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Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears

Iraq’s new coalition government and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil must start talks on disputed internal boundaries or risk an outbreak of violent conflict along a “trigger” line dividing army troops and Kurdish regional guard forces, the peshmergas.

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Executive Summary

Iraq’s government was long in the making, but its inclusive nature and the way in which it was formed offer hope that it can make progress in the struggle between Arabs and Kurds. The conflict, which has left a devastating imprint on the country’s twentieth-century history, could cause political paralysis or, worse, precipitate Iraq’s break-up. Coalition partners have a unique opportunity to make headway. Failure to seize it would be inexcusable. Both sides should build on the apparent goodwill generated by efforts to establish a government to lay the foundations for a negotiated and peaceful settlement. In particular, they should immediately resume talks over the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories. They also should use their January 2011 agreement to export Kurdish oil through the national pipeline as a basis for negotiations over a revenue-sharing law and a comprehensive hydrocarbons law.

As protests throughout the country have shown, Iraq is not immune from the revolutionary fervour that is coursing through the Middle East and North Africa. Nor should it be, as successive governments’ inability to provide essential services, most importantly a steady supply of electrical power, has given rise to legitimate grievances. In what will be an early test for the new government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have to find an effective response to protesters’ demands as a top priority, certainly before the arrival of the hot summer months. The same holds true for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), which has long been buffeted by complaints concerning poor service delivery and widespread corruption. Protests in Suleimaniya in February and March 2011 show it is overdue in taking persuasive remedial action and thus faces the risk of escalating and spreading unrest.

Arab-Kurdish relations remain a tinderbox. In late February, the Kurdistan regional government sent military forces into Kirkuk in a transparent attempt to both deflect attention from events in Suleimaniya and rally the Kurdish population around the supremely emotive issue of Kir­kuk’s status. In doing so, it dangerously inflamed an already tense situation and exacerbated ethnic tensions. This should serve as a reminder of the need for leaders in Baghdad and Erbil to urgently attend to the structural Arab-Kurd fault line.

In joining the coalition government, Kurdish leaders presented conditions on power-sharing and outstanding claims over resources and territory. Maliki says he agreed to most, but to the Kurds the ultimate proof lies in whether and how he fulfils them. It is doubtful that the prime minister can or even would want to satisfy their every demand, and both sides will need to show flexibility in hammering out the required deals – notably on completing government formation, hydrocarbons and revenue-sharing legislation and the delineation of the Kurdistan region’s internal boundaries.

In the past, Crisis Group has argued that Kirkuk should gain special status as a stand-alone governorate, under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s direct control, for an interim period, with a mechanism for ultimately resolving its status, and with a power-sharing arrangement in which political representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups are represented fairly. A deal along these lines appears within reach, and now is the time to pursue it. In January, building on their success in forming the coalition government, Baghdad and Erbil negotiated a tactical agreement on oil exports from the Kurdistan region whose implementation should prove beneficial to both. They ought to take this a step further by starting talks on the range of issues that have plagued their post-2003 relationship.

In June 2009, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) set up a high-level task force whose stated goal was to work toward a negotiated solution – initially through confidence-building mechanisms – for the disputed territories, the broad swathe of land from the Syrian to the Iranian border that Kurds claim as historically part of Kurdistan. UNAMI realised full well, however, that the task force was unlikely to make progress in the months leading up to and following legislative elections, so its real objective was to keep the parties at the table until a new government was formed. This period, which lasted a year and a half, has now come to an end; today, the initiative should be invested with new life.

At the core of the territorial dispute lies the disposition of Kirkuk, the name for three separate but overlapping entities – city, governorate and super-giant oil field – that are subject to competing claims. The 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, but it has run aground on profound differences over interpretation and lack of political will. Meanwhile, the situation in the disputed territories has been left to fester. In areas with a rich ethnic mix, such as Kirkuk city and several districts of Ninewa governorate, this has produced strong tensions and politically-motivated provocations aimed at sparking inter-communal conflict.

To prevent small incidents from escalating into a broader conflagration, the U.S. military in 2009 established so-called combined security mechanisms along the trigger line – the line of control between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional guard force, known as the peshmergas, that runs along the disputed region’s spine. The mechanisms’ key features are joint checkpoints and patrols involving army and guard force personnel with embedded U.S. officers, as well as coordination centres designed to improve communication and build trust between the two sides. Moreover, Baghdad and Erbil agreed to a set of rules governing the deployment of their respective security forces in these areas.

Together, these steps have reduced tensions, but the security forces’ presence and posture in their designated sectors remind a weary population the conflict is far from resolved. The standoff between the army and the peshmergas in Kirkuk’s environs, in particular, and provocative conduct of the Kurdish security police, the asaesh, inside the city augur trouble for the period after U.S. withdrawal, scheduled for the end of 2011. Events in late February-early March, when peshmerga forces deployed around Kirkuk city over the vehement protestations of local Arab and Turkoman leaders, were another warning that the security situation, relatively stable since 2003, may not hold.

The combined security mechanisms were intended to buy time for negotiations over the disputed territories’ status. So far, measures fashioned to break the deadlock, such as a process to organise provincial elections in Kirkuk, have reinforced it, increasing frustration and mutual recrimination. The impact has not been limited to the immediate area: a nationwide census has been postponed indefinitely because of disagreements over its application in the disputed territories. Without progress, conflict threatens to erupt as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq, including positions along the trigger line. This causes anxiety all around, especially among Kirkuk residents, who appear unanimous in calling for continued U.S. military protection.

There are no easy fixes. Although Maliki’s government might seek to negotiate a troop extension, the likelier scenario is that the U.S. troop presence in the north will be severely curtailed if not ended within a few months. UNAMI has begun to explore Baghdad’s and Erbil’s readiness to re-engage on core issues, but delays in filling key government posts, such as the defence and interior ministers, militate against an early resumption of talks.

The U.S. takes the position that its forces are leaving, so Iraqis will have to sort out problems along the trigger line without the psychological security blanket its military presence has provided. It also appears to believe the impending departure itself might concentrate Iraqi minds and produce political will to agree on the disposition of Kirkuk and other territories. That could be a logical wager, but it also is a risky one. At a minimum, the U.S. should provide strong diplomatic and financial support to UNAMI as it prepares for talks, including by making continued military aid conditional on stakeholders’ constructive participation in negotiations and commitment to refrain from unilateral military moves. UNAMI should propose specific confidence-building steps in the disputed territories based on its impressive (unpublished) April 2009 report. In so doing, it should make every effort to involve political representatives from the disputed territories. Both the Maliki and Kurdistan regional governments should encourage economic activity in the territories and, in Kirkuk, impartial use of extra revenue from oil sales on projects benefiting the entire community.

Most of all, leaders in Baghdad and Erbil need to ask themselves: will they be persuaded to pursue a negotiated solution by the realisation they cannot attain their objectives either by letting the matter linger or by using force? Or will they be prompted only by the outbreak of a violent conflict neither side wants and whose outcome they could not control?

Erbil/Baghdad/Brussels, 28 March 2011

 

Iraqi demonstrators gather during an anti-government protests against unemployment, corruption in Baghdad, Iraq on 7 October 2019. AFP via Anadolu Agency/Murtadha Sudani

Widespread Protests Point to Iraq’s Cycle of Social Crisis

A surge in street protests in Iraq has left some 110 people dead and exposed a rift between the government and a population frustrated by poor governance, inadequate services and miserable living conditions. To avert further violence, the authorities and protesters should open dialogue channels.

Street protests have engulfed Baghdad and southern cities such as Nasiriya and Diwaniya since 1 October, causing a staggering death toll of at least 110 victims in seven days. This deadliest outburst of violence from popular protests since the 2003 U.S. invasion has shaken the foundations of the already fragile government led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The prime minister is on thin ice. In the aftermath of the May 2018 elections, a drawn-out tug of war over government formation produced broadly acceptable but politically weak office holders. Neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet members belong to the main parliamentary blocs (al-Fatah, a Shiite Islamist coalition with links to paramilitary groups and Iran, and Sairoun, an alliance between followers of populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and the Communist Party). None enjoys significant support within his or her own party. Furthermore, Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and Tehran’s response are putting a severe strain on this government, a partner to both. Already squeezed by Iran and the U.S., the prime minister now also faces pressure from parliament and the street for not delivering the reforms that a significant part of the population has been demanding for some time.

Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

In order to break out of this dangerous dynamic, Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

Viral Anger Fuels a Protest Wave

Street protests have erupted on a regular basis since 2015, in most cases motivated by manifest failures of governance, lack of services and miserable living conditions. This time around, what helped the protests gain strength was Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi’s decision at the end of September to demote a popular senior commander of the war with ISIS, General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), who had become a national icon for his heroism and integrity. Anger greeted the decision on social media, with many interpreting it as yet another expression of the prime minister’s feebleness in standing up to corruption in the security forces. The CTS is in competition with al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an array of paramilitary groups, the most powerful of which are linked to Iran. Those critical of Iran’s role in Iraq additionally saw the prime minister as giving in to the Hashd by demoting the general.

The affair quickly blossomed into something broader. As anger over the prime minister’s decision went viral online, social media influencers, largely Facebook users, encouraged people to join protests. On 1 October, protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in cities across the south, and security forces opened fire to disperse them. The next day, security agencies banned access to social media. The heavy-handed response caused the first casualties, adding to popular fury. On 3 October, early in the morning, the authorities imposed a curfew in Baghdad and southern cities, blocked access to major street intersections and government buildings, and shut down the internet. Fear of repression acted as a disincentive in some areas, including in Basra, which had been a protest hub during previous rounds.

Tensions increased further over the weekend of 4-5 October. Protesters torched the offices of leading Shiite Islamist parties in Nasiriya (including Daawa, Hikma and Asaeb Ahl al-Haq) and paramilitary groups, and masked men in civilian clothing attacked media outlets in Baghdad. The number of victims grew quickly, mostly on the protesters’ side but also among the security forces.

Protests, Politics and Participation

For a growing part of the population, resorting to street action has become the only meaningful form of participation in politics. Recurrent failure of governance and blatant incompetence and corruption, manifested most glaringly in the army’s humiliating collapse in the face of the ISIS onslaught in 2014, have left most Iraqis deeply disillusioned about politicians of all stripes, and disdainful of the notion that voting in elections can deliver change. By contrast, many see street protests as a more effective way to force politicians’ collective hand, as evidenced by government efforts to improve the water supply in the south after riots in the summer of 2018 over the lack of clean water.

The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population.

This trend is amplified by a generational factor. The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population. They came of age seeing the same faces taking turns and failing at governance. They did not experience the Saddam Hussein regime’s repression. Nor are they inclined to give much credit to current leaders for the roles they claim to have played in resisting that regime, regardless of how accurate those claims may be.

But though many come from the same age bracket, the protesters otherwise represent a cross-section of society that spans both sectarian and class differences. They include lower middle-class youths with no access to quality education or state employment as well as well-educated, English-speaking, upper middle-class individuals involved in private-sector initiatives and civic organisations. They share the experience of growing up in a political system dominated by a narrow elite that has failed to create prospects for a liveable future, despite the country’s enormous resources; they distrust formal politics and its democratic mechanisms such as elections, which they see as directly manipulated by those in power. Street protests are their effort at advancing a political agenda by other means.

Whether they can succeed is another question. Thus far, protests are proving to be an effective means of challenging the political system and leadership, but it is less clear how they can advance the radical change for which protesters are calling. They present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies, whether for improving governance, bettering service provision or reforming the entire political system.

Protests [...] present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies.

Against this backdrop, Baghdad has tended to focus on ad hoc, short-term fixes. On 6 October, for example, the prime minister gathered his cabinet for an emergency meeting and adopted a seventeen-point plan that included housing programs for low-income families and monthly stipends for the unemployed. The government does not, however, appear to have a strategy for coming together with the protest movement around a shared vision for the country’s future.

Protesters, for their part, lack an intermediary who can bring concrete proposals to the government. Their interest in maintaining their autonomy from a political system they oppose has kept their movement leaderless. As the government fails to address the protesters’ real concerns and the security forces move to suppress the protests, killing scores, protesters’ rejection of any sort of engagement with the government only hardens, and the movement begins to respond to violence with violence.

For the time being, the country is caught up in a destructive blame game. Protesters blame the leadership for the repression. Security officials blame the protesters for resorting to violence. Political and religious leaders blame each other for the crisis without themselves taking responsibility. On 4 October, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ paramount religious leader, denounced the largest political blocs and the government for failing to deliver long-promised reforms. On the same day, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads the biggest parliamentary bloc, Sairoun, called on the prime minister to resign and for new elections to be held under international supervision; he also instructed his party’s lawmakers to boycott the next parliamentary session.

Manoeuvring Between Tehran and Washington

If the prime minister manages to survive politically, he will be even weaker and more vulnerable to pressure from the largest political blocs. The fallout from the protests will further complicate his efforts to pursue a foreign policy aimed at insulating the country from the unfolding U.S.-Iran competition, as well as his attempts to carry out political reforms. If he loses his post and the government collapses, instability will almost certainly grow. The challenge would then be to form a new government with a prime minister sufficiently neutral to be acceptable to both pro-U.S. and pro-Iranian political forces.

Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos.

Neither the U.S. nor Iran would like to see the situation spin out of control. Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos. Iraq’s stability is key for Tehran to continue trading with its neighbour, a lifeline in the face of U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran has invested in forging relations with all Iraqi political forces represented in parliament, and strategically resorts to these allies (al-Fatah in particular) to exert pressure on the U.S. in order to remove or reduce the influence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Street protests introduce an element of uncertainty that worries Tehran. This may explain why its affiliated paramilitaries have taken repressive steps to contain this risk and reportedly participated in the crackdown. The fact that some protesters may be motivated by anti-Iranian animus – several have chanted anti-Iranian slogans – is of further concern to Tehran, whose influence in Iraq could be at stake. Many Iraqi Shiites look at the paramilitaries, the Shiite political parties and Iran as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption.

That said, the protests could also turn in Iran’s favour. If the Sadrists carry out their threat to boycott parliament or stage a no-confidence vote, the prime minister will be increasingly dependent on Iran’s ally al-Fatah, which has stood by his side during the crisis.

Pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

As for the U.S., it has every reason to want Iraq to remain stable. Its military presence helps prevent the resurgence of ISIS, whose fighters for now are lying low. It also counts on political forces in the country to stand as a counterweight to Iranian influence. But herein lies risk as well. Some in the Trump administration see protesters’ anti-Iran slogans, together with popular expressions of support for General al-Saadi, as an expression of mounting anti-Iranian sentiments. U.S. officials who deem Abdul Mahdi indecisive and powerless may push to replace him with someone more dedicated to reforms and, just as importantly, to signing contracts with U.S. companies that would decrease Iraq’s energy dependency on Iran. Yet pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

Ultimately, any attempt by either Iran or the U.S. to manipulate the protest movement could further destabilise an extremely fragile situation and make Iraq’s teetering leadership less able to sustain the delicate balancing act between the country’s two powerful backers.

The Way Forward

Past attempts to change Iraqi governance from within have foundered on the resistance of a political class that has high stakes in its continuation. As things stand, it is unlikely that the prime minister will be able to deliver reforms, especially now that his already limited parliamentary support may crumble under the protests’ weight. Likewise, calls for change from outside the realm of formal politics, such as through street protests, have failed to compel the government to commit to concrete remedial action beyond applying band-aids. More dangerously, they are now leading to violent clashes with the security forces. The government and countries that have supported Iraq in the fight against ISIS (the U.S., EU member states and Iran) and care about its stability have reason for concern that this situation will lead to recurrent flare-ups and crises.

The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression.

To address the current crisis, the government should order the security forces to exercise maximum restraint in confronting the protests, ban paramilitary groups from policing the protests and launch an investigation into the excessive use of force, focusing in particular on snipers who reportedly targeted both protesters and members of the security forces. The larger parliamentary blocs also should shoulder their responsibility in defusing the crisis. Instead of calling on the prime minister to resign, Sairoun and Fatah should jointly press the government to prepare reform bills aimed at making the bureaucracy more agile in Baghdad and the provinces, bolstering accountability mechanisms to combat corruption, and encouraging government cooperation with the private sector and civic organisations.

Finding a long-term fix will be more difficult. The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression. To break the crisis cycle, the government and the protest movement need to develop channels for dialogue and cooperation. Civic organisations, some of which are organised under the umbrella of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, as well as private-sector figures, should better organise the protest movement and operate as intermediaries to formulate a set of coherent proposals as a basis for discussions with the government. The government should take such an initiative seriously as a way to reach out to the protesters and prevent another (possibly violent) cycle of mass mobilisation. And Iraq’s international donors should help facilitate a dialogue to arrive at a common vision for the country’s future and then provide the necessary capacity and funding to carry it out.