighters, they may give important succour to their male relatives who do. It should be clear, however, that the same failing youth policies that have produced a lost generation of young men are also reducing opportunities for young women, whose potential for Iraq’s development – and their own – is thus tragically forfeited.

I. The Degeneration of Iraq’s Youth

A. Pre-2003

The millennial generation’s plight flows from the cumulative impact of decades of state decline and decay. Despite much political turmoil during the first two decades after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the military leaders enabled considerable social mobility via land reforms that broke up a semi-feudal system, prompting rapid demographic expansion and urbanisation. Oil money helped address a growing urban population’s needs, including by giving students scholarships, social benefits and prospects for public-sector careers.[fn]Between 1958 and 1977 state employees rose from 20,000 to nearly a million, including soldiers and pensioners. After 1991, nearly 40 per cent of households lived on government salaries. Isam al-Khafaji, “War as a Vehicle for the Rise and Demise of a State-Controlled Society: the Case of Ba’athist Iraq”, in Steven Heydemann (ed.), War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley, 2000). The regime benefited from the formula its predecessor negotiated with international oil companies in 1952, which gave it a 50-per-cent profit share of operations, and other agreements that yielded larger sales revenues. Abbas Alnasrawi, The Economy of Iraq: Oil, Wars, Destruction of Development and Prospects, 1950-2010 (London, 2010), pp. 2-3. On modernisation, Isam al-Khafaji, “The Myth of Iraqi Exceptionalism”, Middle East Policy (2000).Hide Footnote The Baath party regime that seized power in 1968 implemented socio-economic policies that aimed to enable careers to which youths could aspire. It also provided housing and access to consumer goods, essential ingredients for starting a family, while keeping prospects for social advancement and political association under tight control.[fn]In Saddam Hussein’s words, “if you catch the youth, you catch the future”. Quoted in Eric Davis, Memories of the State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley, 2005), p. 1. During the 1970s, the youth ministry promoted youth associations and sports clubs. During the Iraq-Iran war, the Baath party launched a literary journal, al-Talia al-Adabia, (The Literary Vanguard), dedicated to young writers praising the war effort. See ibid.Hide Footnote

Since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, however, youths have had neither normalcy nor a sense of progress. That war compelled the regime to shift from redistributive policies to military mobilisation and massive arms expenditures. Iraq lost hundreds of thousands of its young men while being saddled with a large financial debt and the burdens of a million-strong army. Cutting benefits and services, the regime fell back on paternalistic measures favouring only loyalists.[fn]In an example of the economic breakdown the war precipitated, university libraries stopped buying new books in 1986, beginning a twenty-year hiatus in education. Meanwhile, soldiers who had killed more than twenty Iranian soldiers were rewarded with 5,000 Iraqi dinars (ID) (nearly $15,ooo) or more. See Zaid al-Zaidi, Al-Bina’a al-ma’nawi li al-quwwat al musallaha al ‘Iraqiyya (Beirut, 1995), pp. 324-325. (Before the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1990, a dinar was worth about $3. After sanctions, the dinar plummeted and at times fluctuated significantly. Today, the U.S. dollar is worth about ID 1,200. Dinar-dollar equivalents cited in the report attempt to reflect the rate at the time of the event or period discussed.)Hide Footnote Within two years, it invaded Kuwait, an attempted takeover of a wartime creditor that ended in defeat and was followed by brutally suppressed uprisings.

In the next decade, as state institutions crumbled and living conditions deteriorated under UN sanctions, young people, regardless of education or qualifications, had to get by on meagre government salaries or devise other means to survive in a ruined country that offered few prospects of return to the prosperity of the 1970s. Saddam Hussein’s regime stayed afloat by naked repression and recruiting young men from destitute areas into its security apparatus, including new militias such as Saddam’s Fighters (Fedayeen Saddam), and giving them status, uniforms, guns and a basic salary in return for blind loyalty.[fn]See Pierre Darle, Saddam Hussein, maître des mots: du langage de la tyrannie à la tyrannie du langage (Paris, 2003). Created in 1994, Fedayeen Saddam was a militia that recruited uneducated men in their twenties. Paramilitary youth organisations subsequently expanded, drawing ever-younger recruits. Founded in 1998, Saddam’s Lion Cubs (Ashbal Saddam) prepared teenagers to become good Fedayeen. Saddam’s Jihaz al-Himaya al-Khaas security guard recruited youths in their mid-twenties from poor areas, most of whom had not finished studies, and trained them in techniques like assassination and recruiting informants. Isam al-Khafaji, “State Terror and the Degradation of Politics in Iraq”, Middle East Report, no. 176 (1994), p. 18.Hide Footnote By 2003, society had been degraded materially, psychologically and organisationally.

B. The U.S. Occupation

Post-invasion blunders, combined with the UN embargo’s devastating legacy, burdened the U.S. struggle to control, rule and rebuild. The invasion and subsequent attempt to remake Iraq reshuffled the ruling elite, empowering regime opponents back from exile with little connection to the population, governing skills or experience.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°52, The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict, 27 February 2006.Hide Footnote The cadres trained (typically on scholarships abroad) and empowered in the earlier state-building process had reached retirement age, creating a gap filled by the returnees and those who benefited from the massive U.S. cash influx and resulting social mobility that disrupted hierarchies.

The new leaders inherited an oil-dependent country whose largest employer remained the state. Rather than diversifying the economy, they sought to control ministries to appropriate resources and build a popular base by offering supporters jobs in return for loyalty. The political system the U.S. created with the elected 2005 Transitional Government encouraged political-party appropriation of state institutions. Ostensibly designed to ensure equitable representation of ethnic and religious communities (the muhasasa, “allotment” principle), it encouraged the spread of party-based patronage networks throughout the public sector. Majeeda al-Timimi, a parliamentary finance committee member, explained:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015. After 2005, applicants needed a recommendation letter (tazkiya) from a party to be hired, especially in the bureaucracy’s upper ranks – directors-general (mudir aam) and their deputies (naaib). Crisis Group Middle East Report N°55, Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?, 11 July 2006, p. 15.Hide Footnote

Before 2003, the planning ministry was tasked with posting vacancies for each ministry and following up recruitment. After 2005, in order to respect the principle of muhasasa, we decided that each minister should be in charge of employment in his ministry. But each minister represented a political party and would recruit only from within his party.

The public sector remained almost the sole source of jobs, but Iraqis could access and rise in it only through affiliation with the newly empowered parties. This increased the gulf between politicians, ensconced within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, and ordinary citizens. Unable or disinclined to play the party-patronage game, some joined either a budding insurgency organised by ex-regime elements and Islamist radicals – initially mixed but ultimately mostly Sunni – or the Mahdi army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), a militia led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who recruited youths from impoverished urban areas and turned them into vigilantes. Beyond the prospect of earning an income, what mobilised these youths was a sense of empowerment and ability to confront a foreign occupation.[fn]Ex-Fedayeen Saddam were the most effective fighters against the U.S. in Basra in 2003 and Najaf in 2004 but soon split up into the Mahdi army and various insurgent groups. Sadr, youngest son of a prominent Shiite cleric murdered by the regime, portrayed himself as personifying poor, jobless youths unable to find a place in the new system. Peter Harling, “Iraq’s Lost Generation”, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 11 December 2007.Hide Footnote

Over time, these movements grew larger, more sectarian and more violent, engaging young members in a contest over ownership of the capital in particular. The Mahdi army expanded its reach over Baghdad, evolving into a gang-style militia even Sadr could not control.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°72, Iraq’s Civil War: the Sadrists and the Surge, 7 February 2008, Section II.Hide Footnote Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups proliferated and grew in Baghdad’s outskirts and neighbouring Anbar governorate, where they found a deep pool of young recruits. Those who faced off in the growing sectarian war were each other’s peers.

Starting in 2007, the U.S. “surge” pushed back these groups and suppressed their appeal, but by largely relying on patronage to co-opt their upper echelons, a resurgent government further strained links between the youths and their nominal leaders. The U.S. military gave large sums of money to Sunni tribal chiefs who organised their youths in tribally-based militias (Majalis al-Sahwa, Awakening Councils) to push al-Qaeda out of their areas. The government replicated this in the south with the Majalis al-Isnaad (Support Councils), heaping money on tribal leaders to undermine the Mahdi army’s appeal among Shiite youth.[fn]On the tribes’ counter-insurgency role, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°74, Iraq after the Surge I, The New Sunni Landscape, 30 April 2008; and Iraq’s Civil War, op. cit.Hide Footnote

This policy gave Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen salaries and prospects of jobs as police or soldiers, but it also funnelled enormous resources to tribal figures who often pocketed them. Access to public-sector jobs remained limited to those with connections to political party figures, thus keeping some militia commanders and ex-insurgents off the government payroll. It was a quick fix, perhaps needed at the time to roll back al-Qaeda, but one that reinforced patron-client relationships and failed to reintegrate fighters into civilian life.

C. The Maliki Years

From 2009, the steady growth of oil production (based on new contracts with companies such as BP and Shell) gave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) and his party sufficient money to buy social peace and project an illusion of stability.[fn]From 2009, oil exports rose to above two million barrels per day at a time when the barrel price exceeded $100. Some 90 per cent of Iraq’s budget derives from oil exports, a sector that, in 2014, employed less than 2 per cent of the population. After 2009, state revenues doubled. “Iraq Budget 2013”, Joint-Analysis Policy Unit, January 2014; and “Republic of Iraq, Public Expenditure Review”, World Bank, August 2014, Chapters I-II.Hide Footnote However, Maliki’s bold style concealed a fragile, dysfunctional state.

Maliki’s Islamic Daawa party, an elitist group of middle-class professionals formerly in exile or underground, cleverly managed Green Zone politics but did little more than dispense public-sector jobs and funds to its constituents. Oil-income redistribution was limited to the public sector, including substantial allocations for recruiting youths to the security forces.[fn]Since 2009, defence expenditures have steadily risen, reaching 20 per cent of the state budget in 2013. Joint-Analysis Policy Unit, op. cit. The interior and defence ministries had nearly 700,000 and 300,000 employees in 2012, respectively, matched only by the education ministry, with nearly 650,000. See “Republic of Iraq, Public Expenditure”, op. cit., p. 115.Hide Footnote Government youth initiatives merely perpet­uated party dominance over local and national institutions. In 2006, Jasem Moham­med Jaafar, youth and sports minister and a member of the Turkmen Islamic Union, a Shiite Islamist party with close Daawa ties, established and funded youth local committees (lijan shababiya) and a Youth Parliament (Barlaman al-Shababi). Both were dominated by members handpicked by Daawa and allied parties. Recruitment favoured persons who shared family ties or a social profile with party leaders. Funds were thus redistributed to committees that essentially were a junior adaptation of the country’s leadership.[fn]A former Youth Parliament member explained the selection process: “The [youth and sports] ministry selected local youth committee members through an online selection process based on applicants’ course work, educational degree and experience. A high-school diploma was a minimum requirement. In turn, youth committees elected representatives to the Youth Parliament from among their members. Political parties fully controlled the selection process. Most … candidates … had political parties supporting their application, while those competing for the parliament even had parties funding their campaigns”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 12 March 2016. Following the change in government in 2014, the youth ministry had a minister from the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), who removed Youth Parliament funding. Separately, in 2013, the Sadr-controlled planning ministry signed a four-year National Development Plan in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which identified youth among its targets. The plan had achieved little when a year later, a new minister from the Mouttahidoun bloc changed priorities and redirected funds to reconstruction in areas recovered from IS. Read text of National Development Plan.Hide Footnote

The revenue bonanza accelerated trends that had surfaced during the sanctions decade. Party leaders were the tip of the patronage pyramid, redistributing resources across state institutions and so perpetuating and exacerbating the favouritism and corruption long rife in public administration.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°113, Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government, 26 September 2011. Politicians would sell managerial positions to the highest bidders among their supporters to extract kickbacks. A 30-year-old engineer said, “The position of engineering college dean is highly profitable. To get it, you need to pay some 150 million ID [nearly $135,000]. Any companies that need their projects approved by the dean before submitting them to the government would have to pay him at least 25 million ID [nearly $20,000] for each project; in this way you can earn back quite quickly what you spent for the position”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 July 2015. Also, Zaid al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, 2014).Hide Footnote Parties’ grip on state institutions and administrative corruption were mutually reinforcing. Lower-ranking members gave bribes for senior appointments, enabling them to take kickbacks from subordinates or clients in turn. This disproportionately benefited senior managers with party connections at the expense of mid-rank civil servants, whose salaries stagnated as costs rose, directly affecting the quality of services. Through party connections teachers tried to obtain posts that would give them the chance to demand bribes from students; party-connected officers received senior appointments that allowed them to take a portion of their subordinates’ pay.[fn]A teacher explained: “The education ministry decides where to post high-school teachers: in Baghdad or the provinces. Political parties influence the … choice by appointing their supporters in the capital where students tend to be wealthier and can pay bribes to pass exams or see questions in advance. Parliament will never approve a law to regulate teachers’ postings, because parties would lose their power over the process”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Education exemplified the vicious circle that directly affected youths. Many teachers supplemented incomes by giving private instruction, thus assuming a workload that conflicted with their day jobs. Students whose families could not afford to pay for private instruction in some form were less equipped to pass exams required for the public-sector jobs they coveted.[fn]A sixteen-year-old girl from Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood said, “I have continued attending public school, because my family cannot afford a private teacher, who charges 50,000 ID (nearly $45) per class. The boys in our family quit their studies after primary school in order to look for a job”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote A private-school director said:[fn][1] Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. The public health system suffers from similar dysfunctions. Only freshly graduated, inexperienced doctors are in public hospitals, working more than ten hours a day, six days a week. Older, more experienced doctors only work for money they earn by establishing private clinics. Crisis Group observation, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote

Private-school students have a greater chance to do well in exams. Their teachers know which topics to prep …. If something goes wrong, their families come to me and say, “but we are paying you!”, expecting their children to pass …. So teachers sell exam questions to students to make sure they succeed.

As services deteriorated, many Iraqis felt entitled to loot the state.[fn]In one example, some hospitals are known to sell drugs to people with privileged access, who resell them at a personal profit. Crisis Group observations, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote Many also turned to state jobs, less from a public duty sense than to ensure a basic livelihood. The survival culture fashioned in the sanctions era became further entrenched, reaching the point of putting a price on inter-personal relationships, as tribal leaders who benefited from state patronage monetised ties with members, losing youths’ respect and loyalty in the process. A tribal leader in Kirkuk complained:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, 20 October 2015.Hide Footnote

After 2003, we had to connect with the stronger parties to get money and weapons to protect our land and satisfy our members. Then insurgent groups came and supplied our young with more money and more powerful weapons than we could. The [“surge”] temporarily resolved the problem, but as soon as it ended, I had nothing to offer my tribe. Before 2003, the tribal leader was the intermediary between tribe and state. If any problem arose, it was up to him to negotiate and settle it. He was a symbol (ramz). But today the young just want weapons and money. If they can’t get them from us, they get them elsewhere. This has broken the line of allegiance between a tribe’s leader and members.

Even the nuclear family was weakened, to the point that, in some extreme cases, relatives began to abuse each other. Some fathers encouraged or even forced their daughters to marry and divorce repeatedly to collect a bride’s price multiple times; in other cases, parents turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of under-age children to extract compensation from the abuser’s tribe.[fn]The OWFI reported a rise in divorces as a result of parents pressing daughters to marry young or girls’ and boys’ haste to marry to escape their household: “In 2015 [w]e have registered at least 4,150 divorces in Baghdad, a record number. A family sees a man with a new car who proposes to their daughter, and they agree to marriage without even checking how he was able to buy the car. Then they discover he is jobless, and problems begin”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015. Crisis Group spoke with a sixteen-year-old boy from Sadr City who said he had been a victim of sexual abuse. His father threw him out of the house while obtaining financial compensation from the culprits, which he pocketed. Other interviews suggested a wider trend.Hide Footnote

II. Generation 2000

The patronage system that ensured Maliki’s and the political establishment’s survival froze politics around a small network of persons, undermined possibilities for leadership renewal within parties, further eroded governance and, while appearing to have achieved social peace, laid the ground for new turmoil.

The millennial generation has grown up with vanishing reference points in both public and private spheres and few prospects. Each task is an encounter with a Green Zone-controlled patronage network whose tentacles spread throughout the corrupt bureaucracy, seeming to envelop the country’s life.[fn]What should be simple bureaucratic procedures become interminable processes as a way of generating income throughout the bureaucracy. A 26-year-old man recounted his experience renewing a driver’s licence: “I wanted to do it without bribing anyone. I first did an eye exam at a health ministry branch, which I took to the traffic police … in charge of renewing driver’s licenses, and the process became endless. They asked me for an official paper from my neighbourhood administrator proving my residence in Baghdad …. Then they asked me for the signatures of the head of the provincial council and the mayor …. the owner of a nearby barbershop told me the only way to speed things up would be to pay an extra 50,000 ID (nearly $45) to the directorate’s cashier”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote In destitute areas, young men needing to contribute to family income abandon studies before finishing primary (ibtidaaiya) or middle-school (mutawasita) to take precarious day-labourer (kasaba) jobs.[fn]Baghdad day labourers earn on average 35,000 ID (less than $30) per week. They tend to live in neighbourhoods where they pay 200,000 ID (nearly $180) per month for a two-room flat, possible only through the family’s collective income and living under one roof with other relatives. A Sadr City teenager was typical: “I was born here in 2000. We grew up with thirteen children in the same flat of 36 sq. metres. When I finished primary school, I began working in the central market for 5,000 ID [less than $5] per day”. Crisis Group observations, interview, July 2015.Hide Footnote Entering the job market young, men may rush to marry, but those able to earn enough to pay the bride’s price often lack funds to rent a small apartment. Contin­uing to live with family can create tensions between spouses and in-laws and other problems. A twenty-year-old woman recounted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. A sixteen-year-old girl in Sadr City explained that, to save money, four families lived in her house, and “sometimes married couples share a room, using a blanket suspended from the ceiling to separate themselves from the others before going to bed”. Ibid. See also Rania Abouzeid, “Out of Sight”, The New Yorker, 5 October 2015.Hide Footnote

My father was murdered in the 2007 sectarian war. Three years ago I agreed to marry a man I had met only twice. I moved in with him and his mother. My mother-in-law continually asked me for money, and when I did not comply, she incited my husband to beat me. When I gave birth to a boy, my husband divorced me, and I never saw the child again. My family refused to take me back, so I found myself in the street. I had no other choice but to work in a night club in Karrada [Baghdad central district], where I got pregnant again. The police raided the club, and I went to prison where I gave birth to my second child.

Lack of prospects also affects the educated middle class. Professionals are no longer at the top of the social pyramid, as salaries have not kept up with costs. New doctors and engineers can hardly afford to rent in their own neighbourhoods, so are reluctant to marry on starting income. A university degree, unlike party ties, no longer guarantees that graduates can practice their professions.[fn]A schoolteacher’s average monthly salary does not exceed $400; a doctor’s average start is $600/$650. Neither is enough to rent an apartment and live in a Baghdad middle-class area like Mansour, Harethiya or Karrada, with $500-$1,000 rents. Crisis Group observation, July 2015.Hide Footnote Regardless of sect or economic background, youths are confronted with a choice: complicity with the patronage system, find a way to circumvent it, join a military group or leave. Many fight with or against IS or try a dangerous journey to Europe because it offers better prospects than trying to navigate a suffocating reality.

A. Isolation, Ghettoisation and an Evolving Sectarianism

Generation 2000’s early experience was the 2005-2007 sectarian war, which drew invisible, insurmountable boundaries between cities and provinces and between communities that demarcated themselves by ethnic and confessional identities. The “surge” reinforced isolation of groups in Baghdad, separating them by concrete walls. After the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, the Maliki government retained these and imposed restrictions on mobility, in some cases limiting neighbourhood entry to residents. With the heritage of sectarian divide, these steps further restricted young people’s social connections. For many, relationships were limited to their localities, which often overlapped with their ethnic or confessional group.[fn]See on the civil war, Crisis Group Report, The Next Iraqi War?, op. cit., on security measures under Maliki, Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit., and Amin Sade, “Obstructing Reforms”, Sada, 8 August 2013. The divide affects practices, habits and relations. A Baghdad twenty-year-old said, “if you want to go out, you feel you cannot. Even friendship is complicated; you never know who you can trust”. Crisis Group interview, 29 July 2015. Most southern youths have visited only Karbala and Najaf for pilgrimages, never a Sunni area or Baghdad. Those born in Ramadi, have rarely visited Baghdad, not 90 minutes away. Crisis Group observations, 2013-2015.Hide Footnote

Those now in their late twenties participated in or saw the street fighting known as al-ahdath al-taefiya (the sectarian events). Relatives or friends were killed or forced to leave neighbourhoods depending on their sect. The millennials experienced displacements as children; by teen years, the barriers had solidified.

While the former generation knew sectarian divisions and participated in the fighting, the present one has grown up with sectarianism as an a priori condition that constrains friendships, mobility, marriage choices and daily practices.[fn]An OWFI member said, “the practice of intra-family marriage is on the rise even among middleclass professionals. Parents prefer to marry their daughters to family members or people of the same neighbourhood”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote Elders with civil war memories avoid certain areas, but young Iraqis barely know such localities. A twenty-year-old born and raised in Mahmoudiya, a Shiite town south of Baghdad, said of a neighbouring Sunni town he has never seen, “in Latifiya, they have services because they are Sunnis. Here, because we are Shiite, we don’t have anything, except the marjaeeya. If Daesh [IS] enters Mahmoudiya, the Latifiya Sunnis will transfer allegiance and side with them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 23 July 2015. A Shiite from Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood called Latifiya an “al-Qaeda cradle”. Crisis Group interview, July 2015. The marjaeeya is the source of emulation in Shiite religious tradition, in Iraq embodied by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In a near-mirror image, a 30-year-old Sunni from Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood, echoing perceptions rooted in the civil war, said he considered Mahmoudiya dangerous: “you can hardly drive [there] and expect to get out in one piece”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote

Geographical isolation has nurtured sectarianism by locking youths within the boundaries of their community.[fn]Isolation cemented local identities even within the same sect. Thus, the large majority of Mah­mou­diya youth have never visited Baghdad’s Sadr City (its largest Shiite neighbourhood) despite it also being Shiite-populated and a mere twenty kilometres away. A Mahmoudiya resident said he considered this “a dangerous trip”. Sadr City residents, in turn, would be surprised to hear of anyone having visited Mahmoudiya. Crisis Group observations, July-September 2015.Hide Footnote While Sunnis and Shiites confronted each other in the streets during the sectarian war, young people from different sects now have competing representations of reality that depend on the narratives to which they are exposed within their localities rather than direct experience. The gulf between those competing representations has become sharper since the rise of IS. A Shiite student from Baghdad comparing 2006 with today said, “there is no longer a difference between Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad. No one will ask you what you are at a checkpoint”, but this contrasted with the view of a Sunni youth in Baghdad, who perceived sectarian discrimination on the rise: “Now they know immediately who is Sunni or Shiite without even checking your ID or your name as before. They look at the type of car you drive, the way you dress, the way you greet them”.

B. Growing Anti-establishment Sentiment

The degradation of state institutions nurtured feelings among youths of disdain toward political leaders. Asked for an opinion, the answer frequently is “bas yaboog”, a dialect expression meaning “they just steal”. Youths regularly accuse them of pocketing public resources and constraining individual aspirations. In the words of a young man who frequents the park on Mutanabbi Street (a rare Baghdad place where youths still gather Friday mornings):[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015.Hide Footnote

In Iraq, nowadays, all you need to be a successful politician are weapons and fighters. The only thing politicians know well is how to steal, steal, steal [bug, bug, bug]. They are anti-people: they invade and occupy each corner and aspect of our life. They are the main reason for this [IS] conflict. The state is a failure. When I see a soldier, I do not respect him .… The army is a cowardly bunch.

Though these feelings are widely shared across sectarian lines, young people are divided in expressing them. The sentiments have surfaced within civil society initiatives that sought to broaden their local dimension, but isolation within localities and sects has made youth mobilisation on a national scale difficult. The protests that began in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in 2011 had a unique character in Iraq. Protesters expressed a common theme of fighting corruption and bad governance, but the movements that erupted against local politicians in Baghdad, Basra and even Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan remained largely disconnected.[fn]See Marina Ottaway and Daniel Kaysi, “Iraq: Protests, Democracy, Autocracy”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 March 2011. Civil society initiatives remain largely local. Ahmad Thamer Jihad, “Don’t leave Iraq to thieves and murderers”, Niqash, 5 November 2015.Hide Footnote Youths shared an emotive impulse against the status quo but seemed disinclined to establish a political movement against the country’s leadership.

The millennial generation has an amorphous identity: depending on the context and who seeks to mobilise them, ethnic, sectarian, tribal, locally geographic or other sub-national identity will emerge as the avenue through which members see and challenge the establishment. Iraqi youth were the most vulnerable to deepening sectarian polarisation after the Syrian uprising, and this pitted young against young along sectarian lines even as they all shared an anti-establishment animus.

III. Mobilisation for Combat

A. A Dying Insurgency’s Revival

In 2012, Syria’s uprising became a full-scale war involving neighbouring powers (Iran, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey) that polarised the region partly along sectarian lines. Iraq, the geographic epicentre, was quickly affected, prompting re-mobilisation of ex-insurgents and militia members. A protest movement allegedly funded by Gulf sources emerged in Sunni areas. Anti-establishment feelings boiled over in protests whose civil-society character mixed with symbols of a sect or geographic area. Clerics, tribal leaders and branches of the old Islamist and nationalist insurgency organised tent sit-ins and “protest squares” in the main majority-Sunni cities, Ramadi, Samarra, Hawija and Mosul. Twenty-year-old clerics and tribal leaders enlivened Friday prayers, and teenagers joined in, making the protest squares a social gathering as well as expression of political engagement.

Compounded by government failure to offer prospects to especially the masses of idle entrants into adult life, the protests acquired a stronger political overtone. In May 2013, special forces cracked down on a tent sit-in Hawija, killing at least 50 and rekindling revenge sentiments among those in their late twenties who retained vivid memory of the sectarian-driven repression they had experienced the previous decade and whose insurgency had failed to defeat the Shiite-dominated government.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°50, Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, 28 April 2014, p. 9.Hide Footnote While elders tried to contain the situation, young and ambitious clerics and tribal leaders incited Friday audiences.[fn]Two clerics in their twenties, Sheikh Saeed al-Lafi from Ramadi and Qusay al-Zein from Falluja, emerged as prominent Friday prayer protest leaders in the squares. For an overview of Sunni youth protests and government response, see Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit.Hide Footnote Their aggressive rhetoric caught on among teenagers who had hardly been outside their own cities and whose experience of the government and Shiites was often limited to unpleasant interactions with security forces.[fn]A former insurgency member taking part in a sit-in said, “we think that the armed opposition did not achieve its goals in Iraq and that America handed Iraq to Iran and the Shiites. Factions of the former resistance have been scattered across the country, but we are counting on the success of the Syrian revolution, which will provide us with a surplus of men and weapons. Maliki’s government fully realises this. We see in these protests a chance to liberate Iraq from Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 14 February 2013; Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote An elder tribal leader participating in the protests worried: “We have a hard time controlling our young boys in the protest squares. We organise football matches to keep them busy, but tension is growing by the day. They ache to take on weapons”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Majeed, Ramadi, 9 March 2013.Hide Footnote

The government’s attempt to end the protests by co-opting Sunni tribal and political figures disrespected by young people consolidated a partnership between ex-insurgents in their late twenties and Sunni teenagers. The former viewed the jihadist cells scattered across the Iraq-Syria desert since the time of the U.S. occupation as a temporary ally. Both groups welcomed the jihadists’ arrival euphorically, if for different reasons. To ex-insurgents, jihadists were a strong military partner in their desire to revenge the lost battle against the government. Teenagers, with no memory of the jihadists’ al-Qaeda in Iraq incarnation, welcomed them as champions of a new order.[fn]In 2005, under Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s leadership, al-Qaeda in Iraq proclaimed an Islamic State. Its authoritarian practices challenged local and tribal values, unleashing an indigenous, U.S.-supported revolt that pushed it out of urban centres into the desert; in 2011, it took advantage of Syria’s chaos to move there and grow. Crisis Group, Iraq after the Surge I, op. cit.Hide Footnote A resident of al-Qaim, who witnessed the fall of his border city to IS militants in June 2014, recounted:[fn]Crisis Group email communication, al-Qaim resident living under IS, October 2014.Hide Footnote

Fifteen fighters entered the city. During Friday prayers they announced they had come to end government injustices and terminate the amnesty police and soldiers enjoyed in the city. Young boys took to the street cheering victory. The jihadists recruited a number of these who had no connection to the insurgency and no affiliation with political parties but were supporters of the protests. They tasked them with ensuring protection of public and private property, without asking them to swear allegiance. Only after weeks of testing their potential were the youths asked to pledge absolute allegiance to Daesh.

Jihadist fighters advanced in city after city, village after village, declaring creation of an Islamic State in June 2014.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Alert, “Iraq after Hawija: Recovery or Relapse?”, 26 April 2013; Reports, Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, and Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, both op. cit.; and Middle East Briefing N°38, Iraq’s Jihadi Jack-in-the-Box, 20 June 2014.Hide Footnote Key to their success was ability to direct youths’ anti-establishment sentiments against the entire political class and redefine a confrontation that began between Sunni street and Sunni elites as a sectarian one opposing Sunni provinces and the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government.

B. Militia Commanders Return

Something similar swept across the Shiite provinces. As security in Syria deteriorated, the threat against the Shiite sanctuary of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus revived memories of the traumatic 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, apparently by al-Qaeda. From late 2012, Iranian Revolutionary Guards began recruiting Iraqis who had been militia commanders during the U.S. occupation and failed to integrate into the political process afterward. These men reorganised militias or built new ones and sent fighters to Syria under the tolerant eye of the Maliki government and the main Shiite political forces.[fn]Already in mid-2013, nearly 50 fighters weekly were flying from Iraq to Syria to join splinter factions of former Iran-backed militias (the Mahdi army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Badr Brigade and the Hizbollah Brigades) under command of ex-militia cadres who had not re-integrated in the political process. “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens”, Reuters, 19 June 2013.Hide Footnote Shiite clerics, often militia commanders’ peers who had climbed to authority in Shiite religious seminaries (hawza) and been confined to the shadows after the militia fight ended, also found an opportunity to regain popularity by supporting such recruitment.[fn]For instance, a man known as Abu Zeinab (nom de guerre), an ex-Mahdi army fighter, was reportedly in charge of organising recruitment, equipment, bookings and security permits for those flying to Syria. Among others with similar roles in Syria were Sheikh Auws al-Khafaji, another Mahdi army splinter figure, and Sheikh Abu Kamil al-Lami, a member of the Mahdi army offshoot, the League of the Righteous (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq). In February 2013, Wathiq al-Battat, ex-Hizbollah Brigades (Kataeb Hizbollah), founded a new corps, the Mukhtar Army, with the purpose of defending Shiites against attack and sending fighters to Syria. “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The 10 June 2014 collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul exposed the dysfunction and corruption of the government and Shiite political leadership.[fn]The government tolerated the smuggling; fighters flew from Najaf, reportedly directed by a Daawa party member. Yet, before 2014 none of the main Shiite political forces sent fighters to Syria, neither the Badr Brigade, formerly the armed branch of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), an Iran-backed former opposition group fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime, nor the Mahdi army, the armed branch of the Sadr movement, which received some Iranian backing during the U.S. occupation. Crisis Group interview, Basra, September 2015.Hide Footnote Scenes of IS massacring Shiite army cadets at the Speicher military base went viral on social media, further demonstrating Baghdad’s impotence.[fn]See “Iraq: Islamic State Executions in Tikrit”, Human Rights Watch, 2 September 2014; and Tim Arango, “Escaping death in northern Iraq”, The New York Times, 3 September 2014.Hide Footnote A 26-year-old Hizbollah Brigade fighter said:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 April 2015.Hide Footnote

We can no longer count on the army to defend this country. They are not motivated to fight, while we are sleeping in the dust on the front lines, risking our lives every moment. Army officers are corrupt; they spend their time in luxurious hotels with women and leave the jihadists on the loose in return for money. This country is in ruins.

The fear that IS could advance to Samarra, Karbala and Najaf validated for Shiites, teenagers in particular, the argument of militia commanders and clerics that they should rally to defend their shrines, because Shiite politicians had failed to create a functioning army.[fn]A 24-year-old who fought in Syria said, “the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards are our brothers; we are part of the same axis, which rejects state borders. I consider [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad a criminal, but we fought for the protection of Sayyida Zeinab”. Crisis Group interview, 4 April 2015. Another, interviewed on his way to fight in Syria, said, “it is my duty to go there and fight to defend Sayyida Zeinab. Should we see Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed’s grand-daughter, captured again?” Reuters, 19 June 2013.Hide Footnote Clerics opened Shiite prayer houses (husseiniya) for recruitment, as tribal leaders did with their guesthouses (mudhif). Acknowledging the imperative of fighting IS but also seeing the dangers in attempting to resist a mass call-up of Iran-backed militia fighters, the Shiite political and religious establishment tried to ride the wave rather than stem the tide. Iraq’s highest religious Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a binding religious edict (fatwa) on 13 June, calling on youths to volunteer in defence of the country. The call to sign up spread by word of mouth across the south and resulted in a massive mobilisation of young volunteers (mutatawaeen) in what was later called “popular mobilisation” (al-hashd al-shaabi). A hashd officer in Karbala recounted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, officer of the hashd Liwa Ali al-Akbar, Karbala, 29 July 2015. Though there is no accurate count of hashd recruits, in early 2015 it was estimated to be between 90,000 and 120,000. See Mustafa Habib, “Are Shiite militias growing more powerful than the Iraqi army?”, Niqash, 29 January 2015.Hide Footnote

We were already active before Sistani’s fatwa. Now our militia members with previous military experience and [Shiite army] officers are organising recruitment and training. We have recruited more than 3,000 fighters from the tribes to defend the holy shrines in Samarra. Now we are focused on safeguarding the Imam Hussein shrine [in Karbala].

The Sistani fatwa was a deft but desperate attempt to save the legitimacy of the Shiite clerics and the political establishment by giving a nationalist sheen to anti-IS operations under the aegis of the Shiite world’s most respected religious leader.[fn]The son and representative of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Hakim in Najaf said, “the state failed to protect the people from Daesh and also could not accommodate the volunteers, and so [Grand Ayatollah] Sayed Sistani had little choice but to call for popular mobilisation”. Crisis Group interview, Izzeddine Mohammed al-Hakim, Najaf, 28 September 2015.Hide Footnote It succeeded to an extent but had the unintended result of giving the Shiite community a leadership role in defence of the country, with Shiite teenagers eagerly compensating for the political class’ failings by fighting IS in a war against their Sunni peers – in other words, precisely the sectarian conflict IS wanted.

C. Volunteering to Fight

Joining the hashd was the only way for many youths to earn a salary and benefits for their families if they died. Most who enrolled had been working as day labourers or in the lower public sector ranks, with no possibility of a decent living.[fn]The large majority of hashd volunteers have not finished primary or middle-school studies and worked in precarious conditions as day labourers, making a maximum of 25,000 ID per week (barely $20), too little to pay monthly rents in the area of some 200,000 ID (nearly $180). Hashd pay differs from group to group. A member in Baghdad said he received 750,000 ID (around $630) monthly, one in Karbala 875,000 ID (some $735): 500,000 ID as salary, 250,000 as danger indemnity and 125,000 for food. Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Karbala, July 2015.Hide Footnote Still, while income was an incentive, their motives cannot be reduced to material interest. The hashd attracted many destitute youths in part because recruitment targeted the most densely populated, poorest areas (like Sadr City in Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniya and Amara) or was done near the frontline (for example, Shula and Hurriya neighbourhoods in Baghdad and Karbala). Young men continued to volunteer even when the government or militia defaulted on pay. In 2015, volunteers joined training sessions for reservists that offered no remuneration.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Baghdad and the southern provinces, July 2015.Hide Footnote

It is likely that youths were driven by enthusiasm and the prospect of heroism, which circulated in their communities, more than by rational motives or religious belief.[fn]The largest proportion of recruits appear to come from the Baghdad and Basra peripheries, while Shiite religious centres, such as Najaf and Khadamiya (in Baghdad), home to religious holy sites, send only a small number. Many come from Karbala, a city with two holy shrines close to the front line with IS in Anbar.Hide Footnote After Sistani’s fatwa, hashd symbols spread throughout Shiite towns and neighbourhoods. Teachers and parents lauded volunteers and encouraged students and sons to join them. A father who lost his son in battle showed a picture of his body in the hospital and said, “we could not stop him from going. He slipped out to the recruitment centre during the night. He was only seventeen. We are very proud of him. After he joined the hashd, he married and brought us his salary”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mahmoudiya, 26 July 2015. A twenty-year-old said: “My uncle is part of the hashd. I decided to join the training to help him. My dream is to become an army officer! My father also encouraged me to join to help the country. I’m not afraid to die; everyone has to die sooner or later”. Crisis Group interview, hashd training centre, Basra, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

Young people were also attracted by the instant fulfilment, even martyrdom, the hashd offered, when no other prospects existed.[fn]A recruitment officer said, “we receive an increasing number of recruits. The problem is with the youngest. Some behave without thinking on the battlefield. The largest problem is with those who join because they want to die”. Crisis Group interview, Karbala, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote IS’s sudden arrival produced a sense of unpredictability and collective precariousness that persuaded youths to live for the moment rather than plan. Adnan, a 21-year-old from Mahmoudiya, was an exception in his neighbourhood for finishing high school and entering an engineering college in Baghdad, but the fatwa dramatically changed his direction:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mahmoudiya, 26 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Once [Grand Ayatollah] Sayed Sistani issued his fatwa, I left university and signed up. University is useless at this moment. We must fight and defend the country that the politicians left to Daesh. Politicians are all robbers. Religious figures are not.

The hashd also gave youths unprecedented symbolic and material power to play a dominant role in their direct environment and a social ladder that bypassed the patriarchal family, tribal groups and patronage networks of Iraqi society. Many Shiite youths perceive themselves as having the role of saving an Iraq that is theirs to own and reshape within an exclusively Shiite identity ever since Shiite parties won the 2005 elections. Unlike the 2005-2007 war, however, when youths killed one another in their neighbourhoods, the fight against IS leaves room to demonise a less direct and personal enemy whom many have never seen or met.[fn]A sixteen-year-old volunteer, depicting the enemy he believed the hashd was fighting, said, “this is not a war against Sunnis. What we are fighting is similar to the Mongol invasion”. Crisis Group interview, hashd training centre, Basra, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

D. Genie Unleashed

Neglected for a decade, youths unwittingly became the drivers of a political transformation that the political leadership was ill-equipped to ride or contain. The sharp fall of oil prices, which coincided with IS’s ascendancy, reduced funds and further weakened the political class’ ability to use patronage to broker social peace.[fn]A Badr cadre and provincial council member said of political class unpreparedness, “the problem is that there is no politics. When the situation changes we adjust policy, not the other way around. We are never prepared for the next step”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 17 September 2015. The government calculated the 2014 budget and expenditures on the 2013 average oil price of $80-$90 per barrel, setting an ambitious export level of 3.4m barrels per day. In June 2014, the price was $70 per barrel, and exports were 2.2m barrels. By September, the country had a $75bn deficit. Al-Arabiya website, 26 September 2014. The 2015 price fell further.Hide Footnote The ruling elites began to look to mobilisation as the best way to secure political and economic assets.[fn]Parts of the security apparatus, such as the Badr Brigade, which dominates the police command structure, took off their uniforms and joined the militias. A Badr member said that after the Sistani fatwa, “Badr members left the police force and sped to the hashd recruitment centres”. Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Ahmad Sleaybi, Basra, 18 September 2015. See also, “Iraq crisis: Rebranded insurgents gain whip hand on streets of Baghdad”, The Guardian, 22 June 2014.Hide Footnote Maliki used his position to move money to the hashd, in order to align it within the framework of the state and gain leverage over it. The government ended financial aid for tribal leaders, transferred much of the defence and interior ministry budgets to finance the hashd through Maliki’s office and the national security organisation (jihaz al-amn al-watani), and compelled each hashd unit to register with the defence ministry.[fn]Faleh al-Fayyadh, the national security organisation’s head and national security adviser, has minister rank and is close to the Daawa party. The organisation pays each hashd brigade commander (Abu al-Hashd) according to the registered fighters under his command and distributes their salaries. In November 2014, Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, proposed to give families of those killed in action the same benefits as those killed while fighting in the army: a pension and plot of land. “شمول شهداء الحشد الشعبي بكامل الامتيازات العسكرية” [“Full military benefits for the martyrs of the popular hashd”], Council of Ministers, http://faily.iq/default/?p=28376.
Hide Footnote

Despite government and Daawa efforts to control the hashd within the state, the fatwa’s aftermath saw chaotic attempts by Shiite political and religious figures to protect their support by registering the largest possible number of recruits, each to his own faction. Fatah al-Sheikh, a former parliament member, said, “the government has demanded a list of volunteers to fight Daesh. The politicians today are galvanised to collect lists of names to sell to the hashd”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 March 2015.Hide Footnote

They engaged in fundraising and redirected money from religious endowments and religious taxes (khums) to secure salaries for their fighters and benefits for the families of those killed in battle, who were deemed martyrs.[fn]Beside the national security organisation, religious personalities close to the Sistani marjaeeya relied on the religious endowments (awqaf) of the Karbala and Najaf shrines and religious taxes (khums), 20 per cent of a follower’s income. Politicians have also organised fund-raising campaigns by placing collection boxes (sunduq) in shops and mosques. Crisis Group observation, Baghdad and southern provinces, July-September 2015.Hide Footnote Thus, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) of Ammar al-Hakim funded its brigades from its affiliated civilian ministries and family benefits through the Hakim family’s charitable association.[fn]A Sadrist militant critically observed: “The youth ministry [held by an ISCI member] has re-directed the youth and its resources toward the war. The minister spends his time inspecting the hashd brigades”. Crisis Group interview, Sadr City, 4 April 2015. The Hakim charitable foundation in Najaf organises collection of money to compensate families of those killed in battle. Crisis Group observations, Najaf, September 2015.Hide Footnote Charitable entities connected to party figures have proliferated in the south. Ostensibly set up to address the large influx of Sunni displaced (IDPs) or conduct other civil-society activity, they have direct access to international aid, mostly from UN agencies.[fn]The strategy of UN agencies and the World Bank has been to partner with local NGOs to implement stabilisation programs and civil society initiatives in the provinces, where organisations receive funding without governmental oversight. A UN official said, “we chose to partner with local organisations to prevent losing reconstruction and stabilisation funds to government corruption”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 10 June 2016. However, this procedure has inadvertently invited party figures to establish NGOs to attract funding, which they use to maintain constituents’ support and subsidise families of those fighting in their affiliated militias.Hide Footnote They redirect part of this to sustain party patronage networks of individuals, families and tribes the state budget had financed and families of militia volunteers linked to the party they support.[fn]A 30-year-old former Daawa-sponsored Youth Parliament member from Karbala began investing in civil society initiatives in 2015, after the new youth and sports minister cut the parliament’s funding. His experience shows the Daawa party’s flexibility in sustaining its network and dexterity in exploiting international organisations’ poor auditing. He said, “political parties have become boring to people. Now is the time of civil society organisations. In 2016 alone, 70 new ones have been established in Karbala. We receive direct funding from UNICEF to help displaced people in Karbala and sustain families in need, with no distinction between Sunnis and Shiites”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 29 May 2016. Another civil society activist said, “I have been part of a youth organisation in Diwaniya. We have received one million ID [nearly $861] so far. Poor demographic data complicate the auditing and evaluation of these projects. Unintentionally, the UN and other donors have replaced oil income in the parties’ efforts to dispense patronage”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Yet, overall, parties lack flexibility to reach large numbers of youths. The familiar channels, party offices, co-option of tribal leaders and leverage over local and central state institutions, are no longer effective.[fn]As the pro-government “support councils” (majalis isnaad) faded, tribal leaders lost along with their finances much of their power over younger members, who were now recruited and paid by the hashd. Police and other public-sector employees joined different hashd factions while continuing to receive government salaries. Crisis Group observations, Karbala, July 2015.Hide Footnote Fundraising campaigns can only temporarily cover arms, salaries and benefits. Efforts to attract recruits have exhausted resources and fragmented each main Shiite political party by making their leaders more dependent on external supplies of arms and funding raised through donors.[fn]For instance, militias are dependent on Iran for weapons, vehicles and intelligence. See “Are Shiite militias growing more powerful”, op. cit.Hide Footnote This has largely resulted in the crumbling of traditional parties and empowerment of those party figures who secured local control through their affiliated militias and accumulated economic assets via their affiliated charities.

Militias began to splinter as well. For example, a struggle unfolded within the Daawa party, with Maliki, ousted as prime minister after IS captured Mosul and other cities, attempting a comeback by backing one of the militias. Even the Sadrist movement, which has mobilised thousands of youths since 2003, has failed to keep full support in its Sadr City stronghold now that it is part of the political establishment.[fn]A former Mahdi army fighter said, “many of those who would have joined us in the past no longer do so; they are now recruited by other groups. Our former fighters are 30; they have families and children and are no longer inclined to heroism and adventure. Even if we still keep strong in the south, we witness a decreasing capacity for mobilisation in Sadr City”. Crisis Group interview, Sadr City, 7 April 2015.Hide Footnote It experienced a sharp fall in supporters for its militia, the Brigade of Peace (Sara­yat al-Salam), while former Mahdi army fighters established a myriad of splinter groups, in addition to the League of the Righteous (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq), which broke from the Sadrists’ Mahdi army in 2008 over leadership and funding. Hosham al-Thahabi, an ex-Sadrist militant, commented:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 5 April 2015.Hide Footnote

The Sadrist forces are poorly managed; defections are accelerating, and new militias acting independently from Sadr are appearing. Akram al-Kaabi, a former Sadrist “defector”, joined the League of the Righteous and later established his own militia with Iranian funds. This is bad news, because Sadrist constituents make up the largest recruitment pool for all militias.

Shiite parties’ attempts to recruit members through their offices were overtaken by militias, which reached youths especially by recruiting at the local level via prayer houses. The militias promise swift promotions and responsibilities, allowing recruits to express their identity in ways unimaginable in the army, police or Shiite parties and so boost their social standing in their home areas. In contrast to middle-age Green Zone politicians in suits and ties, the militias promote a new generation of military and religious leaders with whom young Iraqis can identify.[fn]In Karbala, the police leadership forbade the militias to recruit in police stations, forcing them to use Shiite prayer houses (husseiniya). Crisis Group observation, Karbala, July 2015. A young man from Sadr City observed: “Each militia has its own way of cutting their eyebrows, or keeping their hair long or short. The most successful recruiters in Sadr City have adapted to the district’s style. Sadr City boys like to peel off their eyebrows, apply tattoos and wear tight trousers. In 2004, Mahdi army fighters would not allow such styles; now each militia in Sadr City accepts it and adopts its own distinct symbol”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. Abu Azrael (“the angel of death”), a former Mahdi army fighter, now a member of the Kataeb Imam Ali militia, is an iconic figure with more than 150,000 followers on social media. See “Iraqi fighter gains social media following in fight against ISIS”, Al-Arabiya (online), 12 March 2015.Hide Footnote

Most hashd elements have close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, whose military advisers train their affiliated militias into reliable fighting forces that have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed even outside Iraq. An ISCI member said there are two types of Shiite hashd:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Alaa Mousawi, Baghdad, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

There are the marjawi and the walayi, the first under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the second under [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Kha-menei. For us, supporters of the marjawi, the hashd is only a temporary project; it should reintegrate into the state, obtain funding only from the defence ministry and operate under the prime minister as a future National Guard, a force with power and training similar to the federal police. For the supporters of the walayi, the hashd should be a force that can be deployed in Syria or anywhere else where it is needed.

As the hashd evolved into a forum for intra-Shiite political competition, each faction developed its own icons, symbols and names, complicating any government effort to merge them under a single command within the state. With the government unable to produce an alternative plan for youth, the struggle against IS dragging on and provincial elections anticipated in April 2017, militias leaders and politicians supporting them may leverage external financial and military support to consolidate their power and undermine the Abadi government.[fn]An Asaeb Ahl al-Haq member explained the group’s aspirations: “We are not only a military organisation. We have a project of building a state. We want to reform state institutions and transform the hashd into a civilian hashd (hashd al-shaabi al-madani). Political parties’ governance has failed in Basra, and in Iraq generally. We have achieved military victories; we have participated in demonstrations calling for change, and we are now ready to become part of the governorate’s and country’s leadership”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 28 September 2015.Hide Footnote Rather than producing a managed decentralisation, this development is handing extensive powers to local bosses without any central government oversight.

E. Disaffected Sunni Youth

Mobilising youth became equally vital for Sunni provincial and tribal leaders intent on countering IS. Without direct access to weapons, they had to give lists of fighters to the national security organisation in Baghdad or Kurdish parties in Erbil so as to claim funds and arms. Unlike at the time of the U.S. “surge”, they could not recruit in insurgent-controlled territories and trigger an indigenous reaction against the movement. Though they tried to blame youths’ turn to IS on the Shiite-dominated government’s failure to provide jobs, they themselves had prepared the way for the jihadists’ advance by their embrace of the credibility-destroying patronage system. IS military successes exposed them as persons with no anchor in their own societies and no authority over Sunni areas.

They never led but rather fled the Sunni uprising. Once protests began in 2013 and IS advanced, Sunni leaders moved to safer ground (Baghdad, Erbil, Amman), providing additional evidence to constituents of their self-serving policy. Their cooperation with Kurdish or Shiite militias, which they had condemned for years, undermined their legitimacy even more.[fn]A Mosul resident, expressing disenchantment about Atheel al-Nujayfi, the Ninewa governor, having called on the population to resist, then leaving before IS entered, asked: “Why did Nujayfi not defend us? Why he did not warn us? He accused the army so as to blame all on Maliki. He just used us!” Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 3 April 2015. A Falluja resident living under IS expressed similar feelings: “Young people see their tribal leaders as merchants (tujjar). They went to various countries, including Iran, to increase their fortunes and sell them out. As IS advanced, [young people] are on the ground dealing with the situation, while their elders sit in Baghdad hotels”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote Away from IS-controlled territory, provincial officials and tribal leaders could rely only on a limited number of individuals who benefited from their patronage (eg, senior police) or close family (ayyan al-ashira). Sheikh Ahmad al-Jibouri, a former sahwa member, noted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad (al-Doura), 28 March, 2015.Hide Footnote

In 2006, I recruited more than 6,000 fighters and cleaned al-Doura [a Baghdad neighbourhood] of al-Qaeda. Sunni recruitment to the hashd is a masquerade! Some tribal leaders, who promise to deliver a certain number of fighters, submit names to the government only to obtain funds, then flee to Amman.

Once safe, Sunni leaders made little effort to assist those living under IS. Instead, like Shiite politicians, they have tried to rebuild patronage networks via externally-funded charities for IDPs, who need guarantors to access safer areas, obtain documents enabling them to resettle and obtain services in the areas of their displacement. These leaders hope outside powers will restore them to their old positions when IS is driven out – as a reward for not joining – and allow them to lead internationally-funded reconstruction.[fn]In Tikrit, a city taken back from IS in April 2015, members of the Jibouri tribe have set up NGOs to work in reconstruction. Crisis Group Skype interview, NGO worker, June 2016.Hide Footnote

On the other side of the front line, IS took advantage of the generational divide. As soon as it controlled a territory, it assigned responsibilities to local youths, recruiting them as fighters or giving those with low-ranking jobs a path to reach positions previously reserved for party members.[fn]In Rawa, Anbar governorate, top public jobs (hospitals, public administration, electricity) were in Islamic Party hands. When IS arrived, senior party figures fled, and IS promoted young, low-ranking employees. Crisis Group, telephone interview, al-Qaim resident, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote One of its most effective policies was to give leadership posts to the youngest members of a tribe aligned with the government. Ramadi, which IS captured in June 2015, is an example. Its central districts resisted until elders of the Abu Alwan tribe fled to Baghdad, leaving younger members in charge. The latter struck a deal with IS, which included a general amnesty and their elevation to tribal chiefs.[fn]A Ramadi resident said, “each tribal leader has a younger cousin (ibn ammi) who can claim noble blood and become sheikh of the tribe. There is a new generation of sheikhs in Anbar. Often those appointed to high-profile positions are younger members of tribes whose elder sheikh sided with the government”. Crisis Group telephone interview, al-Qaim resident, 29 July 2015.Hide Footnote

The post-IS phase in Sunni areas will be especially challenging, because social hierarchies are developing under IS rule that are parallel with and disconnected from those in areas under government control. The two will be difficult to reconcile. Tribal leaders empowered by IS may be unwilling to step down and could challenge both Sunni political officials and the legitimacy of tribal elders. This, and because they may be vulnerable to retributive violence, might provoke new generational power struggles within tribes. National leaders will need to devise a non-discriminatory policy that targets youths in areas recovered from IS and prevents a Sunni leadership struggle that would exacerbate the generational divide. Otherwise, people will face a stark choice between collaborators with IS and a discredited political clique that out-sourced recovery of Sunni areas to the hashd or the Kurds and intends to use reconstruction funds to rebuild its local support.

IV. The Desperate Alternative: Emigration

Rather than devise a policy that might spare a new generation another conflict, the Shiite political class has attempted to use the hashd movement to contain discontent among Shiite youths and redirect it toward the confrontation with IS. Throughout 2015, hashd factions sought to absorb the growing numbers of volunteers without affecting military operations by creating reserve forces (qwwat ihtiyatiya) that gave students and day workers basic training but often made no other use of them. Under severe financial pressure, the government focused spending on youth mobilisation against IS, diverting it from jobs creation and other purposes. In June 2014, for the first time in a decade, ministries did not post new openings and have posted few since.[fn]Majeeda al-Timimi, a member of parliament’s finance committee, said, “in June [2014], more than 16,000 new jobs were unassigned for lack of funds, while 30,000 new positions were issued by the national security organisation and nearly $3 million was allocated to [Maliki’s] office to pay the hashd”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015. Party disinvestment from state institutions was apparent. An employee of the higher education ministry observed: “Since Mosul fell, the ministry has not had resources to complete projects and resume recruitment. The minister asked employees to donate blood for injured hashd fighters, and pictures of the hashd are on show in the ministry building”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Educated young people, the future professional middle class, are at the margin of political leaders’ attention, hard hit by the budget crisis and society’s militarisation and facing a choice of adjusting to rule by armed groups or emigrating. IS successes have deepened the divide between them and destitute youths empowered by militias. A 23-year-old female student at Baghdad’s College of Medicine expressed a common sentiment:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 June 2015.Hide Footnote

We tolerated many things after 2003, but we reached saturation point. After [the IS conflict], I decided to leave in order to complete my studies abroad. Here I have only a 20 per cent possibility to succeed in what I am doing compared to the previous generation, and we are no longer respected in this society.

Government policy coupled with the economic crisis have helped further marginalise the middle class. In areas the government controls, its fading ability to enforce the law in a militia-dominated environment compels young professionals to ask militias for protection. Armed groups (militias and IS alike) in need of their skills, in particular those of doctors, increasingly try to recruit them, either forcibly or by creating professional associations parallel to the state’s.[fn]Militia factions have established associations of doctors who volunteer to treat injured hashd fighters on the front lines. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjydjiBo5dgHide Footnote

Other strains result from the higher education ministry’s decision not to recognise diplomas from universities in IS-controlled areas. It has attempted to relocate those institutions to areas controlled by Baghdad or the Kurds, but professors and students have difficulty accessing the new sites due to movement restrictions and fear of retaliation.[fn]The higher education ministry has attempted to transfer Mosul College of Medicine to Kirkuk, currently under Kurdish control. Students displaced in Baghdad cannot easily access Kirkuk due to restrictions imposed by the Kurdish regional government. The ministry’s alternative proposal to move the college to Baghdad has also failed, since most Mosul professors have relocated to the Kurdish region and avoid the capital due to the Shiite militias’ control. A practicing doctor said, “whatever will be decided, we risk having a university either without professors or without students”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 20 July 2015.Hide Footnote In government-controlled areas, corruption that preceded the IS conflict has become even more rampant. Students who join the hashd are often allowed to move up a grade in school despite having failed their exams or stayed away from school, while the most prestigious colleges now have admission quotas reserved for private-school students regardless of their marks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OWFI member, Baghdad, 23 July 2015. A young doctor said admission to the College of Medicine required a high school grade of 97-100 and that the higher education ministry has smoothed admission criteria by allocating a 10 per cent quota for students who did not reach that level, enabling a number of them to use personal connections to gain entry. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 October 2015.Hide Footnote

As a result, a perception has grown among medical and engineering students that they can escape the destructive cycle only by leaving. Syria’s conflict pulled the trigger. Starting in 2015, as Turkey’s smuggling roads to Greece opened, Iraqis followed Syrians to Europe. The pattern of flight resembled that of militia mobilisation: contagious, spreading by word of mouth and social media, often within small circles of friends in a neighbourhood. But these professionals (particularly doctors) face special challenges. Those trying to leave IS-controlled areas often must pay smugglers heavily. Faced with a massive brain drain, the government has tried to make it difficult for young graduates to obtain the original copy of their diploma, which they need to prove their degree and practice abroad.[fn]Doctors can still obtain a copy of their diploma by paying as much as 70 million ID, nearly $60,000. Crisis Group interviews, Adhamiya hospital, Baghdad, 25 July 2015.Hide Footnote

 

V. Taking it to the Street

A. Protesters

In July 2015, Iraq’s youth found a third way to express discontent: rather than taking to arms or voting with their feet, they staged mass demonstrations to protest poor governance. It started in Basra in July, where resentment against the political establishment intersected with local anger at the provincial governor’s repeated failure to improve services.[fn]Waheed Ghanim, “Basra’s beleaguered governor under fire”, Niqash, 30 July 2015.Hide Footnote The protests were quickly replicated across the south and in Baghdad under the slogan of fighting corruption (fasaad) and demanding political reform (islah).

Though the protests were in majority-Shiite areas, they assumed a kaleidoscopic rather than sectarian character, reflecting the rich diversity of society. Protesters hailed from different class backgrounds, raising community symbols alongside nationalist ones. The latter revealed Shiites’ appropriation of a nationalist discourse that urban Sunni elites had defined prior to 2003. What started as an anti-corruption campaign soon evolved into an array of demands focused on the end of the post-2003 political system based on ethnic and sectarian quotas (muhasasa) and the establishment of a “civil state” (dawla madaniya). The insistent appeal for reform reflect young people’s rejection of the status quo and their search for a new status and role not currently available. A protester said:[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 May 2016. Another 30-year-old, who did not join the protests, said, “people don’t know what they want or where the country is headed. The demonstrations are merely a channel to express a sense of loss”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.
[1] See “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, op. cit. Tim Arango, “In bid to counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq may end up alienating it”, The New York Times, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote

We are for reform: general, total reform! It has been fifteen years now with these same people. We should have popular committees instead of parliament, or a prime minister without a parliament, or a technocratic cabinet. I am not sure what the right formula is. I only know that we should start from scratch.

Like Sunni protests two years earlier, the inchoate nature of demands for radical change created room for radical politicians to capitalise and take charge.

B. Riding the Wave

Youths found in the new movement a platform for expression more than an avenue for political participation and change. Its hybrid identity made it easy to manipulate. The first to step into the vacuum in August 2015 were some Shiite militias that had led the fight against IS; with battlefield experience, they presented themselves as potent challengers to the faltering Abadi government. The country might have slid into chaos or a militia-led coup except for a second intervention by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who expressed support for Abadi if he carried out important reforms, including replacing his cabinet with unaffiliated technocrats.[fn]See “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, op. cit. Tim Arango, “In bid to counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq may end up alienating it”, The New York Times, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote This was but a stop-gap, however, and quieted things only temporarily. Weak within his Daawa party and unable to gain support from other blocs, Abadi failed to join the energies unleashed in the streets to his broader reform agenda. Purging top officials accentuated intra-Daawa rivalries without bringing sensible change to everyday lives or answering youth’s thirst for direction. Embodying the ruling system, the political class was incapable of effecting genuine reform.[fn]On 11 August, parliament backed the first stage of Abadi’s reform program, cancelling the positions of deputy prime minister and the three vice presidencies, one of which was held by his predecessor, Maliki. The parties dominating the parliament could not agree on replacing ministers with technocrats, however. A Baghdad resident said, “Abadi changed some top-level figures, but our lives have not changed at all in the past months. So people found in Moqtada al-Sadr a new hope for change”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

As the opportunity slipped from the prime minister’s hands, Moqtada al-Sadr, an activist with a clerical pedigree and history of resistance to the U.S. occupation, stepped into the breach. In February 2016, his political bloc, al-Ahrar (Liberals), took charge of the protest movement. Through a meticulously planned youth mobilisation strategy, it attracted segments of youth beyond Sadr’s close supporters. For three months, he commanded the street. On 27 February, he organised a mass demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir central square; a month later, he began a sit-in inside the Green Zone, while his supporters stayed outside, primed to follow him. On 30 April, they scaled the walls and broke into parliament and the council of ministers. According to a participant, “the al-Ahrar bloc set up demonstration committees (Lijna Tandhim al-Tadahur) in all Baghdad districts and the provinces, registering protesters’ names and giving them a special budget allowing them to participate in the demonstrations”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Sadr turned the street into a dynamic variable in politics, even a risky one vulnerable to misuse. Appeals for reform quickly became a populist call for the end of the entire political establishment and framework. Yet, his actions seemed mainly to benefit his own bloc in its bargaining with other Shiite parties.[fn]On 26 April, Abadi struck a deal with al-Ahrar, replacing five ministers with technocrats. Three of the five, who had been affiliated with Ahrar, were replaced with new figures who, though technocrats, are close to Ahrar and could work to increase the group’s influence. On the political crisis, see Maria Fantappie, “Iraq on the Edge of Chaos”, Crisis Group blog post, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote They consolidated polarisation between mobilised youth and elites rather than building a bridge to overcome deep social rifts. Abadi’s announcement of the offensive against IS in Fallu­ja at the end of May defused the protest by rallying the nation, but the monster only slumbers, ready to be awakened by a crisis in services and politicians seeing an opportunity for advancement.

VI. Fixing Iraq’s Youth Challenge

Non-state actors have been the most successful in mobilising and framing young people’s lives. While the agendas may differ, they have recruited directly within localities (neighbourhood or village); provided a sense of belonging to a collective inspired by ideals (IS: establishing a caliphate; Sadr: fighting corruption); and given opportunities for advancement within informal structures (IS, Shiite militias, the Sadr bloc’s demonstration-organising committees), allowing youths to gain prestige in their home environments (family, tribe, neighbourhood).

The government and political parties have been unable to reproduce successful mobilisation and social mobility in their structures. Bewildered and in disarray, the political establishment appears to have opted for a default strategy, counting on the cost of prolonged conflict becoming so high that it may yet recoup some of its legitimacy. Shiite parties that oppose the militias’ de facto rule hope growing casualties will exhaust their support.[fn]Asked about future policy, an ex-lawmaker close to Abadi said: “Sooner or later people will tire of seeing their children die as martyrs”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 October 2015.Hide Footnote Sunni leaders waiting for IS defeat, hope to regain power and standing in their communities for lack of a better alternative. The risk inherent in such passive approaches is that the conflict’s heritage will be prolonged and difficult to overcome both in areas from which IS is dislodged and elsewhere in the country. And what will happen with the many young fighters once their combat role ends? Speaking from experience, an ex-Mahdi army fighter said:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 10 April 2015.Hide Footnote

Once the [IS] fight is over, what will we do with those who have become used to fighting? They will blackmail society and claim this is their victory, that they have defended our houses, our families. They will keep their weapons and feel they are above the law. The government may have no choice but to fight them.

The conflict against IS has reshuffled social hierarchies and empowered and legitimised new leaders, creating a fresh reality with which the political class will have to contend sooner or later. In Sunni-populated areas, establishment politicians could try to regain legitimacy by distributing foreign aid and engaging local youths in reconstruction, but this is likely to resurrect the very patron-client relationships that proved unsustainable after the U.S.-led “surge”. And if they fail to engage young people beyond the patronage networks, they will be strongly resisted by commanders who fought for IS and could thus recoup a measure of local support. Shiite militia commanders and political figures supporting them, such as Maliki or Hadi al-Ameri, the foremost militia commander, could try to capitalise on the popularity they gained in fighting IS to bid for political power and turn their young fighters into supporters in future elections.

Lack of agility in adjusting to rapid change has enabled a cycle of escalating conflict that could precipitate political class demise. It might also destroy the state’s capacity to govern and foreign powers’ ability to safeguard their strategic interests through an Iraqi government they need to confront the transnational IS threat. A society increasingly drained of its middle class and populated by armed actors who are eclipsing law-enforcement agencies may cause a growth in micro-conflicts – intra-tribal disputes and gang fighting – that will increase young people’s dependence for protection and economic resources on local patrons or militia commanders, or both. Even when these actors are not fighting, their mobilisation efforts may undermine the state’s legitimacy and coherence. By calling youths to join street protests while blocking parliament from convening and legislating reforms in May, Sadr already exacerbated the divide between the street and political elites without providing a workable alternative.

Young people whose anti-establishment sentiments are being directed toward opposite poles of a sectarian agenda might become even more susceptible to crass political manipulation by actors intent on fuelling domestic and regional conflicts. Shiite youths have proved a critical resource for Iran, which has recruited them to fight its war in Syria, where one of its principal enemies is IS, which has a significant Iraqi component in both leadership and rank and file. As fighters or emigrants, Generation 2000 could become a transnational challenge.

The generation’s grievances and loss of hope can no longer be disregarded. The Abadi government and the international community must, at the eleventh hour, pre-emptively devise a youth policy grounded in the notion that young people need avenues for political participation and social advancement outside the parties’ discredited co-option by patronage. Any post-IS reconstruction and stabilisation campaign, even if implemented locally, requires a national vision for addressing the youth problem and a multiyear plan that targets this age group. Offering youth a clear direction is a greater priority than merely providing funds and jobs.

Until now, the government has used state legitimacy and institutional benefits to boost a mobilisation into militias it did not call for and could neither prevent nor control, and which is undermining state institutions. It should do the opposite: use the same legitimacy and benefits to “civilianise” the hashd al-shaabi into a hashd al-madani (civilian mobilisation) under its direct control, recruit youths in their communities and organise them within the administrative framework of provincial administrations. This would involve refocusing hashd neighbourhood-based recruitment centres from defence to local governance, thus filling a gap left by local authorities who have failed to provide adequate services or security.

Such an effort could resonate with fighters who profess political aspirations. It might allow Iran to preserve its interests in southern provinces, while giving the central government a measure of leverage against it. Most importantly, it could be replicated in areas freed of IS control, where a stability plan involving Sunni leaders should avoid repeating mistakes, including use of state resources to “purchase” local legitimacy. Local leaders should engage youths directly in reconstruction, regardless of tribal affiliation or who fought with or against IS.

More immediately, the government should tackle the militia problem and prospects for the young by organising any further military recruitment under the army, supervised by the defence ministry; developing a plan to provide these new state employees with the usual benefits, or at least guarantee a right to them once funds are available; compelling non-governmental entities to register with the planning ministry, while urging donors to fund only those that are registered and to assist in monitoring use of such funds; and developing a jobs plan for high-school and university graduates and/or a professional-training, apprenticeship scheme, with guaranteed income and pension rights as funds become available.

International institutions that manage financial and development support for Iraq, such as the IMF, the World Bank and UN agencies, should consider whether to revise their approach. By giving financial help to charitable organisations and initiatives linked to party figures and affiliated militias that operate outside the law, or demanding to reduce state benefits and allowances, they contribute inadvertently to these groups’ active undermining of the state. This is something neither they nor the prime minister’s other external supporters who profess a desire for a stable, functioning Iraq have an interest in doing.

VII. Conclusion

The plight of Iraq’s young people is perhaps the gravest result of the turmoil of the past few decades; unless it creates viable prospects for them, the country is unlikely to escape further cycles of instability. The current vacuum sucks youths into one of three directions: protests (with aspiration to dramatically transform a non-functioning system seemingly immune to reform); fighting groups on either side of a sectarian divide; or migration toward Europe.

The issue is not one of youth radicalisation, as conventional wisdom suggests.[fn]UN Security Council Resolution 2,250, 9 December 2015.Hide Footnote Young Iraqis are not radicalised so much as recruited into organisations that provide community and direction, regardless of ideology. The solution lies not in de-rad­i­ca­lisation programs, with heavy emphasis on counter-narratives, as if the problem was addiction, requiring detox, but in giving them viable alternatives that can reduce fighting groups’ ability to attract them in the first place.

A fresh, state-based, internationally-backed approach by the Abadi government aimed at reconnecting young people to the society in which they live and breathe is the best formula to prevent destructive exploitation. The past has shown that fighting youths deemed “radicals” and co-opting the others through the usual patronage channels is not a sustainable solution and indeed worsens the problem, if only by pushing fresh waves of desperate emigrants toward distant shores.

Baghdad/Brussels, 8 August 2016[fn]Crisis Group receives financial support from a wide range of governments, foundations, and private sources, for more information please see Our Supporters. For a full print version of this report with a list of supporters please apply to brussels@crisisgroup.org.Hide Footnote

Members of Iraqi security forces are deployed in Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Iraq: Stabilising the Contested District of Sinjar

Sinjar has yet to recover from the ravages of 2014, when ISIS subjected the population to unrelenting terror. Thousands remain displaced. To persuade them to return, the Iraqi federal and Kurdish regional governments will need help from the current residents in improving governance and security.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? In October 2020, Baghdad and Erbil signed an agreement intended to build stability in Iraq’s Sinjar district through a new administration and security structure that would let displaced people return. The deal is only partly fulfilled, however. Turkey is intensifying bombardment of the PKK and its affiliates in the area.

Why does it matter? As time passes without a workable arrangement for governing and securing Sinjar, the incentives for displaced Sinjaris living in squalid camps to come home are diminishing. Meanwhile, escalating violence risks drawing the district further into the power struggle between Turkey and Iran.

What should be done? Baghdad and Erbil should carry out the Sinjar agreement’s governance, security and reconstruction provisions as soon as possible. They should remedy their failure when striking the deal to secure buy-in from Iraqi armed groups on the ground by consulting them and Sinjari civil society representatives on how to make it work.

Executive Summary

Nearly seven years after an ad hoc and uneasy coalition of armed groups and Kurdish regional forces backed by U.S. airpower drove ISIS from Sinjar, the situation there remains fraught. Sinjar, a once quiet district in the remote north-western corner of Iraq, is struggling, with its local government lacking legitimacy, its public services failing expectations and its reconstruction stalling. A plethora of competing armed groups keep the area unsafe, leaving 70 per cent of its population displaced. The district’s Yazidi ethno-religious majority targeted by ISIS’s genocidal onslaught in 2014 is scattered throughout the north west (and in exile) and politically divided. In 2020, the Iraqi federal and Kurdish regional governments came to an agreement to stabilise Sinjar, but follow-through has lagged and clashes in May between the army and a local militia threatened to derail it altogether. The parties to the agreement will need to work with Sinjar residents to strengthen support for the deal and oversee its implementation, allowing the displaced to return.

Even before ISIS arrived in 2014, Sinjar was hostage to a standoff between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, due to its status as a disputed territory (ie, an area over which both governments claim authority). Iraq’s 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the dual claims to the disputed territories. But the Kurdish government, and in particular its most powerful constituent element, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has long sought to control the disputed areas, including Sinjar, as a prelude to annexing them to the Kurdish region. The KDP and its peshmerga fighters moved into Sinjar in 2003, co-opting local elites to perform the routine tasks of governance. It won little popularity, however. In particular, it treated the Yazidis as Kurds, in effect denying their distinct communal identity and sowing resentment.

The ISIS assault on the Yazidis in August 2014 transformed Sinjar into a focal point for an array of armed actors. One was the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – an insurgent Kurdish group that Turkey (along with the U.S. and European Union) classifies as a terrorist organisation. The PKK had long sought refuge in northern Iraq, though prior to 2014, it had largely been confined to the Qandil mountains and an area of Makhmour district where a camp for Kurdish refugees from Turkey is located. But when the KDP withdrew its peshmerga as ISIS fighters stormed the area, affiliates of the PKK stepped in – assisted by U.S. airpower – rescuing survivors and gradually pushing ISIS back. Then, in late 2015, the U.S. again sent warplanes to help a combination of PKK-linked groups (the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and the newly established Sinjar Resistance Units, or YBȘ) and KDP peshmerga expel ISIS altogether. For the next two years, Sinjar remained largely under the control of the KDP, which dominated the north east as well as Sinjar town, and the PKK, which was concentrated in Mount Sinjar and the north west.

In 2017, the situation in northern Iraq shifted again. The escalating U.S.-supported counter-ISIS campaign brought Iraqi federal forces back to the north, joined by Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) paramilitary groups mostly comprising Iraqis from other parts of the country. They retook Mosul, the last city under ISIS control. Then the Hashd went farther still. After an independence referendum organised by the Kurdish regional government backfired, they pushed the KDP out of Sinjar and settled into an uneasy collaboration with the PKK components, offshoots and affiliates already ensconced there.

The resulting governance arrangements are haphazard and ineffective. The KDP enjoys formal dispensation to govern Sinjar, but it exercises its writ from outside the district, and even outside the Ninewa governorate in which Sinjar lies, in neighbouring Dohuk governorate. Within Sinjar, the Hashd has appointed a substitute mayor and sub-district directors without the federal government’s blessing, while the YBŞ, which consists mostly of Iraqi Yazidis as well as a small number of Arabs who took up arms against ISIS, has set up a governance arm – the “Sinjar self-administration” – that seeks to perform some bureaucratic functions, but lacks the authority and capability to do them well.

Because of the armed groups it [hosts], Sinjar finds itself increasingly at the centre of competition between Turkey and Iran.

Meanwhile, because of the armed groups it is hosting, Sinjar finds itself increasingly at the centre of competition between Turkey and Iran. Iran backs the Hashd, while Turkey seeks to eliminate the PKK, seeing it as a threat to national security. When KDP fighters withdrew in 2017, Turkey – which collaborates with the KDP in fighting the PKK – lost its main partner on the ground in Sinjar. It thus escalated the airstrikes it was already conducting on suspected PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, hitting YBȘ bases hosting PKK cadres in Sinjar as well. In Turkey’s view, high-level YBȘ commanders are themselves PKK members. These attacks have become a regular feature of an already precarious security environment. The Hashd and the PKK (with its affiliates) have found common ground in countering Turkey and the KDP – the Hashd, because it seeks a firmer foothold in the north, deems any Turkish military presence there to be an occupation and rejects the KDP’s claim to Sinjar; and the PKK, because it seeks a safe haven in northern Iraq.

Seeking to put the district on a better path, the UN brokered an October 2020 agreement between Baghdad and Erbil that was intended to fill the post-ISIS security and administrative vacuum by bringing the federal and Kurdish regional governments together in jointly managing Sinjar, under Baghdad’s overall authority. But thus far, only parts of the agreement are in effect, since it failed to take into account the perspectives of the actors in control on the ground – the YBȘ and the various Hashd groups. The YBȘ, including the “Sinjar self-administration”, rejects the agreement, which not only contains no mention of its role in the district but proscribes it altogether. While the Hashd, which nominally comes under the Iraqi prime minister’s authority, is an implementing party, many of the Shiite groups that make up its core view the agreement as rigged against them in seeking to transfer security responsibilities to regular forces under the defence and interior ministries.

The urgency of accelerating the agreement’s full implementation became clear in May, when clashes broke out between the army and the YBȘ in one of Sinjar’s sub-districts. While such confrontations seem to come and go, they lay bare an unaddressed challenge, which is the fate of the YBȘ, which, though it is affiliated with an external group, the PKK, consists itself of Sinjaris, ie, Iraqi citizens who have legitimate local concerns. This file thus deserves sensitive treatment, not the army’s resort to a hammer whenever it spots a crooked nail.

To address the dangerous delay in putting the Sinjar agreement into practice, Baghdad and Erbil should work toward greater acceptance of the deal from the broad range of local armed actors and community representatives concerned. On the civilian side, the government should appoint an acting mayor for now, consulting closely with both the Erbil authorities and Sinjar community leaders to identify a suitable, politically non-aligned, Yazidi from Sinjar. On the security front, the federal government should shift away from its combative approach, engaging directly with the YBȘ about challenges like standing up a local police force and seeking to integrate its fighters (and other armed group members) into state forces. The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq could help these measures succeed by sending international civilian observers and technical advisers to oversee the process.

Baghdad/Brussels, 31 May 2022

I. Introduction

Sinjar is a district in northern Iraq 120km west of Mosul, the capital of Ninewa governorate, bordering Syria. A historical crossroads between Iraq and the Levant, it is a largely agricultural area surrounding Mount Sinjar and a small city of the same name. The population is ethnically and religiously diverse, with communities of Sunni Muslim Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Assyrian Christians and a small number of Shiite Arabs. The majority, however, are Yazidis, a distinct ethno-religious group spread across northern Iraq and northern Syria.[fn]Yazidis are indigenous to northern Mesopotamia. A population estimated at 500,000-650,000, lives in Iraq, concentrated in 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 see themselves as Kurds. See Birgül Açikyildiz, The Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion (London, 2014).Hide Footnote

The district is part of what the 2005 Iraqi constitution refers to as disputed territories: fourteen administrative districts distributed among four governorates that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claims but nominally come under the authority of the federal government. The status of these territories remains unresolved, but many areas, including Sinjar, fell under the de facto control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Sinjar remained largely uncontested by other forces, including the federal army, until the arrival of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in 2014.

The jihadists singled out the Yazidis ... for particularly vicious assault.

That year, the people of Sinjar fell victim to some of the worst atrocities committed by ISIS, as it expanded its short-lived, self-declared caliphate spanning the border between the two countries. The jihadists singled out the Yazidis, whom they regard as heretics, for particularly vicious assault. ISIS militants killed Yazidi men on the spot. They enslaved women and girls, many of whom ended up in captivity in ISIS-held areas of Iraq and Syria, where they suffered severe sexual abuse. Thousands of Yazidis remain displaced in camps throughout north-western Iraq.[fn]See, among other sources, Mara Redlich Revkin and Elisabeth Jean Wood, “The Islamic State's Pattern of Sexual Violence: Ideology and Institutions, Policies and Practices”, Journal of Global Security Studies, vol. 6, no. 2 (June 2021).Hide Footnote

From late 2014, a coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, including Yazidi and other militias raised from the district’s population, began driving ISIS out of Sinjar with air support supplied by the U.S. Since that effort was completed, the district has been governed through formal and informal arrangements that involved the regional Kurdish government (acting from outside the district), Iran-affiliated militias and the political arm of a regional Yazidi armed group. In October 2020, the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil concluded an agreement intended to streamline governance and encourage the displaced to come home by restoring stability to the district. The deal covered three main points: administration, security management and reconstruction.

This report assesses the situation in Sinjar a year and a half after the stabilisation agreement. It highlights weaknesses in the agreement that have thwarted realisation of its vision to date before offering some remedies for the problems. The report is based on extensive fieldwork in the district, as well as in Baghdad, Duhok, Erbil and Suleimaniya. It builds upon Crisis Group’s previous research on Sinjar and other disputed territories, particularly since the ISIS conquests in 2014 but also dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.[fn]See, among others, Crisis Group Middle East Reports, N°183, Winning the Post-ISIS Battle for Iraq in Sinjar, 20 February 2018; N°215, Iraq: Fixing Security in Kirkuk, 15 June 2020; N°194, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, 14 December 2018; N°88, Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line, 8 July 2009; and N°56, Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle over Kirkuk, 18 July 2006.Hide Footnote

II. The Struggle over Sinjar

The October 2020 Sinjar agreement took a top-down approach that assumed the two signatories – the governments in Baghdad and Erbil – would be capable of following through with its provisions. Yet, while both governments have the legal authority to make the commitments recorded in the pact, neither has the political power or the local buy-in to put them into action. Consequently, the agreement has led to little change other than expanding the territorial control and authority formally enjoyed by federal forces in the district. Understanding why the deal has sputtered requires a look back at how relations among sub-state actors and regional powers have evolved since 2014.

A. ISIS’s Defeat and the PKK’s Rise

The war on ISIS changed power dynamics in all the areas of Iraq retaken from the jihadist group, especially in the disputed territories. One key dynamic is the rivalry between the KDP and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the war tipped in the latter’s favour.

The KDP, which, like Turkey, views the PKK as a threat, has long worked closely with Ankara to suppress the PKK’s capacities in northern Iraq. But starting in 2014, the ISIS campaign in northern Iraq created pressures that worked at cross-purposes with the Turkey-KDP partnership. The KDP’s precipitous withdrawal from Sinjar as ISIS fighters arrived in 2014 left the population exposed to the jihadists’ genocidal attacks. Meanwhile, the KDP’s main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which had long been friendly with the PKK, called on the PKK to support it in battling ISIS throughout the disputed territories, mainly in Kirkuk.[fn]

In August, the PKK stepped in to rescue Yazidis fleeing the ISIS depredations, sending fighters from its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), across the Syrian-Iraqi border to Sinjar. Until that time, the PKK had had no physical presence in the district, only sympathisers who identified with its leader Abdullah Öcalan’s political philosophy, which the PKK disseminated through a local organisation, Tafda.[fn]Galip Dalay, “Kurdish Politics amid the Fight against ISIS: Can a Common Cause Surmount Old Rivalries?”, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 7 February 2016.Hide Footnote

The YPG's [People’s Protection Units] appearance was a godsend for those who survived the ISIS onslaught.

The YPG’s appearance was a godsend for those who survived the ISIS onslaught. Its fighters helped shepherd the escaping population through a corridor they opened from Mount Sinjar (in the centre of the district) into Syria, and then, via the Faysh Khabour border crossing farther north, back into Iraqi Kurdistan, where the KDP settled most Yazidis in camps. Some families remained as refugees in Syria and many young Yazidis there took up arms against ISIS in Syria with the YPG before joining the fight to liberate Sinjar a year later in 2015, when the PKK set up its affiliate in Iraq, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBȘ).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, YBŞ members and Yazidi activists, Sinjar and Erbil, September 2021.Hide Footnote

While these events were unfolding in Iraq, negotiations between Turkey and the PKK collapsed under the strain of the Syrian civil war next door. The July 2015 breakdown of their two-year truce coincided with escalating military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A U.S.-led coalition that included the YPG was at the forefront of the effort. Seeing the YPG as an extension of the PKK, Ankara viewed Western support for the YPG as compounding the PKK threat.[fn]For more on Turkey’s reaction to these developments, see Berkay Mandıracı, “Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux”, Crisis Group Commentary, 18 February 2022.Hide Footnote  By 2015, the PKK had entrenched itself in north-eastern Syria through the YPG. Directly across the border, it was also expanding its reach in north-western Iraq through the newly established YBȘ.

When U.S.- supported military operations to liberate the Sinjar district started in November 2015, the PKK again played a role. KDP fighters approached Sinjar from the north, working side by side, albeit with some friction, with the PKK and YBŞ. They cleared the district’s north of ISIS elements, proceeding toward the main highway that runs from Mosul to the Syrian border, just south of Sinjar town. They did not advance beyond this point, and thus the town remained within the range of ISIS artillery in the district’s southern villages from November 2015 until the end of 2017, when federal forces retook those areas as well. The joint PKK-KDP effort to liberate the town did little to allay tensions between the two groups. They took control of different areas – the former in the north west and on Mount Sinjar, the latter in the north east and Sinjar town – and on several occasions turned on each other in direct clashes. The conflict kept many displaced residents from returning.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Winning the Post-ISIS Battle for Iraq in Sinjar, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The KRG’s independence referendum in 2017 unsettled Sinjar’s governance once more, though the KRG retains formal authority as granted by Baghdad. Angered by the referendum, the federal government sent soldiers and Shiite paramilitaries to push the KDP back in the disputed territories. In October, fearing clashes with these forces, the KDP withdrew from Sinjar again, relocating its administrative personnel northward to Dohuk governorate.[fn]Fear of clashes with federal troops forced the KDP’s peshmerga out of the district. The KDP chose to withdraw its civilian administrators as well, following a pattern it established throughout the disputed territories at the time. See Crisis Group Report, Iraq: Fixing Security in Kirkukop. cit.Hide Footnote  At this remove, it continues to administer the district, albeit loosely.

More than seven years after the ISIS attack on Mount Sinjar, many Yazidis – even those still displaced in the Kurdistan region, and thus under the KDP’s control – openly express appreciation of the PKK and its affiliates for the August 2014 rescue effort. They also castigate the KDP for abruptly withdrawing from the district in 2014 and pulling out again in 2017 – characterising the latter as a second act of treachery that confirmed the party’s lack of commitment to Sinjar and its population. A member of the YBŞ’s Women’s Resistance Unit, who took up arms after ISIS killed several of her relatives, explained that, in addition to kicking the jihadists out, “we need accountability from the KDP”. She went on: “We need them to acknowledge the crimes that were committed against us as a result of their withdrawal. Otherwise, we will not allow them back in Sinjar”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2022.Hide Footnote

Check point of Êzîdxan Protection Force, September, 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Lahib Higel

The Yazidis feel affinity for the PKK and YPG for other reasons as well. Unlike the KDP, many Yazidis say, these groups have not tried to impose a Kurdish identity upon them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, activists and displaced Yazidis, Dohuk, Sinjar and Erbil, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote  A former YBŞ commander recalled a 2016 meeting in which a KDP counterpart demanded that the YBŞ submit to peshmerga authority because they are (in the KDP’s view) also Kurds.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former YBŞ commander, Baghdad, February 2022.Hide Footnote  Many Yazidis do not see themselves this way, though Kurdish is the mother tongue of most. Against this backdrop, a Yazidi activist explained that the PKK/YPG’s secular orientation is a relief given the persecution Yazidis have suffered at the hands of Muslims, referring not just to ISIS but also to local Arabs and Kurds (who are mostly Sunni Muslims).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yazidi activist, Erbil, February 2022.Hide Footnote

But, while the PKK and its affiliates enjoy widespread sympathy among Yazidis, they lack the administrative capacity that the KDP took with it when it withdrew from the district in 2017. The YBŞ set up a PKK-modelled system for self-administration after helping free Sinjar in 2015. This structure existed alongside the KDP-controlled administration until the KDP pulled out and persisted afterward, but it never expanded to fill the space the KDP had left behind. For example, it did not try to appoint a mayor (qa’im maqam) for the district, in deference to Baghdad’s authority.[fn]Iraq is divided into eighteen governorates, headed by a governor. Each governorate is subdivided into districts and sub-districts. The district head, answerable to the governor, is the qa’im maqam or mayor; the sub-district head, answerable to the qa’im maqam, is called director.Hide Footnote  Because Baghdad still regards the KDP as the legitimate governing actor, the YBŞ has little actual sway. Few administrative functions are today performed in Sinjar itself, with residents travelling to Dohuk to take care of most of their bureaucratic chores.

B. Arrival of Pro-Iran Paramilitary Groups in Northern Iraq

Another important effect of the counter-ISIS campaign was to bring in Shiite armed groups from elsewhere in Iraq, who helped defeat the jihadists in battle and stayed in the north west after victory was achieved. A 2014 religious decree by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had called on men from across the country to volunteer with the security forces, but the first to answer were Shiite militias that had mostly been dormant since the sectarian war in 2005-2007 (though some had gone to fight for the regime in neighbouring Syria after 2011). In 2016, the government institutionalised the al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) as part of the state, making it part of the formal security sector with its own budget, including salaries for fighters, from the federal government.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°188, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018.Hide Footnote  Some brigades have remained outside the Hashd umbrella while using the institution to advance their own interests, which they define mainly as countering what they call the continued U.S. military occupation of Iraq and, more recently, the Turkish occupation of parts of the north.

The Hashd is run by the Hashd Commission, a decision-making body that encompasses a core of Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, such as the Badr Organisation, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The Hashd also includes a brigade from Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s powerful nationalist Sarayat al-Salam. At first, it also included the so-called Shrine groups aligned with the Shiite religious leadership, the marjaeeya, in Najaf, but they broke away to subordinate themselves directly to the prime minister as commander-in-chief in protest of what they considered the Hashd’s excessive autonomy.[fn]Michael Knights, Hamdi Malik and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Honored, not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 23 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Apart from its Shiite core, the Hashd co-opted many armed groups formed by ethnic or religious minorities to fend off the ISIS onslaught. In Ninewa governorate these included Sunni tribal, Christian, Shabak and Turkmen groups. In Sinjar, the Hashd worked closely with the PKK-affiliated YBŞ and integrated some of its fighters.

The Hashd’s entry into Iraq’s north west has made the conflict over the disputed territories more complex.

The Hashd’s entry into Iraq’s north west has made the conflict over the disputed territories more complex. One of its main aims is to prevent the KDP’s return to these areas to promote its separatist aspirations. But, while the Hashd is challenging Kurdish military dominance in parts of the north, it is also undermining Baghdad’s authority in places from which the state withdrew in the face of ISIS’s 2014 offensive. Today, indeed, the Hashd is far more than a military power. It has advanced politically by fielding parliamentary candidates in the disputed territories drawn from among the minorities allied with it. It has also gained economic influence through its control of illicit commerce inside the country, as well as across its borders, from Iran to Syria, and its practice of levying fees upon business owners through its economic offices in return for protection.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Iraq: Fixing Security in Kirkuk, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The KDP’s withdrawal in 2017 left large parts of Sinjar under the Hashd’s de facto control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, YBŞ member and representatives of the self-administration, Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Only one KDP-backed group under the command of Qasim Shasho remained, deploying in the area around the Yazidis’ Sharaf al-Din shrine, north east of Mount Sinjar.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qasim Shasho, Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote  To consolidate its hold, the Hashd quickly moved to back the YBŞ and its political component, the Sinjar self-administration. The Hashd national leader at the time, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, sought to tie the YBŞ closer to the Hashd by appointing a mayor and sub-district directors who were loyal to, or members of, the self-administration. But Baghdad did not recognise these appointees and the Hashd did not follow through by calling upon the government to formally replace the KDP administration operating from Dohuk. It then seemingly lost interest in the people it had appointed to govern Sinjar after Muhandis died in the same January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. In September 2021, the head of the Sinuni sub-district in Sinjar said he had barely spoken to the Hashd leadership.[fn]Crisis Group interview, head of Sinuni sub-district, Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Given that the Ninewa governorate (in which Sinjar district is located) does not recognise the Sinjar-based self-administration, most of the federal funds allocated to Sinjar since 2018 have sat unused in Mosul. Meanwhile, Baghdad has paid salaries to displaced Sinjar government employees living in the Kurdistan region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents, Sinjar, September 2021; and Najm al-Jubouri, Ninewa governor, Mosul, September 2021.Hide Footnote  For its part, the Hashd began to focus on security, leaving the self-administration to run some public services, such as schools and health care facilities, in the areas it controls.

C. The Hashd, the PKK and the YBȘ – A Marriage of Convenience?

Security in most of Sinjar is handled by a condominium of the Hashd and local actors, with the Shiite paramilitaries decidedly the senior partner. This arrangement emerged soon after October 2017, after ISIS was defeated and federal forces left. Hashd units moved northward, brushing up against the PKK’s strongholds on Mount Sinjar and in Khanasour. They briefly clashed with PKK and YBŞ elements, which feared the Hashd might seek to drive them out, too, but dialogue via side channels defused the tensions.

Since then, the Hashd has maintained a strategic, mutually beneficial relationship with the PKK, one that spans Iraq and Syria, though it does not always override local tensions. The Hashd negotiated its cohabitation with the PKK and YBŞ from 2017 onward by sharing the spoils, especially of cross-border smuggling. The Hashd benefits from the PKK’s coordination of illicit trade with the YPG in Syria. Meanwhile, Sinjar provides the PKK with an additional safe haven, building a sort of land bridge between its bases elsewhere in northern Iraq and Syria. But the Hashd views the PKK – unlike the affiliated YBŞ – as a foreign guest in Iraq. As such, it has worked to limit the group’s manoeuvrability in Sinjar; following the signing of the Sinjar agreement, it mediated the withdrawal of some PKK cadres from the district.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hashd and YBŞ members, Sinjar and Baghdad, September 2021 and March 2022.Hide Footnote

It is ties to the Hashd that have brought the PKK into the region’s pro-Iran camp. The PUK, which unlike the KDP enjoys good relations with Iran, as well as with some of Hashd groups, was the broker of this new relationship. It helped the PKK forge links with the Hashd as early as 2014, paving the way for their later collaboration in Sinjar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, PUK and Hashd officials, Suleimaniya and Baghdad, March 2022. PKK-Hashd relations also stretch beyond Iraq, as some Hashd groups that fought ISIS in Syria under Iranian command work closely with the YPG to maintain smuggling routes between Iraq and Syria through Sinjar.Hide Footnote

The Hashd has replicated the divide-and-conquer strategy it began employing early in the counter-ISIS campaign to secure its new turf.

On the ground, the Hashd has replicated the divide-and-conquer strategy it began employing early in the counter-ISIS campaign to secure its new turf, especially in areas such as the Ninewa plains where it did not yet have a presence. For example, it armed several Ninewa minority groups, some of which are at odds with one another, such as the Shabak and Christians. In the disputed territories, where it was also trying to dislodge the KDP, it formed ties with local armed groups.[fn]For example, the Hashd in Sinjar started paying salaries to a force led by Hayder Shasho, a former PUK member, in late 2014. (Hayder is Qasim Shasho’s nephew but does not share his KDP loyalist uncle’s political affiliations.) But it dropped him again in April 2015, while deepening its relations with other local groups, including the YBŞ. Crisis Group Report, Winning the Post-ISIS Battle for Iraq in Sinjar, op. cit.Hide Footnote  In Sinjar, it established smaller local militias and made the YBŞ, due to its affiliation with the PKK, the foremost of its junior partners, integrating some of its fighters into the Hashd’s 80th battalion, which meant they received a government salary.

In the Hashd’s eyes, the YBŞ is similar to other Iraqi minority groups that took up arms against ISIS and to which the Hashd extended its support in exchange for their loyalty. It views the YBŞ this way because, although modelled on the PKK and drawing upon the PKK’s philosophy, the YBŞ has a membership of Iraqi Yazidis and sees its future within the Iraqi state.

The YBŞ derives its current strength from the support it receives from the Hashd. It wants to incorporate as many of its fighters under the Hashd umbrella as possible in order to obtain a steady stream of income. Even partial incorporation will be a financial boost to the whole organisation, as it can split up the salaries and distribute the shares to its other fighters who are not part of the 80th battalion. In September 2021, the YBŞ claimed its force had 5,000 members, but only some 250 of these were under the Hashd aegis. The YBŞ had to pay salaries for the rest but has struggled to do so, placing many on a volunteer retainer in the hope that they can eventually join the 80th battalion.[fn]A YBŞ commander explained that the group’s long-term goal was to establish a separate brigade under the Hashd umbrella, but a Hashd commander claimed that incorporating such a large number of new recruits was unlikely, even with an expanded budget. Crisis Group interviews, YBŞ commander, Sinjar, September 2021; and Hashd commander, Baghdad, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Office of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), Sinjar district, September 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Lahib Higel

Apart from the 250 YBŞ fighters, the Hashd maintains several other local units on its payroll. The Lalish and Kocho battalions are led by rival Yazidi commanders; the Arajia battalion was formed by Mahmoud al-Araji for the area’s very small (Arab) Shiite minority; and various Sunni Arab tribes in the district’s south-eastern part on the border with Syria established separate militias as well. None commands more than 200 fighters and each competes with the others to enlarge the number of its recruits drawing government salaries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local Hashd group commanders, Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Many local people, including Yazidis and Sunni Arabs, are disgruntled with both their past experience with the KDP and the present one with the Hashd.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sinjar residents, Sinjar tribal council representatives and Hashd faction members, Sinjar and Baghdad, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote  The Hashd’s disinterest in improving governance in Sinjar, as well as its divide-and-conquer approach to local armed groups – whereby it establishes small groups that compete with each other in order to control them and make sure they do not unite against ithas hurt its standing. Yazidi civilians explain that the resulting proliferation of armed groups invites conflict, as these groups vie with one another over resources rather than provide security for the public. Few Yazidis express trust in the Hashd today, claiming that it is merely pursuing its own interest in maintaining access to Syria and protecting cross-border smuggling. Most of the local armed groups appear to view the Hashd presence strictly as a temporary necessity: they want it around as a counterbalance to the KDP, which they fear will dominate the area again should it return, a prospect they consider worse. They tend to agree on the need for Sinjar to fall under federal authority.

Having been largely absent from Sinjar since 2003, Baghdad has an opportunity to gain the local populations’ trust, while maintaining a constructive working relationship with both the KDP and the Hashd to ensure that a new administration and security arrangement can emerge.

D. Iran and Turkey: On a Collision Course?

The Sinjar situation highlights how the interests of Iran and Turkey in Iraq both converge and conflict. Turkey has long-term goals that require Iranian acquiescence, such as a direct border crossing with federal Iraq and a rail connection to Mosul (an old plan that has made no progress), which would need to traverse the territory that connects Iran to its partner organisations based in Iraq and Syria.[fn]Sardar Aziz, Erwin van Veen and Engin Yüksel, “Turkish Intervention in Its Near Abroad: The Case of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq”, Clingendael Institute, March 2022.Hide Footnote

While the two countries may have competing economic and political interests in Sinjar, they share a common interest in preventing Kurdish statehood. Hence, both countries supported Baghdad’s decision to reimpose control upon the disputed territories after the Kurdistan Regional Government’s September 2017 independence referendum.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°55, Oil and Borders: How to Fix Iraq’s Kurdish Crisis, 17 October 2017; and Crisis Group Middle East Report N°199, After Iraqi Kurdistan’s Thwarted Independence Bid, 27 March 2019.Hide Footnote  They were particularly keen to prevent the KRG from declaring statehood in not just the Kurdistan region but in the KRG-controlled disputed territories, as the oil fields there, such as in Kirkuk, could make a Kurdish state economically viable.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°194, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Iran and Turkey’s shared opposition to Kurdish separatism in Iraq reflects concerns about similar Kurdish aspirations in their respective countries. Iran, like Turkey, seeks to stifle such sentiments at home and has repeatedly attacked separatist groups such as the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan-Iran in their bases in northern Iraq.[fn]See, for example, “Iran’s Guards target Kurdish rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan – report”, Reuters, 9 September 2021.Hide Footnote  While Turkey has partnered with the KDP, this relationship has been limited in part because Ankara does not want the KDP to parlay Turkish support into a successful independence bid. While Turkey needs the KDP to help it fight the PKK in northern Iraq, including the PKK’s YBŞ affiliate in Sinjar, elsewhere in the disputed territories, it seeks to limit the KDP’s power, especially in Kirkuk.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish diplomat, Baghdad, September 2021. In Kirkuk, Turkey uses its ties with local Turkmen and Arab groups to limit the KDP’s influence, thus preventing the Kurdish region from annexing this oil-rich part of the disputed territories.Hide Footnote  Against this backdrop, Turkey assumes that Iran’s affinity for the PKK has its limits, believing that Iran will collaborate with the PKK to secure an Iranian land corridor running through Iraq and Syria, but not to support the development of a self-governing system that could lead to Kurdish independence in any of these places.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish diplomat, Baghdad, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Iranian and Turkish officials … seem certain that prolonged friction over Sinjar will not risk head-on confrontation between the two countries.

Both Iranian and Turkish officials also seem certain that prolonged friction over Sinjar will not risk head-on confrontation between the two countries given their long history of balancing interests without going to war, but the risks of expanding conflict in and around the district should not be discounted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish and Iranian officials, Baghdad, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Escalation in Sinjar between Turkey and Iran’s partners, such as the PKK and YBŞ, has occurred already, threatening to turn the district into an arena for a larger conflict. In the name of curbing what it calls the PKK’s terrorist activities, Turkey has targeted top YBŞ commanders of the Hashd’s 80th battalion.[fn]In Iraq’s Sinjar, Yazidi returns crawl to a halt amid fears of Turkish airstrikes”, The New Humanitarian, 10 February 2022.Hide Footnote

Turkey acknowledges that it cannot simply equate the YBŞ with the PKK, as the former group’s rank-and-file may have signed up for different reasons, either to protect themselves or to earn a living, or due to PKK pressure.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish diplomat, Baghdad, March 2022.Hide Footnote  Neither is the YBŞ a carbon copy of the YPG, which has attacked Turkish troops in the Turkish-controlled enclave in north-eastern Syria, as well as inside Turkey. The YBŞ, by contrast, has not yet directed grievances at Turkey, much less staged attacks on Turkish assets in Iraq.[fn]Turkey maintains nearly 40 military bases and smaller outposts in the Kurdistan region, some dating back to the 1990s. Turkey also has the Zilkan base near Bashiqa in the disputed territories, which it established at the end of 2015.Hide Footnote  Yet Turkey has increased its targeting of YBŞ commanders, in the process killing Iraqi nationals, many of whom are revered locally for having fought ISIS. Anti-Turkish sentiment in Sinjar is thus on the rise.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sinjar residents and YBŞ members, Sinjar and Baghdad, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote

At the same time, there is evidence that Turkey is taking care not to provoke Iran in its operations against the PKK and YBŞ. In Sinjar, Ankara has targeted only PKK cadres and 80th battalion commanders, steering clear of other Hashd groups. In this way, Turkey has sought to signal that it is not going after the Hashd institution per se, but only the PKK affiliates within it. Turkey has also refrained from condemning or retaliating for most attacks on Turkish forces in Iraq, including those at its Zilkan base in Bashiqa, north east of Mosul. These attacks are outside the area where the YBŞ tends to operate and appear to be perpetrated mainly by pro-Iranian “resistance” factions tied to the Hashd.[fn]It is possible that individual Yazidis who have fought with the PKK or Hashd groups in Iraq and/or Syria are part of cells under the banner of Ahrar Sinjar, as they can more easily conceal their movements inside the Kurdistan region than Arab paramilitaries who do not speak Kurdish. See, for example, Michael Knights, Hamdi Malik, Alex Almeida and Anwar al-Zamani, “Ahrar Sinjar: Fasail Employment of the Yezidi Community”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 26 May 2022.Hide Footnote  Turkey’s restrained response suggests it intends to navigate its relationship with Iran with extreme caution.

Even so, if things continue on their present course, Turkey is likely to face growing blowback for its activities in Iraq. The pro-Iran Hashd groups’ grievances regarding Turkey go well beyond the problems in Sinjar. As with the U.S. military presence in Iraq, they argue that the Turkish military presence is a form of occupation and should be resisted as such.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hashd members, Baghdad, February and March 2022.Hide Footnote  Consequently, Hashd groups are the first to condemn each new air campaign that Turkey conducts against the PKK in Iraq. In February 2021, the Hashd deployed three brigades to Sinjar in response to Turkish threats of a ground incursion.[fn]Tahsin Qasim, “Three PMF brigades deployed to Sinjar to counter Turkish threats, Rudaw, 13 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Hashd “resistance” groups have effectively used unrest in Sinjar as cover to conceal their involvement in attacks on Turkish troops in Iraq. For instance, a group called Ahrar Sinjar claimed an attack on the Zilkan base following Turkey’s February 2022 air campaign against the PKK in Sinjar and Makhmour districts.[fn]‘Ahrar Sinjar’ attacks a Turkish military camp in Iraq, Shafaq News, 3 February 2022.Hide Footnote  Yazidi armed groups in Sinjar denied any involvement or even the existence of a group by that name.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, YBŞ and Yazidi Hashd representatives, February 2022.Hide Footnote  But, while the name was unfamiliar to local observers, the wording of the group’s statement and its logo both recalled occasions on which Shiite pro-Iran “resistance” factions have relied on so-called façade groups to claim attacks on U.S. or Gulf Arab assets in Iraq in order to give themselves plausible deniability.[fn]Michael Knights, Hamdi Malik and Crispin Smith, “Discordance in the Iran Threat Network in Iraq: Militia Competition and Rivalry”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 21 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Thus, even as Turkey has sought to maintain a balancing act with Iran’s non-PKK partners in Iraq, Turkish escalation against PKK targets has triggered a growing number of attacks on its Zilkan base.[fn]See, for example, “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, 1 January to 31 March 2022”, U.S. Department of Defense, 31 March 2022.Hide Footnote  Hashd groups have moreover hit other Turkish interests, for instance, energy export infrastructure linking the Kurdistan region and the disputed territories to Turkey.[fn]See, for example, “Rocket attack misses Kurdistan refinery but raises security concerns”, Iraq Oil Report, 7 April 2022; and “Attack hits near Kurdistan’s export pipeline”, Iraq Oil Report, 12 April 2022.Hide Footnote  The standoff in Sinjar has thus become part of a larger competition between Iran and Turkey in Iraq.

III. The Sinjar Agreement

A. Background

On 9 October 2020, the office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced the Sinjar agreement, signed by Baghdad and Erbil a week earlier, branding it a historic achievement. This pact between the national and regional authorities was indeed significant, especially because it indicated that the KDP, which in effect had run the district from 2003 till 2014, would now accept Baghdad’s authority there, at least until the disputed territories question is eventually resolved.

[The Sinjar Agreement] emerged against the backdrop of three years of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil.

The agreement, which steers clear of addressing the core issue of Sinjar’s status, delineates an administrative and security arrangement with the aim of stabilising the area to facilitate return of the displaced. It emerged against the backdrop of three years of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil following their joint victory over ISIS and critically after federal forces retook control over the disputed territories in October 2017, from Kirkuk to Mosul and Sinjar, which upended much of the KRG’s pre-ISIS administrative and security arrangements in these areas. It came about only because it allowed the KRG to return to Sinjar as a key political player and offered a way to address Turkey’s demand that the PKK presence in the district be eradicated.[fn]Crisis Group obtained a copy of the agreement in October 2020. See Appendix B for the full text.Hide Footnote

The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and various countries’ diplomatic missions, as well as the U.S.-led coalition forces, have made several attempts after 2017 to bring Baghdad and Erbil together in the service of common interests – for example, to address poor local governance and to improve security coordination between federal forces and the peshmerga in order to forestall an ISIS resurgence in northern Iraq.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Report, Iraq: Fixing Security in Kirkuk, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Compared with Kirkuk, over which UNAMI-facilitated talks have so far been futile, the sides considered Sinjar, as a government official put it, to be “low-hanging fruit”.[fn]The stakes are far higher in Kirkuk, which sits atop Iraq’s second-largest oil reserves. Crisis Group interview, government official, Baghdad, September 2021.Hide Footnote

The agreement followed months of negotiations. Security officials on both sides were both the main negotiators and the signatories. On the KRG side, the lead negotiator was the region’s interior minister, Rebar Ahmed. On the Baghdad side, the negotiating team included the national security adviser, Qasim al-Araji, the head of the national security service, Hamid al-Shatri, the deputy head of the Joint Operations Command – the central military command for all Iraqi security forces – Abdul-Ameer al-Shimmeri and the head of the Hashd Commission, Faleh al-Fayadh. The former two were lead negotiators operating as liaisons with all government institutions involved. On the margins were civilian advisers to the prime minister and president.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and advisers, Baghdad, September-October 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote

B. Terms

The agreement’s text (see Appendix B) outlines three areas for intervention: administration, security management and reconstruction. A committee composed of federal and Kurdish regional government representatives is to oversee the deal’s rollout.

With regard to administration, the agreement calls first for appointing a mayor. Sinjar has had no such official since October 2017, when the KDP left the area for the second time. A joint committee to be formed in accordance with the agreement, as described below, has authority to appoint an independent mayor based on a shared understanding between Baghdad and Erbil, as well as the Ninewa governorate administration in Mosul. After the mayor is in place, the joint committee is to fill other key administrative positions, such as sub-district heads

The [Sinjar] agreement ... calls for expelling the PKK from Sinjar, as well as “ending the role” of its affiliates in the area.

The deal outlines several steps with respect to security management. Among the most significant is that it shifts responsibility for public safety to local police in coordination with the national security adviser’s office and the intelligence services; all other forces must withdraw from the district. Another stipulation is that the interior ministry recruit 2,500 members to the local police force, 1,500 from among returning displaced Yazidis and 1,000 from among the current residents, including Yazidis, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The joint committee is responsible for vetting the new recruits to ensure that no PKK elements are among them. The agreement, in fact, calls for expelling the PKK from Sinjar, as well as “ending the role” of its affiliates in the area. It tasks the Joint Operations Command, which answers to the prime minister as commander-in-chief and includes representatives of all security forces, with enforcing this provision.[fn]The agreement’s exact wording calls for: “Putting an end to the PKK presence in Sinjar district and the areas surrounding it. The organisation and its affiliates shall have no role in the region”. See Appendix B.Hide Footnote

Finally, the agreement requires that the federal and regional governments form a joint committee in coordination with the Ninewa provincial government to oversee reconstruction of Sinjar.

C. Reception

At first, the deal got a mostly positive reaction. The U.S. and European countries, having been privy to the negotiations, applauded their successful conclusion. Crucially, Turkey gave its blessing after the two sides agreed to its condition that the PKK be kicked out of Sinjar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Baghdad, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote  The local reception was mixed. A broad spectrum of Yazidis, including politically non-aligned activists and advocacy groups, cautiously welcomed it, acknowledging that an understanding between Baghdad and Erbil was a crucial step in restoring stability to the district.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Yazidi advocacy organisations, October 2020.Hide Footnote

But the reception soon soured as gaps in the deal became obvious. It specified no role for international actors as guarantors; nor did it involve Iran, which could have exerted influence on its local partners to respect the deal’s terms. Western countries as well as UNAMI considered Baghdad and Erbil the two parties that needed to forge an understanding. In their support for the agreement, they overlooked the dynamics on the ground, especially Baghdad’s inability to fully impose its authority on another state institution, the Hashd, which may have consented to the agreement officially but did not intend to support it. Like the YBȘ, some of the main Shiite Hashd groups argue that the agreement is rigged against them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Hashd commander, Baghdad, March 2022.Hide Footnote  A federal official said Baghdad and Erbil likewise failed to appreciate how entrenched local armed groups had become and how deeply the Hashd had committed to protecting its interests in the area.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, Baghdad, September 2021.Hide Footnote

The agreement’s glaring neglect of the most sensitive socio-political dynamics quickly eroded its local support. This deficiency resulted partly from the fact that representatives of security institutions had led the way in drafting a deal. But likely a bigger reason was the exclusion of local representatives from the talks. Although federal officials did consult Sinjaris along the way, neither negotiating team included a Yazidi or any other representative of Sinjar’s ethno-sectarian communities. Nor were Sinjaris aware of the final deal’s terms before they were made public.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sinjar political representatives and tribal leaders, Sinjar and Baghdad, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote  The civilian advisers involved later said they had quietly cautioned about the lack of local buy-in, to no apparent avail.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and advisers, Baghdad, September-October 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote

Building on criticism that some had expressed from the outset, residents evinced scepticism that the agreement would improve conditions in Sinjar, suggesting that it was merely a sop to Baghdad and Erbil.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yazidi civil society figures and Sinjar tribal council members, Erbil and Baghdad, February and March 2022.Hide Footnote  Some Yazidi civilians, including women and displaced persons, argued that only Sinjaris have Sinjari interests at heart. They feared that neither Baghdad nor Erbil would prevent future violence directed at them; that a future central government could try to “Arabise” Sinjar, subsidising Arab migrants from the south to settle in the area, like Saddam Hussein did; or that the KDP might try to “Kurdify” the district should its forces return. They stressed the need for Sinjaris to be in charge of security, preferably in an official local force rather than as multiple militias, although some would still prefer the latter over federal or regional forces coming in from outside the district.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yazidi civil society figures and Sinjar tribal council members, Erbil and Baghdad, February and March 2022. See also “Mapping Needs of Yazidi Women in Sinjar and Displaced Communities”, International Organization of Migration, 27 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Many among the Yazidis and Arabs of Sinjar ... vehemently rejected the deal, saying the negotiators had not taken Sinjaris’ views into account.

Many among the Yazidis and Arabs of Sinjar, especially those aligned with the YBŞ, thus vehemently rejected the deal, saying the negotiators had not taken Sinjaris’ views into account.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, YBŞ members, self-administration representatives and Sinjar tribal council leaders, Sinjar and Baghdad, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote  The Hashd supports the YBŞ in leading resistance to the deal, which the latter has held up with repeated demonstrations and occasional attacks on federal forces. More than one year on, many displaced Yazidis say they doubt the deal will ever fully come into effect. Some go so far as to say Yazidis should rebuild their lives outside their homeland, because Sinjar has become an arena for regional power competition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yazidi activists, Baghdad and Erbil, September 2021.Hide Footnote

The deal had other weaknesses as well. On the Erbil side, it did not include the PUK, the second largest party in the Kurdistan region, although a very weak junior partner in the KRG. Neither Baghdad nor Erbil considered the PUK’s involvement necessary, as Sinjar borders only the KDP-dominated part of the Kurdistan region.[fn]It was easier to exclude the PUK than it might otherwise have been, because the group is deeply divided after the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani, a former president of Iraq, in 2017.Hide Footnote  In doing so, however, they ignored the PUK’s potential to be an intermediary with the PKK and YBŞ, due to the friendly relations among the three. The deal also glossed over the ways in which political competition in Baghdad might impede implementation of the deal, as the Iraqi government is itself a patchwork of institutions, each led by factional interests.[fn]The Iraqi government could have decided what its red lines are and how to implement the deal before signing it. But the prime minister may not have wanted to pursue this path, knowing that he might not get far with the Hashd groups.Hide Footnote  Prime Minister Kadhimi presides over a weak interim government since the elections in October 2021, which from its early days was set on a collision course with Hashd factions only nominally under his control as commander-in-chief.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, Baghdad, September 2021. See also, Sajad Jiyad, “Reconsidering the Security Sector in Sinjar and the Ninewa Plains”, International Organisation of Migration, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Limiting the number of views at the negotiating table certainly helped make it possible to reach a deal, but the exclusion of those who will feel the greatest impact from the agreement, namely the population of Sinjar, has made it very difficult to fulfil.

IV. Making the Agreement Work

Despite the Sinjar agreement’s flaws, it can still be better harnessed to restore stability to Sinjar. The parties will need to move expeditiously, however, to carry out key provisions so that Sinjaris see progress and do not give up on the deal altogether. They will also need to foster more of the dialogue that was missing during the negotiations to secure greater local buy-in for implementation. The following areas should be top priorities.

A. Appoint a Mayor

First, the parties need to appoint a mayor. This issue has become one of the main stumbling blocks to the deal’s implementation. The KDP submitted three names to the Baghdad negotiating team, receiving provisional approval for one. Baghdad’s negotiators then requested 60 days to consult with various government institutions, including the Hashd, to review the candidate. Yet the KDP has yet to receive a final answer. It has repeatedly asked Baghdad to confirm the provisional candidate, or one of the others, and complains that in neglecting to respond, Baghdad is failing to hold up its end of the deal.[fn]Crisis Group interview, KDP official, Erbil, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Sinjari parties consider the KDP’s proposed candidates to be partisan, however, which is one reason why Baghdad may be hesitant to appoint one of them, fearing that local residents would reject such a mayor outright. In April, Prime Minister Kadhimi tried to find a temporary solution by appointing the Ninewa governor, Najm al-Jubouri, as Sinjar’s acting mayor. The YBŞ, as well as non-aligned Yazidi activists, promptly objected, compelling Baghdad to rescind the appointment only a day later. Jubouri is widely known to be friendly with the KDP and close to the Iraqi army, in which he was a high-ranking commander before taking up his civilian post.

Erbil has ignored calls from various Sinjaris to let them elect a non-partisan mayor – and so has Baghdad.

At the same time, Erbil has ignored calls from various Sinjaris to let them elect a non-partisan mayor – and so has Baghdad.[fn]“Mapping Needs of Yazidi Women in Sinjar and Displaced Communities”, op. cit.; and “Statement of Yazidi leaders and Yazidi institutions on the agreement between Baghdad and Erbil, Eyzidi Organization for Documentation, 12 October 2020 (Arabic). Some Yazidi civil society actors contend that Sinjar should become a governorate to shield it from Baghdad-Erbil competition, but this idea appears to have found no traction. Crisis Group interviews, Yazidi civil society actors, Erbil, February 2022; and by telephone, April 2022.Hide Footnote  They are likely to keep doing so, a federal official noted, following the October 2021 elections.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, Baghdad, February 2022.Hide Footnote  The KDP won all three of Sinjar’s parliamentary seats, because so many of its voters are displaced in the Kurdistan region, and on that basis claims the right to fill the district’s highest office with its own nominee.[fn]About two thirds of Sinjar’s displaced population live in the Kurdistan region, most of them in camps where they had access to polling stations. Though many resent the KDP for leaving Sinjar for ISIS to ransack, many are also now dependent on it for salaries or other means of livelihood and are willing to vote for its candidates.Hide Footnote  Loath as it is to anger Sinjaris by agreeing to a KDP nominee, Baghdad does not want to alienate a powerful player in parliament by entertaining the Sinjaris’ requests. The result is that Sinjar remains without a mayor eighteen months after the agreement was signed.

Both Baghdad and Erbil would benefit from a selection process that is more transparent and inclusive and that is predicated on winning Sinjaris’ consent. Without such a process, Sinjaris will continue to resist the agreement’s implementation, while KDP-linked administrators will remain in the Kurdistan region – a status quo that none are especially happy about. In order to identify a viable candidate, Baghdad and Erbil should rely on local intermediaries, such as the Sinjar tribal council, which is close to the YBŞ. The council includes many capable community representatives, some of whom have previously been KDP party members and worked in the local administration. These people could be the necessary bridges between the two main opposing sides, the self-administration and the KDP, that are not talking to each other at present. UNAMI could facilitate these talks in coordination with federal government representatives.

In the immediate term, however, the deadlock over the mayor is likely to continue, as government formation in Baghdad has stalled and Prime Minister Kadhimi’s caretaker government has only limited capacity for delicate political manoeuvres. Given that Sinjar is in dire need of an authorised administration that can provide public services, an interim arrangement may be the best option. Appointing an acting mayor could be a viable temporary solution. For this purpose, the federal government should consult with both Erbil and Sinjar community leaders to identify a suitable candidate. Ideally, that person would be a politically non-aligned Yazidi from Sinjar, but Sinjaris might also accept an Iraqi army commander, provided that he is non-partisan.[fn]There is precedent in Iraq for appointing military commanders as acting civilian administrators. In October 2017, when Baghdad imposed federal authority in Kirkuk, it named an army commander as governor. The current governor of Ninewa province is likewise a former army commander.Hide Footnote

B. Secure the District

A. Baghdad’s struggle to assert itself

Another priority is security. The Sinjar agreement’s first requirement in this regard – turning over security to federal agencies and local police – is only partly fulfilled. The national security and intelligence agencies now have offices in Sinjar town, and the 20th army division has taken charge of policing the areas between towns and villages, while the border police patrols the Syrian frontier. Meanwhile, the army has started building a concrete wall along that border. The idea is ostensibly to prevent the entry of ISIS fighters, although the barrier also serves a second purpose, cutting off the YBŞ in Iraq from the YPG and PKK on the other side.[fn]Iraq building Syria wall to keep out ISIS fighters”, Asharq al-Awsat, 28 March 2022. See also, Fehim Tastekin, “Is Turkey behind border wall, Iraqi deployment in Sinjar?”, Al-Monitor, 3 May 2022.Hide Footnote

But federal authorities hardly have a monopoly on force. The main YBŞ headquarters in Khanasour remains outside federal control, and the relationship between the army and the YBŞ in the rest of the district is tense.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote  For instance, on 12 January, YBŞ supporters tried to erect a statue of a commander killed in a Turkish airstrike in 2020, but federal forces did not let them. In response, YBŞ members attacked an army checkpoint and the national security office in Sinjar town.[fn]Adnan Rashid, “Because of a statue… tension between the Army and the Sinjar Resistance Units”, Rudaw, 13 January 2022 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  Such skirmishes have been a regular occurrence for at least a year, especially around Sinjar town and in Sinuni sub-district, where YBŞ members and sympathisers are most active. Security forces have regularly prevented members of the YBŞ-installed self-administration, and even civilians they perceive as YBŞ sympathisers, from passing through army checkpoints.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, YBŞ member and government intelligence officer, March 2022.Hide Footnote

In April and May, Baghdad’s struggle to exercise its writ in Sinjar combined with Turkey’s anti-PKK drive to ratchet up tensions, resulting in violence. After Turkey launched its Operation Claw Lock on 18 April, the Iraqi army strengthened its posture in Sinjar by establishing new checkpoints near towns, especially Sinuni. It also deployed more troops to the Syria border zone. The Turkish operation has limited PKK fighters’ movement between their strongholds in northern Kurdistan, while the Iraqi army’s push to consolidate its authority has squeezed YBŞ efforts to maintain control in part of the district. The YBŞ views the two operations as a concerted effort by Ankara and Baghdad to strangle the PKK and YBŞ alike.[fn]Amberin Zaman, “Yazidi militia says Iraqi army attacks linked to Turkey’s anti-PKK campaign, Al-Monitor, 4 May 2022.Hide Footnote

Check point of Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ). CRISIS GROUP / Lahib Higel

Notable clashes took place in early May. On 1 May, the army skirmished with YBŞ fighters at a checkpoint in Bab Shalo, west of Mount Sinjar, where the two sides exchanged fire without incurring casualties. The following day, fighting broke out in Dukuri village, east of Sinuni town, as the YBŞ resisted the establishment of a new army checkpoint, prompting the army to call in reinforcements. YBŞ snipers shot at soldiers from a schoolhouse in which they had taken shelter and the army retaliated by bringing in the 9th armoured division, whose tanks shelled the building, causing at least three YBŞ fatalities.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, army officer and YBŞ member, 8 May 2022. The army also suffered three fatalities and several other casualties. An intelligence officer claimed that two of the YBŞ dead were PKK members from Syria and Turkey, an allegation that the YBŞ denied. Crisis Group telephone interview, intelligence officer, 6 May 2022.Hide Footnote

The escalation in and around Sinuni played out in residential areas, prompting the largest wave of displacement from Sinjar since the ISIS onslaught in 2014. Some 1,000 families left the area for the Kurdistan region and a smaller number fled to Mount Sinjar. Families in Sinjar, as well as Yazidi activists, have since called for the withdrawal of external forces, with security responsibilities to be handed over the local police and national intelligence services. They have also demanded that the army’s duties be limited to patrolling the district’s boundaries, which some residents had done even before the April-May escalation.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Sinjar residents and activists, May 2022. See also Osama Gharizi, “Struggle for Sinjar: Iraqis’ views on security in the disputed district”, U.S. Institute of Peace, 5 April 2021.Hide Footnote

While no new clashes have occurred since 2 May, the situation remains tense and residents fear further escalation despite efforts by the parties to calm tempers. The Hashd, which did not intervene on either side during the clashes, has sought to mediate between the army and the YBŞ. So far, the army has not agreed to a YBŞ demand that they jointly run checkpoints. Meanwhile, Sinjar tribal leaders have visited Baghdad to discuss ways to stabilise the area.[fn]

[The violence] of late April and early May [2022] could derail the Sinjar agreement completely.

In addition to creating a highly combustible situation, the events of late April and early May could derail the Sinjar agreement completely. Should the army continue its forceful campaign against the YBŞ, it risks turning the group into a permanent opponent that deploys insurgency tactics against the army with the PKK’s help. Moreover, the army’s heavy-handedness has caused resentment and fear among the population, particularly in places such as Sinuni, which have been most affected by violence of late. Before further confronting the YBŞ and taking over or establishing new checkpoints, the army should engage with the group in an effort to deconflict activities. Meanwhile, the YBŞ, which has committed to coming under state authority, must refrain from attacking the army.

If Baghdad is to impose its authority on Sinjar, it must gain the trust of the population by – at the very least – preventing fighting in residential areas. To do that, it must attain the monopoly on force it presently lacks. The joint committee needs to stand up the local police force envisaged by the 2020 agreement and move forward with integrating all local armed groups into the state’s security forces. With better outreach to the local armed groups and to ordinary Sinjaris, it should be able to handle these tasks, but as discussed below it could also use some outside help.

B. Standing up the local police

The joint committee has just begun to register and vet officers for the local police force. The October 2020 agreement provides for a force of 2,500 in total, of which 1,500 places are reserved for returning internally displaced Yazidis now residing in the Kurdistan region and 1,000 for current residents. The challenge is to build a police force representative of all who live in Sinjar or – as the agreement foresees – will return there soon when conditions allow. The joint committee, in particular, should work to assure current residents, as well as the displaced, that a future local police force will be drawn from all the communities of Sinjar. To this end, it should invite civilian representatives from the official administration, as well as the self-administration, in addition to civil society organisations and tribal leaders, to join in overseeing the process of standing up a new force.

Gender balance requires focused attention. Some Yazidi women and groups championing women’s rights note that the agreement contains no provision for recruitment of women into the police force.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yazidi women and NGO representatives, Erbil and Duhok, February 2022.Hide Footnote  The lack of women’s representation in Iraq’s security institutions creates broader problems for the population, partly because many women feel uncomfortable asking male police officers for assistance.[fn]“Mapping Needs of Yazidi Women in Sinjar and Displaced Communities”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Helping women gain access to the security services is of particular importance in Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidi women faced the trauma of enslavement and abuse following their abduction by ISIS, some of whose followers were local Arabs. Introducing a quota for women recruits to a community unit answering to the local police may help in persuading displaced women to return.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yazidi women activists and international NGO staff working with Yazidi victims of ISIS, Erbil, February 2022.Hide Footnote

The YBŞ [Sinjar Resistance Units] presents its own set of thorny challenges that will require careful management.

The YBŞ presents its own set of thorny challenges that will require careful management. It objects to the larger number of spots set aside for the displaced Yazidis, as it suspects that the KDP, via its influence in the camps where these people now live, would be able to gain the upper hand in Sinjar’s security management. Yet the ratio of displaced to current residents – approximately seven to three – warrants such a division.[fn]See Appendix B for further details.Hide Footnote  Not surprisingly, the YBŞ finds the vetting requirement particularly noxious, because it could be applied to automatically exclude anyone who is or has been an actual, or merely suspected, YBŞ member.[fn]Crisis Group interview, YBŞ member, Baghdad, February 2022. He also complained that, on a few occasions, when he and his colleagues were headed to Baghdad as part of a formal delegation to meet with government officials, the army would stop them along the way. On one occasion, they had to turn back and try again the next day; on another, a telephone call to a senior official in Baghdad solved the problem.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, the YBŞ has sought to fill the current residents’ share of police positions with loyalists, including people who were not already enrolled under its command, in order to provide job opportunities while retaining an armed force of its own.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, Baghdad, March 2022. The government faces a challenge in disbanding the YBŞ’s internal security force (Asayish) and reintegrating its approximately 700 members. So far, the YBŞ has not agreed to take this step, citing fears that residents who sympathise with the YBŞ will be at risk should this force cease to exist.Hide Footnote  This practice could well be an obstacle to future demobilisation, as other forces, including those affiliated with the Hashd and the KDP, are likely to keep members outside the local police force for the same reason, absent alternatives, as suggested below.

C. The most controversial provision

The 2020 agreement’s most controversial provision calls for the expulsion of the PKK and “ending the role” of its affiliates. It has proven impossible thus far to fulfil this clause, among other things, because it was not negotiated directly by all the key actors, because it indirectly suggests the YBŞ’s disbandment and because it offers its members no viable alternative. Initially rejecting the use of force against the PKK and the YBŞ, Baghdad resigned itself to an incomplete withdrawal, which took place soon after the agreement was signed. The PKK and YBŞ both pulled their fighters out of the district and sub-district centres and lowered their flags there, but maintained their bases on Mount Sinjar and in Khanasour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote

As the April-May clashes fighting have demonstrated, however, that arrangement is unstable. The PKK’s presence has resulted in Turkish intervention, and in turn led Baghdad to take its own initiative against the group (to keep Ankara at bay) and to assert itself with the YBŞ (in order to consolidate its grip on local security). Yet, while Baghdad is right to take ownership of Sinjar’s security, it cannot do so effectively if it keeps acting in a way that turns many residents against it.

Further progress is unlikely unless and until the joint committee disentangles the various sub-state actors from one another, primarily by separating the PKK from the YBŞ. Baghdad should thus endeavour to convince Erbil and Ankara that the YBŞ should be dealt with as – just one more – Iraqi armed group, not as a “terrorist organisation”. To this end, Baghdad would also need, of course, to put pressure on the YBŞ not to accommodate PKK activity in Iraq.

The joint committee should then outline a demobilisation and reintegration track for those YBŞ and other local armed group members under the Hashd umbrella, and also those outside it, such as Qasim Shasho’s force, under the supervision of either the interior or defence ministry. It will be a tall order: there is no precedent for a demobilisation effort of this magnitude anywhere in Iraq. Still, it will be necessary to try, as without such an option, some YBŞ military bases will remain out of reach for federal forces, which can only invite further Turkish airstrikes and dissuade the displaced from returning.

While the agreement only contemplates a 2,500-strong local police force, the various armed groups together have some 7,000 additional fighters.[fn]The number is based on Crisis Group interviews with armed groups’ commanders in Sinjar, September 2021.Hide Footnote  The government should outline a long-term plan for integrating those fighters it cannot enrol in the local police into security forces under the defence and interior ministries. Although the army and federal police normally assign the personnel to serve far away from their places of origin, the government could make an exception for Sinjaris who prefer to stay in their home district.

Many Sinjaris … have expressed deep disillusionment with the Iraqi state’s ability to provide security detached from partisan interests.

To settle the security situation to everyone’s satisfaction, Baghdad may need to bring in referees from the outside. Many Sinjaris, whether current residents or displaced, have expressed deep disillusionment with the Iraqi state’s ability to provide security detached from partisan interests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sinjar residents and displaced Sinjaris, Sinjar, Erbil and Dohuk, September 2021 and February 2022.Hide Footnote  Heads of civil society organisations have called on the UN to provide an international peacekeeping force instead.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, civil society activist, March 2022.Hide Footnote  While their entreaties have found no traction, Western countries, such as the U.S., the UK, Germany and France, concerned for Sinjar’s future could throw their weight behind a scaled-down version of the idea. They could advocate for international civilian monitoring of work to fulfil the agreement’s security provisions. International involvement could start with help in standing up the police force and then continue with support for efforts to reintegrate additional fighters into units under interior or defence ministry supervision.

Indirectly, UNAMI already plays such a part, but its role could be enhanced. Formalising civilian oversight with the support of international observers would give the effort greater transparency and legitimacy. For instance, UNAMI could establish a sub-office in Sinjar city staffed with civilians as observers and police advisers to lend technical expertise to the processes described above.

C. Move Forward with Reconstruction with Community Input

While the agreement tasks the joint committee with reconstruction, it does not specify a timeline for this work or provide the money to carry it out.[fn]See Appendix B.Hide Footnote  As with other provisions, Baghdad could take the lead in empowering residents to rebuild their own neighbourhoods. Local and international NGOs could help in assessing reconstruction projects and seeing them through. The national government would first, however, have to allocate a reconstruction budget. This step is likely to be delayed, as Iraqi law prevents a caretaker government from presenting a budget to parliament.

Moreover, even after Baghdad sets aside funds, many Sinjaris will be sceptical that the money will benefit them, because the joint committee includes only officials from Baghdad and Erbil. Absent a local administration that assumes the joint committee’s tasks and takes charge of reconstruction, Baghdad must ensure that local representatives are included in the committee’s deliberations.

V. Conclusion

Events extraneous to Sinjar turned the district from a backwater into a valuable strategic prize. ISIS arrived in August 2014 to connect Mosul with Raqqa in its attempt to create a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria. Its monstrous treatment of the local Yazidi population brought in outside help for the latter – too late for many Yazidis, who were either killed or enslaved. The PKK was able to exploit the post-2011 power vacuum in northern Syria to extend its influence there, increasingly at ISIS’s expense and also the KDP’s. The latter’s precipitous withdrawal from Sinjar provided oxygen to the PKK in the district and later to Iran-backed Hashd paramilitaries. But the PKK was followed by its enemy, Turkey, which compensated for the KDP’s weakness with repeated airstrikes upon the PKK and its local Yazidi affiliate, the YBŞ. Amid all this chaos, those among the population who did not previously flee are left without basic services or reconstruction. The displaced are reluctant to come back from camps in the Kurdistan region.

The October 2020 Sinjar agreement could have provided a way to lessen tensions in the district, stabilise it and launch a reconstruction effort, thereby stimulating the displaced population’s return and the area’s revival. But, by excluding the key parties on the ground, Baghdad and Erbil turned the agreement into a virtual dead letter, particularly as regards governance and security.

The remedy is for Baghdad and Erbil to honour the deal they agreed to – appointing a mayor, if need be on an acting basis, disentangling local from international actors and providing integration opportunities for the former as part of securing the district, and beginning reconstruction – while at the same time drawing the local actors they excluded into new negotiations over carrying out the agreement in full. It will be a difficult task, but leaving the situation in Sinjar as is – a district where waning state power enables power struggles between Turkey and Iran and their respective proxies and allies – will simply invite more violence and displacement. After everything Sinjar’s population has gone through in the past decade, surely that future is the last one that anyone would wish for them.

Baghdad/Brussels, 31 May 2022

Appendix A: Map of Sinjar

Appendix B: Text of Sinjar Agreement

Agreement for Restoring Stability and Normalising Conditions in the Sinjar District

For the purpose of restoring stability and normalising conditions in Sinjar district, and in line with constitutional and legal principles, and in order to address the suffering of the Sinjar population in preparation for the return of the displaced, and to organise the administrative and security framework in the district, the Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, and in coordination with the UN Mission, in order to benefit from international support and achieve stability and construction, have agreed to the following:

1. The Administrative Pillar:

  1. Selecting a new independent, professional, honest and acceptable district mayor [qa’im maqam] according to constitutional and legal mechanisms;
     
  2. After nominating the district mayor, nominees for other administrative positions shall be considered by the joint committee set up for this purpose, provided that questions of professionalism, integrity and the district’s social structure are taken into account.

2. The Security Pillar:

  1. Security within the district shall be maintained exclusively by the local police, national security and intelligence services. All other armed formations shall be moved out of Sinjar district;
     
  2. Strengthening security in the district by recruiting 2,500 members to internal security forces in Sinjar, while insuring equitable participation of the people of Sinjar in the IDP camps;
     
  3. Putting an end to the presence of the PKK in Sinjar district and the areas surrounding it. The organisation and its affiliates shall have no role in the region.

3. The Reconstruction Pillar:

A Joint Committee shall be established comprising the Federal Government and Kurdistan Regional Government in order to rebuild the district, in coordination with the provincial administration of Ninewa governorate. The committee’s level and the details of its tasks shall be identified by the Federal Prime Minister and KRG Prime Minister.

4. For the purpose of following up on the provisions of the administrative and security pillars, a joint field committee shall be set up consisting of the relevant bodies of the two parties in order to follow up on the implementation of the agreement’s provisions.

Annex to the Agreement

Table of actions for following up on the Agreement’s implementation to restore stability and normalise conditions in Sinjar district

Crisis Group translation from the original Arabic.