icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Iraq's Federalism Quandary
Iraq's Federalism Quandary

Iraq's Federalism Quandary

Originally published in The National Interest

With U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and that country facing an uncertain future, many challenges hover over the lands of old Mesopotamia. The most ominous is the unsettled struggle over power, territory and resources among the country’s political elites. While often described in straightforward ethnic and sectarian terms, this strife has gone through many phases. Various alliances have come together and broken apart as the power struggle has shifted from a sectarian street war to heightened tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. Most recently, the main axis of confrontation has been between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government and its putative governing partner, the mostly Sunni Iraqiya list.

One constant that complicates this maelstrom is the unresolved question of what kind of federal structure the new nation should have—essentially, the power-sharing arrangement between those who rule Baghdad, the autonomous government in Erbil and the country’s provincial leaders.

Within this puzzle reside a number of interlocking quandaries. For example, it is grudgingly accepted that the Kurds in northern Iraq should be able to retain the level of autonomy acquired after the Gulf War in 1991. But the details of this arrangement remain in dispute, and it raises some difficult questions: Would Iraq remain viable as a country if other provinces were to pursue similar autonomy? Even in the context of the Kurdistan region, can revenue-sharing arrangements that respect both Kurdish autonomy and Baghdad’s basic sovereign prerogatives be crafted? Would those same arrangements work for oil-rich Basra in Iraq’s South or gas-rich Anbar in its West?

These are not dry, structural matters. They drive deeply into emotionally held convictions on all sides. Iraq’s new constitution describes the country as a federal state, with significant grants of autonomy to Iraqi Kurdistan as well as potentially to future regions throughout the country. But the word federalism remains one of the most charged in the Iraqi political lexicon.

For Kurds, federalism has almost acquired the status of a religious belief system because it is tied to their century-old quest for their own state. But for many Iraqi Arabs, federalism is seen as synonymous with partition. Especially among Iraqi nationalists, there is fear that if the Kurdish federalist vision is implemented, it would bring about what Peter Galbraith, a controversial and influential advisor to the KRG, called “the end of Iraq”.

So far, this fundamental question of governance has generated little more than stalemate. Agreement between the federal government and the KRG on the final contours of their relationship has proved elusive. This stalemate is most consequential in the realm of oil and gas development, which will generate an estimated $1 trillion in revenue over the coming decade. The KRG has proposed a revenue-sharing regimen that not only would protect Kurdistan’s share of the pie but also would reduce the federal government to little more than a cash clearinghouse that disburses oil and gas revenue around the country. Not surprisingly, this proposal is totally unacceptable to Maliki’s regime. In the meantime, the KRG moved defiantly to sign contracts with more than twenty-five international oil companies, including, most recently, the world’s largest, ExxonMobil. Baghdad has rejected the contracts on grounds that they require its approval. For good measure, it also blacklisted the companies that signed them (but has yet to decide what approach to take toward Exxon, which already has contracts in the South).

Meanwhile, the deadlock between Baghdad and Erbil has complicated efforts to establish a workable relationship between the state and Iraq’s other provinces. Given the strong association between federalism and the Kurds’ ultimate desire for statehood, almost any exploration of greater local autonomy by the provinces raises suspicions of a partitionist agenda.

In the current debate, the federalism dispute has come full circle. During the writing of the 2005 constitution—a period of intense civil strife—a powerful group of Shia Islamists openly championed the Kurdish-inspired model of ethnosectarian federalism as a hedge against the return of a Sunni strongman such as Saddam Hussein. Now, however, with U.S. troops gone, Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces worry about an unchecked and autocratic Shia-led government in Baghdad. Despite their emotional attachment to the notion of a centralized Iraq, leading national Sunni politicians and local leaders have now challenged Baghdad by issuing symbolic declarations of provincial autonomy.

All this friction raises questions about whether the constitution contains intrinsic flaws that prevent accommodation. It is based on the idea that federalism should be symmetrical, meaning that levels of autonomy should be equivalent for all regional governments. And therein lies the conundrum. When the constitution was written, it was unrealistic to expect the Kurds to retreat from the self-governance they achieved through their long struggle and blood investment during the Saddam years. Their post-1991 Gulf War autonomy became the effective floor for regional authority in the constitution. But if the rest of Iraq were to get this one-size-fits-all style of autonomy, the survival not only of the central government but of the country itself could be threatened. Hence Baghdad’s hard line with Erbil and fierce response to any new regional initiatives.

We believe that rather than pursuing the principle of symmetrical federalism, Iraq should instead pursue a deliberately asymmetrical federal model under which the level of autonomy granted to the KRG would be exclusive. Such a model would recognize the unique oil-contracting abilities of the KRG while also safeguarding Baghdad’s fiscal and monetary powers as well as authority over oil contracting elsewhere.

According to this concept, Baghdad could negotiate with the provincial governments over precisely what level of autonomy they should enjoy. No longer would the Kurdistan example serve to complicate these separate discussions, and Baghdad would be freed from its current fears that this federalism conundrum threatens to turn Iraq into a mere agglomeration of competing regional entities.

Some might argue that the prospects are dim for implementing such a system at any point soon. To be sure, Iraq faces a number of daunting immediate challenges that in turn have spawned two disparate responses. One is that the only way to keep Iraq together is to fully implement the federal model in the constitution and give Sunnis, Shia and Kurds each the authority to run their own regional affairs—a notion known as soft partition by its American proponents. The other view is that federalism is the worst possible solution for Iraq’s current woes, as it would lead to division and sectarian war.

We believe neither represents a solution. Those who favor the first option should consider the sobering mix of violent protests, arrests and mobilization of state security forces that occurred after the diverse Sunni-Shia-Kurdish province of Diyala sought to declare itself an autonomous region in December 2011. What then might happen if identity-based federalism were attempted on a nationwide scale? Likewise, those who advocate delaying a discussion of federalism until more propitious times need to explain how growing discontent with Baghdad’s governance in non-Kurdish Iraq is to be kept from boiling over in the interim.

In the current strained environment, a system of asymmetric federalism may be the most practical solution for the problems that Iraq faces because it most accurately reflects the country’s enduring ethnic and political realities. No other model is likely to enable the country to reach an acceptable solution for Kurdistan while at the same time ensuring that the central government in Baghdad is viable enough to function. This is not to say that it will guarantee that Iraq comes together into a smoothly functioning democracy. The country’s constitutional flaws are symptoms of the tensions and animosities embedded in the polity, not their source. But it seems clear that the current federal concept retards efforts to resolve the high-stakes competition for power and resources. Removing that barrier could enhance prospects for resolving these conflicts in a reasonably amicable way.

Asymmetrical federalism is not a novel concept. It has been employed in several countries around the world to recognize diversity and manage internal conflict. The theoretical case for asymmetrical federalism in Iraq should begin with an examination of two main stylized models of federalism: “coming together” and “holding together”.

A coming-together model arises when a group of formerly independent or self-governing units join to form a new country. Classic examples include the United States, Australia and the UAE, which formerly consisted of seven independent sheikhdoms. Not surprisingly, those accustomed to ruling themselves are reluctant to abandon power to new national governments. Thus, these coming-together federations are relatively decentralized, with checks on the authority of the central government and the provinces running their own affairs. They also tend to be relatively symmetrical, with all provinces enjoying more or less the same privileges vis-à-vis the center.

In contrast, the holding-together model is usually an attempt to maintain the territorial integrity of an existing state. It often occurs in the case of formerly unitary countries that face ethnically or territorially based secessionist threats. In many cases, attempts are made to reconcile these groups through a grant of special autonomy. The result can be an asymmetrical structure, where the potential breakaway province enjoys heightened self-government compared to other territories in the union. While few countries are purely symmetrical, asymmetrical federations are distinguished by the deliberate nature of these special arrangements, which are protected in laws or the constitution. Recently, in the case of Banda Aceh and Indonesia, asymmetrical arrangements helped end a long-running internal conflict. In other countries, such as Spain, these arrangements have been used to forestall wider conflict by granting cultural and administrative autonomy to Basque and Catalan communities.

The puzzle of Iraq’s 2005 constitution is that it introduced a coming-together symmetrical model of federalism rather than building on the clear asymmetrical foundation of the Kurdish safe haven established after the 1991 Gulf War. An examination of the recent history of devolution in Iraq suggests that a holding-together asymmetrical model may better promote stability by serving the interests of all parties.

The genesis of Iraq’s new federal system lies in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, when exile groups stepped out from the regime’s shadow of fear to plot its demise. They were a motley collection of secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, all with their own visions of a post-Saddam Iraq.

The Kurds had long aimed to build on an autonomy agreement negotiated with the Baathists in the 1970s that was never implemented. Motivated by their desire for a Kurdish state and the fresh horrors of a genocidal Iraqi Army campaign against them in the late 1980s, Kurds in the post-Saddam era pushed for something more extensive: an ethnically based confederation that would afford the Kurds maximum autonomy over their own affairs. The Kurds’ partners in opposition had not given the idea of federalism much thought, but many agreed.

A central ally to the Kurds in this quest was a party then known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was a Shia Islamist party established by the Iranians in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq War that was dedicated to overthrowing Saddam’s regime. It saw decentralization as both the best guarantee against a return to dictatorship and a good way to protect Shia interests in the new state. In 2007, SCIRI renamed itself the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), deemphasizing its historical ties to Iran’s revolutionary regime.

ISCI and the Kurds’ calculations on federalism were not solely about identity. The Kurds saw in federalism the freedom to develop their local oil assets, which would allow them the ability to run their own affairs without being financially dependent on Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Shia region in southern Iraq that ISCI was to propose was not coincidentally home to the majority of Iraq’s vast oil reserves.

The United States, following its overthrow of Saddam’s regime in 2003, made no secret of its own preference for a decentralized Iraq, sharing with the opposition the view that this would prevent the return of dictatorship. From the start, the term used was federalism. With their close ties to the Bush administration, the Kurds and certain ISCI leaders returning from exile had a head start that allowed them to leave an outsized imprint on the new state structure. The areas outside the Kurdistan region, which had yet to produce homegrown parties, were not positioned to give strong expression to their populations’ wills.

Yet resistance to federalism began almost right away. Iraqi nationalists, many with links to the former regime, championed the state’s paramount unity but struggled to articulate a practical alternative to the previous, now-discredited centralization. They were joined by what remained of Iraq’s secular elite and important parts of the Shia clerical leadership. Moreover, some Shia Islamist political leaders outside ISCI, now well on their way to gaining significant power in Baghdad, sought to protect their new domain and began to suggest that Iraqis were not yet ready for federalism.

Notwithstanding these objections, the Kurds proved the best organized of the parties that came to the table to draft the new permanent constitution; they also benefited from their strong ties to the U.S. officials who midwifed the new text. The Kurds’ goal was to maximize their autonomy, even emphasizing that Iraq’s union was voluntary and could be reconsidered if Baghdad did not fully respect guarantees to the Kurds in the new constitution. They also promoted the sectarian regionalization of Arab Iraq to ensure that Baghdad would never regain the power to threaten Kurds.

As the drafting process unfolded, those opposed to federalism were so weak and divided that the Kurds and ISCI pushed through language establishing the formation of federal regions with equivalent powers to the Kurdistan region. With Iraq’s sectarian civil conflict brewing, ISCI tabled the proposal for the creation of an oil-rich, nine-governorate “super-region” in the Shia South that it aimed to govern and protect against insurgents operating in the Sunni heartland west and north of Baghdad.

The result was the 2005 constitution, which prescribes a federal system with two exceptional characteristics: It hollows out the national government through radical devolution to federal regions that can mostly ignore Baghdad on many important matters, including most importantly oil and gas management and revenue sharing. It also provides minimal barriers to prevent the provinces outside of Iraqi Kurdistan from forming new autonomous regions, either standing alone or in conjunction with other provinces, with no limit on their size or number.

From the start, these features raised sharp fears regarding the viability and unity of the new state, prompting a near-unanimous rejection of the new charter by the Sunni Arab community in the October 2005 constitutional referendum. In recent years, the Sunnis have been increasingly joined in their objections by most of the newly empowered Shia Islamist parties, which have grown accustomed to ruling Baghdad. Even ISCI, the principal Arab proponent of Kurdish-style federalism in the rest of Iraq, appears to have shelved its project for a Shia super-region in the face of popular opposition. A Kurdish constitutional veto, however, has so far prevented any meaningful reconsideration of Iraq’s new federal architecture.

At the cusp of the U.S. troop withdrawal in late 2011, Iraq found itself in a peculiar situation. The majority of its political class outside the Kurdistan region, including the most powerful actors in Baghdad, has publicly objected to the constitution’s basic structure. Yet an early review of the constitution in 2007, intended to broaden its appeal, quickly foundered. Partially this is because the review committee took a symmetrical approach. It proposed to adjust the balance of power not just between Baghdad and any future regions but also to bring the Kurdistan region into line with a more centralized state structure. The latter crossed a clear Kurdish red line, prompting the veto threat that killed the amendment process. No clear avenue now exists on how to address this short circuit.

After six years of experience with the implementation of the constitution, two things have become clear. First, the type of countrywide sectarian regionalization advocated by the Kurds and ISCI remains unpopular outside Kurdistan. Second, there is rising discontent in the provinces with Baghdad’s poor and nonresponsive governance. Especially over the last year, there appears to be a growing sentiment similar to that expressed by the governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi: the people of his province support giving the provinces greater power instead of creating independent regions, but if Baghdad does not respond, they might go down the latter path.

The stalemate between Baghdad and Erbil has hampered any response to these grievances. The Kurdistan region can veto any reconsideration of Iraq’s state structure—and the controversy over the Kurdish model of federalism tars any calls for devolution of authority and greater local control outside Kurdistan as promoting partition. Maliki has pointedly reacted to interest in decentralization, saying that the country is not ready for federalism in its western, central or southern regions and that differences should be addressed through common action on administrative deficits rather than by “division or secession.”

Yet in the past year, calls for new regions have grown louder as political disputes in the center contribute to more troubled governance. Meanwhile, a growing sense of political marginalization from Baghdad and victimization by government-controlled security forces continues to amplify interest in decentralization in the country’s predominantly Sunni West and Northwest.

Unsurprisingly, Kurdish leaders have sought to embrace renewed interest in decentralization as supporting their view of the Iraqi state, but there are key distinctions. The most obvious is the absence of an ethnic agenda. Calls for decentralization in predominantly Arab provinces are driven primarily by functional rather than ethnic motives: better government and more effective distribution of resources are the principal goals, rather than the creation of multiprovince autonomous cantons as a precursor to possible independence. Indeed, most Arab proponents of decentralization frequently distinguish their federalism projects from those of Kurdistan.

Decentralization appears to enjoy strong support in the southern oil-producing provinces of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar. The difference between the contribution to state revenues by Iraq’s richest oil province, Basra, and the development funds it receives through the federal budget has driven local leaders there to campaign repeatedly to establish the province as a separate federal region. Rumblings in support of decentralization have also been heard from Basra’s neighbors, with occasional talk of creating a three-province, oil-rich region. Meanwhile, in south-central Iraq, the Wasit Provincial Council has reportedly made a formal request to hold a regional referendum, and the Shia holy provinces of Najaf and Karbala have considered forming regions out of a desire for greater local control of the lucrative religious-pilgrimage trade.

But grassroots support for regionalization has not yet been sufficient to spur administrative change. Basra leaders failed in their 2008 attempt to secure popular support for a referendum on establishing the province as a region. Their most recent effort, in July 2011, was tellingly headlined in the Iraqi press as Basra “demands secession.” At the same time, the party that holds the reins of power in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition, has neutralized southern proponents of local decentralization and tabled individual requests by Basra and Wasit to organize local referendums on becoming regions.

The most recent manifestations of support for autonomous regions in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni provinces are somewhat different, born of a pervasive sense of alienation and sectarian discrimination by Baghdad. Pro-federalism sentiment in the oil-rich Shia South may create huge uncertainty over the country’s economic future, but sectarian-tinged moves by Sunni-majority provinces to seek regional status and Baghdad’s strong response have left Iraq on a political knife-edge.

These tensions came to a dramatic head in October 2011 when, following a wave of arrests of alleged conspirators in a Baathist coup plot, the provincial government of Salahuddin, a governorate north of Baghdad, symbolically voted to become an autonomous region. Other Sunni-majority provinces, including Nineveh and Anbar, quickly said they were prepared to follow suit if Baghdad did not do a better job of responding to their demands.

The provincial government in Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurd province in northeastern Iraq, went a step further. In December 2011, it adopted its own symbolic declaration of autonomy. The blowback was troubling. Baghdad-controlled security forces were quickly mobilized to the province, thousands of Shia demonstrators stormed the provincial government headquarters, unidentified armed groups blocked major highways and members of the mainly Sunni political bloc that sponsored the measure fled the province ahead of arrest warrants. Almost simultaneously, serious disputes erupted between Maliki and two of the most prominent national Sunni politicians who had supported Salahuddin’s and Diyala’s calls for federalism. One of them, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, fled to the Kurdistan region to escape his own arrest warrant for alleged involvement in assassination plots. The other, a deputy prime minister, has had his cabinet participation frozen.

Some national-level proponents of decentralization for these provinces may indeed have the more pernicious agenda that Baghdad attributes to them: using federalism as a way to destroy Iraq’s new political order, with the hope that a new, Sunni-nationalist-dominated state can emerge from the embers. But in the midst of this controversy, it is important to recall that the driving local motive in Salahuddin and Diyala was not separation. Salahuddin’s council in fact emphasized that it wanted to remain part of a “united Iraq.” There also have been no explicit calls for the creation of a multiprovince Sunni region. Instead, provincial leaders in Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar and Nineveh are looking at a single-province-as-region model, precisely to avoid accusations that they seek to destroy Iraqi unity.

Moreover, there is no consistent popular support for federalism in these provinces. In fact, powerful local tribes in Anbar have organized public protests against the idea of transforming their province into a region. Local opinion polls show frustration with the central government but no desire for Kurdish-style autonomy. Respondents consistently favor Baghdad’s control over oil revenues to protect national unity, but they also want greater local administration of basic services and reconstruction.

To fully appreciate how an asymmetrical model could address this impasse, consider how centralized administration of the governorates by Baghdad works at present. Governors and provincial councils have limited direct budgets, no control over local public-sector hiring and no formal say over projects undertaken by federal ministries within their provinces. In many cases, the bulk of the security forces operating in the governorates report directly to the prime minister’s office, and access to the minority share of capital-investment funds given to provincial councils requires a laborious series of approvals from multiple ministries in Baghdad.

In our view, the complaints of the Arab provinces of Iraq could be addressed through more empowered local administration, greater local say over security and greater distribution of oil revenues. And this in fact is close to what the heads of Iraq’s fifteen provincial councils outside the Kurdistan region laid out in a joint letter to Prime Minster Maliki last October, when they asked for more functional revenue sharing and a greater local say on both public-sector hiring and environmental and customs policy.

Finally, it is important to recognize that this is a markedly different prescription from the relationship between the federal government and the Kurdistan region. The gulf between the centralization endured by the provinces and the virtual autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdistan region leaves ample room for an asymmetrical model to raise the status of the provinces without approaching the kind of regionalization seen as a threat to national unity.

Iraq’s Kurds still dream of their own state, but for now their fortunes remain tied to Baghdad. Mostly because of their own restive Kurdish minorities, neighboring countries will simply not countenance an independent Kurdistan. In the meantime, nationalist Iraqis resent what they see as the Kurds’ influence over the constitution aimed at furthering their independence by hollowing out the Iraqi state. Absent a reset, this set of affairs is a recipe for what could be a perpetual cycle of recrimination and internal strife.

Some Iraqi nationalists may be starting to conclude privately that Erbil is more trouble than it is worth in terms of the country’s territorial integrity. But all must accept that whatever Kurdish nationalists may dream, both sides are stuck with each other for the time being. After decades of bloody armed struggle, it took the cataclysmic 2003 U.S. invasion for the Kurdistan region’s autonomy to be enshrined in the Iraqi constitution. A crisis of similar magnitude would be required for the Middle East’s century-old, post-Ottoman order to be shattered and international borders redrawn.

Short of apocalyptic regional war, reexamining the federalism question appears to be necessary for Iraq to move toward some degree of stability. The straightforward way would be a redrafting of the constitution with authority of the Kurdistan region and other provinces delineated in separate chapters. But Iraqi politics are much messier than that ideal. In 2010, the country spent more than nine months forming a still-incomplete coalition government—it is unlikely the same parties could successfully undertake a comprehensive constitutional overhaul.

A possible asymmetric solution must identify key areas of dispute and recast the debate to affirm the KRG’s autonomy without applying the same concept to other provinces and eviscerating Baghdad’s sovereignty. An elevated administrative status for the provinces could be negotiated among Arab parties and local leaders. Given the difficulties in wholesale revision of the constitution, this change would come via legislative and political means rather than a constitutional amendment.

This represents a second-best outcome but is realistically as far as the envelope can be pushed under present circumstances. Initial understandings could then be codified in the constitution once circumstances permit. Indeed, any progress must present benefits compelling enough to challenge the status quo. In other words, each of the three levels of government described in the constitution—provincial, regional and national—would need to see clear benefits from an asymmetrical system for the idea to gain traction.

The path to pursuing this complex trifecta is perhaps through a bilateral deal between Baghdad and Erbil on oil and revenue sharing, followed by constitutional amendments that remove the threat of Kurdish-style regionalization elsewhere in Iraq, especially by Iraq’s main wealth producer, oil-rich Basra. In order to accept these arrangements and put aside their current constitutional right to form autonomous regions, the governorates should quickly receive tangible administrative empowerment from Baghdad. The concrete proposals included in last October’s joint letter by the heads of Iraq’s fifteen provincial councils could form the basis of these latter talks.

Oil has been at the heart of the federalism dispute from the beginning. At present, with a standoff over legislation governing oversight of the hydrocarbon sector, a deal between Baghdad and Erbil on oil matters feels a long way off. But there are potential trade-offs that could improve confidence between the two sides and lay the groundwork for a more stable, asymmetrical federal system.

In its essence, such a deal would entail the federal government guaranteeing the KRG an automatic share of oil revenues, authority to sign oil contracts, and access to the oil- and gas-export infrastructure necessary to develop a long-term platform for self-governance. (The KRG is currently unable to export the oil it produces and its day-to-day operational funding is subject to the vagaries of Baghdad’s annual budgetary process.) In return, the KRG would recognize the center’s paramount authority on oil revenue handling and setting national oil- and gas-contracting standards. Kurdish leaders also would need to agree that these arrangements apply only to the Kurdistan region and undertake not to oppose laws or constitutional amendments that consolidate Baghdad’s oil and fiscal powers elsewhere.

Several factors could potentially make such a deal attractive to both sides. In the absence of an independent pipeline network to neighboring states, Kurdish hydrocarbon exports are dependent on infrastructure controlled by Baghdad. The KRG could build its own pipelines, but the Kurdish region is landlocked and can only export through Iran and Turkey. Both countries are wary of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a model that could inspire their own restive Kurdish minorities. A more promising option is a negotiated deal, where Kurdish exports could be guaranteed unfettered flow through the national Baghdad-controlled pipelines in return for the KRG conducting all crude sales through the federal government, with revenue collection through the federal treasury. This meets Kurdish export needs and recognizes Baghdad’s role in selling and collecting oil revenues.

Second, the present nationwide revenue-sharing scheme is a source of leverage for Baghdad. The next decade’s projected oil exports from central and southern Iraq will dwarf the best-case scenario for Kurdish production. In draft legislation, the KRG has sought to protect its share of this growing national revenue and control over how to spend it. But it has irritated Baghdad by insisting that spending authority be symmetrically decentralized across the rest of Iraq, which would leave the federal government close to penniless and hence powerless. Baghdad should offer a clear choice: Kurdistan can receive a guaranteed automatic share of national oil revenue, but only if it accepts legal arrangements that protect the central government’s fiscal power outside of Kurdistan. Alternatively, the Kurdistan region could become financially self-reliant, controlling all revenue and taxes collected within its boundaries, including from oil and gas—but give up any grants from the federal budget.

Finally, on the issue of oil-contracting authority, the KRG and the federal government should consider a compromise where Erbil gradually standardizes its oil-contract terms with Baghdad’s. In return, Baghdad would need to acknowledge the KRG’s autonomous licensing authority and stop blocking international investment in Kurdistan’s oil fields. Erbil would also recognize Baghdad’s right to oversee oil contracting outside the Kurdistan region, allowing Arab Iraqis to determine amongst themselves the federal government’s role in supervising southern oil and gas contracts.

Both Kurds and Shia Islamists intended for the new constitution to promote decentralization. Indeed, given the starting point, a highly centralized Saddam-era state, the KRG achieved remarkable success in introducing a federal structure that contains the basic features of a coming-together model: highly decentralized with existing and future federal regions granted the same powers. A chain reaction toward this outcome might even be initiated were a single additional province—perhaps oil-rich Basra—to successfully grasp the chalice of regional status.

Yet Iraq is not a set of former colonies or emirates coming together to form a new country. It is a ninety-year-old, historically centralized state that has grappled for decades with the latent Kurdish desire for independence. Moreover, Iraq’s oil and gas is geographically distributed in a way that highlights the country’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines. In this context, full local control of oil resources—a feature of symmetrical, coming-together federations such as the United States, Canada and the UAE—could be dangerously destabilizing in Iraq, leading to large regional wealth disparities. And radical decentralization is not popular among Iraq’s Arab majority—even as Sunni areas chafe under the perceived excesses of the new order.

The incentives generated by the 2005 constitution force Baghdad and Erbil to make a strategic choice. Under the charter’s most radical option, Kurdistan would establish some form of self-sufficient autarky. This would be a poor outcome for all involved. The KRG would need to raise capital for export pipelines, persuade hostile neighbors to accept Kurdish hydrocarbon exports and rely on its own comparatively meager revenues to fund its regional administration. In Baghdad, preoccupation with Arab-Kurdish tensions would stunt development of the state. In addition, with Erbil continuing to block constitutional changes, Baghdad could one day be gutted by new autonomy movements in oil-rich Basra or gas-rich Anbar. In contrast, by isolating and containing the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, an asymmetrical model would reinforce Iraqi unity and free the rest of the country to choose alternative governance arrangements on their own merits. This could at least provide a framework to consider the grievances of provincial leaders and perhaps defuse the potentially grave crisis sparked by angered Sunnis’ symbolic declarations of autonomy.

In short, Iraq is a textbook candidate for a holding-together, asymmetrical model of federalism. Merely elucidating the concept will not lead to its implementation. But doing so may be a basis for reframing the debate to facilitate a workable and lasting solution to Iraq’s foundational issues.


Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
Profile Image
Sean Kane
Senior Program Officer, the United States Institute of Peace
Profile Image
Raad Alkadiri
Partner and Head of Markets and Country Strategies, PFC Energy
A displaced Iraqi man, who returns to camp after trying to go home and find the conditions in their towns unbearable, sits with his children in their tent at al-Khazir refugee camp on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, 23 July, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Rashid

Exiles in Their Own Country: Dealing with Displacement in Post-ISIS Iraq

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remain uprooted and unable to go home after the war to defeat ISIS. The worst off are those, mainly women and children, perceived to have jihadist ties. Iraq and its partners should find ways to end their displacement.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? Three years after Iraq’s victory over ISIS, more than a million Iraqis are still displaced. Hundreds of thousands are in camps. Those in the most difficult predicament are families with perceived ISIS affiliations, who face not only formal barriers to return but also rejection by people at home.

Why does it matter? Absent a solution for Iraq’s displacement crisis, the people stranded in camps risk being tarred as “ISIS families” and turning into a permanent underclass. With no legitimate prospects, they could be susceptible to recruitment into organised violence, including criminal and insurgent groups.

What should be done? The Kadhimi government should address the displacement crisis by removing informal barriers to return in consultation with community leaders and doing more to mitigate rejection of families with perceived ISIS affiliations in their areas of origin. It should approach the problem as one that especially affects women and female-headed families.

I. Overview

Three years after Iraq defeated the Islamic State (ISIS), more than a million Iraqis remain displaced. Hundreds of thousands reside in camps, unable or reluctant to return to their war-ravaged homes. One subgroup, in particular, faces an intractable dilemma: civilians with family ties to alleged ISIS members, who are stigmatised as somehow complicit in their relatives’ actions. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has rightly put a priority on helping the country’s uprooted people. Along with its partners, the Kadhimi government should work to end these Iraqis’ domestic exile – brokering either their safe, voluntary return home or some durable alternative. To do so, it will need to surmount not only official barriers to return or resettlement but also fierce public resistance to these displaced families coming home. It should approach the displacement crisis as both a matter of long-term national stability and a particular problem for women and female-headed families, given how vulnerable displaced women are and how their legal and social status hinges on that of their husbands and other relatives.

Hundreds of Thousands of Iraqis Are Still Internally Displaced

A short illustrated look at the story of Iraq's internal displacement crisis. CRISISGROUP

II. Lasting Displacement and Perceived ISIS Affiliations

On 10 June, Prime Minister Kadhimi marked the sixth anniversary of ISIS’s seizure of Mosul with a trip to the northerly city and its environs in Ninewa governorate.[fn]Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Meets with Tribal Representatives and Ninewa notables”, Office of the Prime Minister, 10 June 2020 (Arabic); “Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Visits Mar Eddie Church in al-Hamdaniya District and Meets with Patron of the Chaldean Diocese in Mosul”, Office of the Prime Minister, 10 June 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote Throughout the visit, Kadhimi stressed that Iraq would not repeat the sort of corruption and mismanagement that permitted ISIS’s rise.[fn]Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “PM vows IS will never again overrun Iraqi territory”, Associated Press, 10 June 2020.Hide Footnote In an important gesture, he also visited the al-Salamiya displaced persons camp south of Mosul. The camp hosts residents of Mosul and rural Ninewa who, even today, remain unable to return home and resume normal lives. Kadhimi promised to help the camp dwellers go home, even as he appealed to them for patience.[fn]eadout of Kadhimi’s visit circulated among humanitarian workers in Iraq on 10 June 2020, provided via messaging app, July 2020. See also “Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Visits Displaced Persons Camps in Nimrod in Ninewa Province”, Office of the Prime Minister, 10 June 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

As Iraq has faced numerous other crises since 2017 – most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic near-insolvency – the problem of protracted post-war displacement has lingered. Yet the Iraqi government has done little to resolve it. Kadhimi’s visit to al-Salamiya, the first by a prime minister to a displacement camp since ISIS’s defeat, marked a seeming course change.[fn]Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (2014-2018) visited displaced persons camps several times during the campaign against ISIS. For example, see “Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Visits Baharka Displaced Persons Camp in Erbil”, Office of the Prime Minister, 4 June 2015 (Arabic). His successor Adel Abd al-Mahdi (2018-2020) did not.Hide Footnote Kadhimi had earlier listed action on the displacement crisis among the ten “priorities” in his government’s ministerial program.[fn]Ministerial Program”, Office of the Prime Minister, 6 May 2020 (Arabic). On the other challenges facing Kadhimi’s government, see Lahib Higel, “On Third Try, a New Government for Iraq”, Crisis Group Commentary, 8 May 2020.Hide Footnote

Al-Salamiya’s roughly 15,000 residents are among the nearly 1.4 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes by the war to defeat ISIS.

Al-Salamiya’s roughly 15,000 residents are among the nearly 1.4 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes by the war to defeat ISIS.[fn]For profiles of camps including al-Salamiya, see “Iraq: IDP Camp Directory – Comparative Dashboard & Camp Profiles Round XIII, February-March 2020”, REACH, 8 July 2020; “Iraq Master List Report 116, May-June 2020”, International Organization for Migration (IOM), 16 July 2020.Hide Footnote  The total includes roughly 330,000 in camps, mainly in Ninewa, Dohuk and Erbil governorates in areas ringing the Kurdistan region. Of the displaced nationwide, approximately 60 per cent are from Ninewa.[fn]Iraq Master List Report 116”, op. cit. Mosul was ISIS’s de facto capital, where it mounted its last major battle in Iraq against Iraqi and allied forces.Hide Footnote  Displaced people fled their home districts in waves, including some who left when ISIS arrived, and others who remained only to depart later, such as amid the military campaign against the group. Displaced people with perceived ISIS affiliations were typically part of the last wave.[fn]For example, see “West Mosul: Perceptions on Return and Reintegration among Stayees, IDPs and Returnees, June 2019”, IOM, 30 June 2019; “Managing Return in Anbar: Community Responses to the Return of IDPs with Perceived Affiliation”, IOM Iraq, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote

There are many reasons why the camp residents have not returned home. Iraq’s stunted post-war reconstruction means that, for many, their homes remain in ruins or their areas of origin lack paying jobs or public services such as education and health care.[fn]For an account of how corruption and administrative dysfunction have hobbled reconstruction in Mosul, see Zmkan Ali Saleem and Mac Skelton, “The Failure of Reconstruction in Mosul: Root Causes from 2003 to the Post-ISIS Period”, Institute of Regional & International Studies, 10 June 2020. Iraq’s Integrity Commission says Ninewa’s former governor and his associates embezzled tens of millions of dollars, including nearly $10 million earmarked for the rehabilitation of two Mosul hospitals. “Iraq says ex-governor embezzled $10 mn in aid for displaced”, AFP, 30 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Some families lost their breadwinner in the war, or had members suffer debilitating injuries. In a camp, they at least have shelter and receive a regular package of rations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. For a breakdown of barriers to return, see “Intentions Survey: IDP Areas of Origin, March 2020”, REACH, 15 June 2020.Hide Footnote

Other displaced Iraqis stay away from home for security reasons. That includes those whose towns – mainly in outlying rural areas – ISIS still preys upon at night. It also includes those who fear the security forces in their areas of origin, whether the army, federal police or state-affiliated paramilitary groups.[fn]Intentions Survey: IDP Areas of Origin”, op. cit. For more on ISIS’s continuing insurgency, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°207, Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria, 11 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Many express special apprehension about Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) paramilitaries, some of which operate without government oversight.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote Lastly, an unknown but significant number of what Iraqis typically call “ISIS families” (awail Da’esh) – people with perceived family ties to ISIS fighters – remain displaced because they would face a hostile reception in their home areas if they went back. Among those in their hometowns who might be hostile are the many victimised by ISIS, ranging from Shiites to Yezidis and other religious minorities to Sunnis whose beliefs ISIS deemed heretical or whom it accused of collaboration with the Iraqi state.

Many displaced people still in Iraq’s camps – perhaps the majority – are not “ISIS families” and have been unable to return home for other reasons. There is no fixed, agreed-upon definition of an “ISIS family”, moreover, and no confident estimate of how many remain stranded in camps. Many other “ISIS families” are also dispersed elsewhere across the country, outside the camps. Even the term “ISIS families” – though used widely – is misleading. Humanitarian workers and human rights activists push for the somewhat less stigmatising term, families with “perceived affiliations”. They also stress what these families have in common with other displaced people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, remote via messaging app, July 2020.Hide Footnote

The stigma attached to these alleged militant affiliations is the main reason why it is impossible to count “ISIS families” and hard to determine whether a given family falls into this category, however it is labelled. Camp residents who have such ties have every reason not to be forthcoming about why they cannot go home.[fn]An international humanitarian aid worker said she expected that many female-headed families in the camp where her organisation works had alleged affiliations. But, by way of clarification, she added: “We have no clue how many are directly perceived as ISIS-affiliated. We have no idea if anyone can say”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Nor is there a single authority to provide a definitive verdict. The security services have multiple lists of alleged ISIS members they can check to assess whether someone has family ties to such a person. But these lists are not necessarily reliable. Furthermore, the residents of a family’s home district may have their own definition of “ISIS family” that they use to declare the family unwelcome or seek revenge. Returnees who have not themselves been legally charged with wrongdoing could face retribution. If a man was allegedly involved with ISIS, anyone from his immediate family to entire extended families might be considered implicated in the group’s crimes.[fn]A camp administrator said, “Say someone comes from a village, and the village is small – everyone knows each other. Now, that family had an ISIS member. People don’t say the [rest of the] family had nothing to do with it. No, they say the whole family is ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote

As more of those displaced from 2014 to 2017 return home, Iraqis increasingly assume that anyone still living in the camps must have ISIS affiliations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian workers, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  As a result, there is a risk that general resentment of “ISIS families” could extend to include all encamped displaced people.

Provincial and local governments have made some attempts to broker the return of the displaced, with the involvement of both local civil society bodies and national committees, as well as additional support from NGOs.[fn]Iraqi and international NGOs have worked with communal leaders and “local peace committees” to broker agreements on reconciliation and return. Previously, they coordinated with either the Committee for Pursuance and Execution of National Reconciliation or the Supreme Committee for Coexistence and Communal Peace, both of which answer to the Prime Minister’s Office. In May 2019, the former committee was folded into the latter, which became the Committee for Coexistence and Communal Peace and the coordinating partner for these organisations’ efforts.Hide Footnote  Progress, however, has been slow.[fn]For one effort to negotiate displaced civilians’ return, see Viola Gienger, “In the Shadow of a Massacre, a Peaceful Return in Iraq, Part II”, U.S. Institute of Peace, 17 July 2015.Hide Footnote  In parallel, governorates have tried to paper over the displacement issue by closing and consolidating camps, despite protests from humanitarian and human rights groups.[fn]Anbar and Ninewa governorates both saw substantial consolidations in 2019. “Iraq: Snapshot on IDPs in Formal Camps – 2019 Summary”, CCCM Cluster, 1 March 2020. On consolidations and expulsions in Ninewa, see “Iraq: Camps Expel over 2,000 People Seen as ISIS-Linked”, Human Rights Watch, 4 September 2019.Hide Footnote This approach reduces the number of camps without addressing what has kept Iraq’s displaced away from their homes.

Baghdad has produced no comprehensive program to facilitate the return of the displaced.

Baghdad has produced no comprehensive program to facilitate the return of the displaced. A draft plan developed by one of two reconciliation-focused committees would have concentrated “ISIS families” in newly built or repurposed rural compounds (complete with semi-permanent housing – trailers, not tents – and restrictions on movement), among other measures.[fn]Iraq: Confining Families with Alleged ISIS Ties Unlawful”, Human Rights Watch, 7 May 2019.Hide Footnote  The plan would have allowed them to return home only after residents of their areas of origin had agreed and the families had completed “de-radicalisation” programming. The plan appears to have been shelved, after Kadhimi’s predecessor as premier eliminated the committee that drafted it.[fn]See footnote 17.Hide Footnote  More targeted state efforts to address aspects of the displacement crisis, for instance an education ministry directive to allow children lacking official documents to attend school, have been implemented incompletely by local authorities or not at all.[fn]Iraq: School Doors Barred to Many Children”, Human Rights Watch, 28 August 2019.Hide Footnote

III. Formal and Informal Obstacles to Return

Many displaced Iraqis with alleged ISIS affiliations remain stranded. On an individual or family basis, some may have avenues for going home. But they face not only daunting official, procedural barriers to leaving the camps and securing their rights and entitlements as citizens, but also popular and communal resistance to their return. Sometimes, these reinforce each other.

A. Procedural Barriers

Family members of alleged ISIS fighters often cannot pass the official security clearance necessary for both their return and the renewal of civil documents they need to live normally. Some lost these documents when they fled their homes; in the case of young children, they may have never obtained them.

Security clearance is mandatory for displaced people seeking to acquire a range of official documents, including civil identification and nationality certificates.[fn]Barriers from Birth: Undocumented Children in Iraq Sentenced to a Life on the Margins”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 30 April 2019; “Paperless People of Post-conflict Iraq”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 16 September 2019.Hide Footnote  The clearance involves review by several security services and also typically relies centrally on the mukhtar, the local headman in the displaced person’s hometown or city neighbourhood. In coordination with the security services, a mukhtar is responsible for supervising his area and managing residents’ interactions with the state, including registering new arrivals. As part of the clearance process, security services will usually ask him to vouch that a returnee is not ISIS-affiliated, after consultation with area residents.[fn]Crisis Group interview, camp administrator, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Without these documents, the displaced cannot return to their areas of origin. They also cannot move freely to earn a daily wage, a bind that means they struggle to save enough to pay lawyers’ fees or other costs of return. Many are also barred from a range of transactions and public services, including state-provided health care and schools for their children.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced man, camp administrator and international humanitarian worker, Erbil and Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. For example, see Maya Gebeily, “Born under IS, sick Iraqi children left undocumented, untreated”, AFP, 16 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Often, the only option people with alleged ISIS affiliations who do not receive a security clearance have is to file a criminal complaint in court against their relative suspected of joining ISIS, in a process called tabria, which translates roughly to “disavowal”. Once they have lodged the complaint, the court issues an arrest warrant for the relative. Plaintiffs receive a certificate attesting to their willingness to testify against their relative, which then allows them to receive a security clearance. To secure civil documentation, some people may also need to file a missing persons complaint for the relative to obtain a death certificate. That obviates the need for a husband to be present in order for a woman to secure papers for her children, for example.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian worker, Erbil and remotely by messaging app, December 2019 and July and August 2020; Belkis Wille, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, remotely by messaging app, July and August 2020.Hide Footnote  Yet tabria is difficult, time-consuming, expensive and sometimes unpredictable.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, camp administrator, Iraqi journalist and international humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  The cost can be prohibitive for displaced people with few means.

B. Communal Rejection

Formal barriers to displaced persons’ return have been substantially documented, including by organisations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council.[fn]For example, see “Paperless People of Post-conflict Iraq”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Yet even if these barriers come down, these uprooted people may still be unable to go home.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian workers, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Families with perceived ISIS affiliations can face communal rejection that, while informal, is just as effective as any bureaucratic rule in impeding their return. Such rules can be amended or broken. The hostility of their old neighbours, on the other hand, is harder to dispel with policy changes – and it often comes replete with threats of physical attack.

The reasons for society’s resistance to displaced persons’ return differ from place to place. People in each area that ISIS once controlled have their own experience of its rule and the attendant atrocities, as well as their own recollections of which locals were, in their view, complicit. Ninewa governorate’s Sinjar district, for example, remains torn by the rupture between its Arabs and Yezidis: the Yezidis who survived the ISIS genocide reject the return of Arab neighbours whom they accuse of involvement in the abductions and killings. Elsewhere, the fault line may be tribal or between Sunni and Shiite residents, depending on the area’s history and demographic makeup.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, Baghdad, February and June 2019.Hide Footnote

Sentiments behind communal rejection can also be hyper-local and even personal. An aid worker said the reasons for hostility seem “to vary not just from district to district, but from cluster of houses to cluster of houses”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Residents of post-ISIS areas say they remember every individual who joined or aided and abetted the group.[fn]A mukhtar said, “There were families who stayed [in areas under ISIS’s control] for material reasons [ie, because they lacked the means to leave]. We know them; their circumstances are difficult. But they didn’t join ISIS, so there’s no problem with them. … People who lived here under ISIS know who drank and ate with ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019.Hide Footnote Yet allegations of ISIS links can be arbitrary and subject to abuse. People may feel the need to reject fellow residents with alleged affiliations as a way to shield themselves from suspicion.[fn]A displaced man from Ninewa claimed, for example, that his relatives had reported him and his immediate family as ISIS affiliates in order to burnish their own image. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Others may level allegations out of malice or because of old grudges.[fn]Many camp residents from the Ninewa countryside said such false accusations are a barrier to return, as did a camp administrator. Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camps in Kurdish-held Ninewa and Erbil, December 2019. A reconciliation-focused Iraqi official said the same. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Many Iraqis also voice fears that civilians with perceived ISIS affiliations may have absorbed the group’s ideas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraq, February, March, June, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Iraqi officials thus often propose solutions for “ISIS families’” that presuppose some program of “rehabilitation” or “de-radicalisation”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, Baghdad and Ramadi, June 2019; Crisis Group telephone interview, international humanitarian worker, June 2019. “Iraq: Confining Families with Alleged ISIS Ties Unlawful”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  A Ninewa camp administrator reported that a small number of residents, who mostly kept to themselves, seemed still committed to ISIS, or to its extreme interpretation of Islam, but that the group’s influence had faded as time passed.[fn]Citing the example of school-age children, the administrator said, “The thing about them is that they don’t lie. They say whatever they feel. So, when you interact with the kids, it’s clear that [ISIS’s line of thinking] has reduced a lot. I’m not saying it’s not there, but it has reduced a lot”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote

The undercurrent to articulated objections to the displaced people’s return may just be strong emotions – which, far from making the objections less serious, likely makes them harder to address.[fn]An Iraqi humanitarian worker described the emotional response of some residents of post-ISIS areas when encouraged not to view returnees as “ISIS families”: “They’ll get angry. They’ll say, ‘This is what they were. … We suffered a lot because of them. Our house was bombed. We lost our property’”. Crisis Group Skype interview, July 2020.Hide Footnote

These Iraqis have survived a terrible trauma in which they believe some of their neighbours and acquaintances were complicit.

These Iraqis have survived a terrible trauma in which they believe some of their neighbours and acquaintances were complicit. That trauma is only a few years old, and Baghdad has been slow to assuage the anger and hurt. It has been dilatory, for example, in paying out promised compensation to those who suffered during the war with ISIS.[fn]On Iraq’s compensation regime, see “‘We Hope, But We Are Hopeless’: Civilians’ Perceptions of the Compensation Process in Iraq”, Center for Civilians in Conflict, 6 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Some of ISIS’s victims are prepared to act on this anger, even if that means threatening alleged ISIS members’ families. For Iraqis with perceived ISIS affiliations, then, the risk of attack in their areas of origin is real. A woman from Salah al-Din governorate said she and her family had been pushed out of the camp where they were living, but that residents of her hometown had told her she could not come home. She feared that if she tried to return, locals might hurt her teenage son.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  

Even if families with perceived ISIS affiliations can return and live at home safely for a time, residents may blame them for later ISIS activity.[fn]A displaced woman said she had received word that a tribal settlement in her home area in Salah al-Din would permit her to return, but that she feared locals would abduct her son or target her family if problems arose in the area. Even if things remained calm, she said the tribal settlement’s terms required her family to stay at home, with no mobile phones and unable to work the family land. She made a diamond shape with her hands to illustrate how her family would be confined within their house’s walls: “When we go back, we’ll be living like this”. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Some local government officials allege that returnees have abetted nearby ISIS attacks.[fn]Husham al-Hashimi, “ISIS in Iraq: The Challenge of Reintegrating ‘ISIS Families’”, Center for Global Policy, 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote  A camp administrator said his Ninewa camp had welcomed dozens of families who had been expelled from other camps but could not go home, many because they faced ostracism and threats if they returned. A fellow administrator said, “They say, ‘I just saved my children from dying. I’m not about to repeat that experience’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

C. The Compound Impact of Formal and Informal Barriers

Barriers such as communal resistance to return and formal obstacles such as security vetoes can reinforce each other in ways that make it harder to address any single problem facing Iraq’s displaced.

The best example of the convergence of the formal and informal is the mukhtar. The mukhtar’s role is two-sided; he is simultaneously a local agent of the state and the representative of communal sentiment to the state. Displaced Iraqis with alleged ISIS affiliations need their mukhtar’s sign-off for official documents and permission to return home.[fn]Crisis Group interview, camp administrator, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  The mukhtar, in turn, is responsible for ascertaining and communicating his community’s attitude regarding particular would-be returnees. If he thinks they would face real danger, he can hardly approve their return.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  When he declines these families’ applications for documents, is it the state, then, that is rejecting them, or is it their home community?

The distinction between the formal and the customary or communal is also blurred with regard to local security forces, which can prevent some families’ return. Camp residents express fears about the jumble of security bodies, possibly including Hashd paramilitaries, that may be patrolling their home areas.[fn]A man from Mosul said, “The police, the army, the Hashd – each one is a government on its own”. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  A single bad interaction at a checkpoint – including a case of mistaken identity, because of a common name – can have grave consequences.[fn]Iraq: Thousands Detained, Including Children, in Degrading Conditions”, Human Rights Watch, 4 July 2019. Even suspects who are eventually exonerated can face lengthy pre-trial detention in grim, overcrowded facilities. Detainees also can fear conviction in summary trials, regardless of their guilt or innocence; Iraqi courts have prosecuted thousands of alleged ISIS suspects under the country’s expansive counter-terrorism law, which stipulates capital punishment for ISIS membership, and have convicted some defendants based solely on confessions seemingly given under torture. See “Flawed Justice”, Human Rights Watch, 5 December 2017; and “Iraq: Key Courts Improve ISIS Trial Procedures”, Human Rights Watch, 13 March 2019.Hide Footnote  Many fear being disappeared, in particular by Hashd units that are formally part of the official security forces but can sometimes operate autonomously.[fn]For more on the Hashd and its relationship to Iraqi state authority, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°188, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018; N°194, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, 14 December 2018; and N°215, Iraq: Fixing Security in Kirkuk, 15Hide Footnote  “In Mosul, when they take someone suspected of doing something, you don’t know where to”, a camp resident said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced man from Mosul, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Yet even as these various forces are part of the official security services, they can also be related and responsive to civilian residents, who can appeal to them to threaten would-be returnees. Even those the mukhtar has approved for return are not safe, said one man displaced from rural Ninewa: disgruntled locals might secretly report them to paramilitaries, who will detain them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Other camp residents pointed out that many security personnel, including members of local “tribal” Hashd units, come from families who reject the return of allegedly ISIS-affiliated people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced people from Salah al-Din and Ninewa, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. “Tribal” Hashd forces are locally recruited guard units, often with a senior tribal figure as a sponsor. See Erica Gaston, “Sunni Tribal Forces”, Global Public Policy Institute, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Iraqi politicians who warn loudly of the threat posed by returning “ISIS families” represent another blurring of lines between public opinion and official attitudes. These politicians are both voicing what are likely their constituents’ sentiments and inflaming those same feelings. Iraq’s populist politics thus produces a dangerous feedback loop.[fn]These politicians have seized in particular on recurring rumours that Iraqi citizens in Syria’s al-Hol displacement camp will be repatriated to invoke the supposed danger posed by those Iraqis and by “ISIS families” generally. For example, see “Parliamentary statements regarding ISIS families in Ninewa”, Iraqi News Agency, 26 February 2020 (Arabic). The al-Hol camp now holds Syrian, Iraqi and other women and children taken into custody as ISIS’s last territorial pocket in Syria fell in March 2019. Arabic-language news media has featured lurid footage of a hard core of women in al-Hol angrily shouting ISIS slogans as well as accounts of them stabbing guards. “Female jihadists try to stab guards and flee from al-Hol Camp in north-eastern Syria”, video, YouTube, 30 July 2019 (Arabic). On European politicians’ fear-mongering about the return of their own countries’ nationals from al-Hol, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Gendered Impact

The challenges facing displaced families with perceived ISIS affiliations are significantly worse for female-headed households.

The challenges facing displaced families with perceived ISIS affiliations are significantly worse for female-headed households, largely because women’s legal status and social position are intertwined with those of their husbands and families. In practice, women must therefore traverse the same complicated pathways out of displacement as men, while facing additional obstacles.

The clearest illustration may be that a married woman usually cannot, by herself, obtain a security clearance or civil documentation for her and her children. Women whose husbands are detained, wanted by the security forces or otherwise missing and unaccounted for thus find themselves in an impossible predicament. The many such women in the camps typically cannot pass a security clearance and, without that clearance, cannot renew their documents. Even if they manage to pass a clearance and renew their own documents, in their husbands’ absence they may still be unable to get basic papers for their children.[fn]See “Barriers from Birth”, op. cit.; and “Paperless People of Post-conflict Iraq”, op. cit. A staff member of an organisation that helps displaced people renew their official documents said he works with dozens of women whose husbands are likely dead but who, in the state’s eyes, “aren’t exactly widows”. If a woman’s husband is missing and his death was not registered in a hospital or morgue, he said, the government treats the husband as a fugitive and refuses to issue documents to anyone in the family. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

These women’s main avenue for pursuing legal autonomy is tabria – disavowal – but this procedure is freighted with additional burdens and perils. By providing testimony that a detained or missing husband was involved with ISIS, a woman pursuing tabria can put him at risk. “It means acknowledging that her husband is with ISIS. It puts more stigma on the family, and it may expose the husband to danger”, a humanitarian worker said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Pursuing tabria can compromise a woman’s inheritance rights and other entitlements under Iraqi law, and it also risks alienating her in-laws. She may lose a desperately needed support network, which can offer her everything from emotional comfort to physical protection. She can even face threats of violent reprisal or removal of her children by angry in-laws who feel implicated by her testimony.[fn]Broken Home: Women’s Housing, Land and Property Rights in Post-conflict Iraq”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 11 May 2020; “Managing Return in Anbar”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The administrative hassle of the tabria process is also more onerous for women.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. A woman whose husband was imprisoned for belonging to ISIS said disavowing and divorcing him would cost 400,000 or 500,000 Iraqi dinars ($332 or $415) in lawyer’s fees. As the head of a household of eight, she could not afford to pay such a bill.Hide Footnote  Rumours abound exaggerating the cost of the process, and the corruption surrounding it, which are particularly daunting for women who may have little formal education or experience navigating the bureaucracy – a task often assumed by the male head of household, especially in rural areas. “It can be confusing”, said a staff member of an organisation that helps the displaced renew their documents. “Now [this woman] has no husband to tell her what’s happening. She’s become the head of the household. She can get a mistaken understanding of things, until we clarify what’s happening”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Apart from finding the money for lawyers’ fees, single mothers must make multiple trips to municipal offices staffed by employees who can be hostile to perceived “ISIS families”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Some Iraqi organisations assist women with tabria. But many international agencies and donors refuse to do so, because they believe the process can violate the “do no harm” principle in stigmatising the women who go through it and incriminating others.[fn]Not all humanitarian workers agree. One international humanitarian worker criticised this position: “I think people can be a little patronising toward women who might be looking in a clear-eyed way at their situation. Sometimes I think the international discourse doesn’t give them enough credit, so that we’re not talking about these women as if they’re children, as well; rather, that they’re able to make decisions within a very poor set of choices”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 22 July 2020.Hide Footnote

On top of all this, the process is emotionally tormenting. It presents a woman with a terrible choice: publicly denounce her husband or remain, in effect, outside society.[fn]A woman whose husband had died fighting for ISIS said she had gone through with tabria because she felt she had little alternative. “What can I do?” she asked. “God knows the truth”, she said about her feelings for him. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  As a psychologist who worked in one camp said, “Many women are holding onto a glimmer of hope that their [missing husbands] are still alive”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019. A sheikh resident in one camp said he has told women seeking his counsel to divorce husbands who joined ISIS, because Islamic jurisprudence so dictates. “Some women get upset”, he said. “They love their husbands. But it’s sunnah [Islamic practice]” that they ought to emancipate themselves. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Women also face barriers to using customary mechanisms to get home. For example, women have only limited access and ability to participate in the tribal fora where sheikhs and notables arrive at settlements allowing returns. Normally, they would approach tribal sheikhs only with a male relative or intermediary.[fn]Haley Bobseine, “Tribal Justice in a Fragile Iraq”, The Century Foundation, 7 November 2019. On the other hand, an arguably paternalistic discomfort at seeing displaced women in these vulnerable circumstances has helped provide an impetus for tribal efforts to arrange their return. An international humanitarian worker said, “I think women have benefitted from many Iraqis’ deep sense of shame at the conditions they’re in. … People are uncomfortable with it. So that’s something that has allowed these tribal mechanisms to work, to protect this population that’s seen as vulnerable”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 22 July 2020.Hide Footnote

If these women are unwilling to break, officially and symbolically, with their husbands, many will be unable to get a security clearance. And clearance or not, many of their home communities will reject their return. According to an international humanitarian worker, “Residents say, ‘If they can’t [disavow their husbands], we don’t want them back’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote

The legal status issues and general stigma facing these displaced women only further limit their ability to cope with precarious circumstances.

The legal status issues and general stigma facing these displaced women only further limit their ability to cope with precarious circumstances. Getting paid work is particularly challenging for women with perceived ISIS affiliations. Employers checking references often go to local mukhtars, who report these women’s alleged ties; they are then typically not hired. Many of these women can only find economic opportunities with support from humanitarian organisations, which themselves may face pressure from locals not to help allegedly affiliated families.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, humanitarian worker involved with livelihoods assistance, August 2020.Hide Footnote  All these difficulties encourage some female-headed families to cling to life in camps.[fn]As a male camp resident put it, “If [these women] went back home, they could only survive by begging. Here at least they have a tent to themselves”. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

These women’s lack of legal and financial autonomy – their struggle to afford private living quarters in their home areas, for example – also acutely deepens their vulnerability. As divorced or widowed women, they already suffer from diminished social status and lack of physical protection. As a displaced woman said, “In Mosul, where is a woman supposed to sleep alone? At least here [in the camp], there’s safety”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Yet even in camps, women who are socially isolated and economically needy can be vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by camp authorities or local security actors. It is hard to gauge the scope of the problem, but abuse appears to be occurring in some camps.[fn]See “Iraq: The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq”, Amnesty International, 17 April 2018; and Sanar Hasan, “‘When one of them refuses, she’s threatened’… Displaced women in Iraqi camps victims of sexual and political exploitation”, Raseef22, 20 July 2020 (Arabic)Hide Footnote

There is no agreed-upon narrative about the degree of culpability or agency that should be assigned to women who were married or related to ISIS members. These questions about how to understand women’s involvement in ISIS are not singular to Iraq, although Iraqi women living in cities and towns seized by the militants were more caught up in ISIS by circumstance than were the foreign women who actively migrated to Syria and Iraq to join the group and marry its fighters.

In practice, though, these Iraqi women whose association with ISIS is more tenuous must still endure the persistent antipathy of their fellow Iraqis.[fn]Women with perceived ISIS affiliations can suffer from stigma even in camps. “Local [towns]people would spit on me and my children”, said a woman about her experience in one camp. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Many women who manage to return home face lingering suspicion and resentment.

Many women who manage to return home face lingering suspicion and resentment. Some suffer ostracism even from their own families, who may spurn either the women themselves, the children they had with husbands allegedly involved with ISIS or both. A mother of four described how her family invited her home, only to take her children from her and deposit them with her imprisoned husband’s family. They refused to take in children they viewed as the product of their ISIS father. She managed to recover her children, and then returned to the camp. “I haven’t thought of going back since then”, she said. “[My family] calls me, and they repeat, ‘Give up your children and come back’”.[fn]The woman said she could not secure documents for her children without her husband – yet she also feared that if she divorced him, his family would take her children. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Aid workers call these sorts of U-turns, in which returnees leave once more for camps, “re-returns”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, camp administrator and humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.
Hide Footnote

V. Toward Government Action, Done Right

By requiring displaced people with perceived ISIS affiliations – who, again, face no criminal charges – to denounce their family members, the Iraqi state treats them as presumptively guilty by association. If they refuse, they are effectively sentenced to open-ended stays in provisional camps. This treatment amounts to extra-legal punishment of these displaced people in violation of their rights. The Iraqi government should work to remedy their situation, foremost out of humanitarian concern and obligation to its citizens. “We’re brothers – on one land, one Iraq”, said a displaced man from rural Ninewa. “We’re no different from people in Basra”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Indeed, a solution for Iraq’s displaced and for families with alleged ISIS affiliations in particular is in Iraq’s national interest: it is important to the country’s recovery from years of violent conflict.

These encamped people are, in effect, exiles in their own country.

These encamped people are, in effect, exiles in their own country. Yet they are Iraqis, living inside Iraq. They cannot be ignored or wished away; they are part of the country’s future.

Alongside the moral imperative to act is a political one. It can be risky to warn that continued ostracism of these Iraqis endangers the country’s stability without further stigmatising them or encouraging narratives of their “radicalisation” for which there is little seeming basis. Yet without action to reincorporate these families into society, they do seem at risk of becoming a permanent underclass. Denied the chance to live as normal, law-abiding citizens, they could become targets for recruitment by criminal gangs, by ISIS or by something else like it.

Perhaps the most urgent aspect of this problem is the plight of children who, after the traumatic experience of war, are now spending formative years in camps. If they grow up in these conditions, with no prospects, they are at risk of being exploited and instrumentalised by violent actors.[fn]An Iraqi journalist said, “A child whose father was killed and whose mother was exploited and raped won’t be in his right mind. There’ll be a spirit of revenge there”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote To the extent that some Iraqis worry about these children having absorbed some of ISIS’s ideas, it is hard to see how isolation in camps will help. For their well-being and Iraq’s future stability, it would be critical to reintegrate them into society. Access to education is a major part of that. “These kids need to feel they’re part of something, and they need someone to help them”, said a displaced father from Mosul. “They need to see they’re part of society”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Absent proactive solutions, the country’s displacement crisis could just drag on. As time goes by, Iraqi authorities are moving the remaining displaced people into fewer and what seem to be harsher camps. Humanitarian workers worry that some of these camps, with very severe movement restrictions, are becoming effective detention centres.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  The concentration of these displaced Iraqis in a handful of camps that are assumed to be populated mainly by “ISIS families” could actually prolong these families’ hardship by making the residual displacement problem easier to ignore.

Yet even as Iraq should not leave its citizens in the limbo of protracted displacement, there are also grave risks to pushing these families to return to their home areas. Rushed or compulsory returns could expose them to violence.[fn]One vivid illustration of the risk of returns gone wrong came in late 2019, when Ninewa governorate authorities began busing residents originally from Salah al-Din to camps in that governorate. The buses were met with protests by angry locals who refused to receive “ISIS families”, as well as threats on social media and, reportedly, grenades thrown at a camp fence. “We’re not a dumping ground for bad people, or, as people say, a receptacle for outlaws and families of ISIS members”, a local notable told a television broadcast. “Popular rejection of harbouring ISIS families in al-Shihama camp in Tikrit”, video, YouTube, 3 September 2019 (Arabic). See also “Iraq: Camps Expel over 2,000 People Seen as ISIS-Linked”, Human Rights Watch, 4 September 2019.Hide Footnote  Some displaced families may never be able to safely return to their areas of origin and may have to resettle in third locations. Others may eventually be able to make a safe and voluntary return, but only after the government and its partners exert substantial effort to ensure that residents of their areas of origin accept them back.

Kadhimi’s visit to the al-Salamiya camp was a positive step. He reportedly spoke with camp residents about giving grants to rebuild displaced people’s houses and forming a government committee to develop solutions for return.[fn]Readout of Kadhimi’s visit circulated among humanitarian workers in Iraq, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The Kadhimi government’s seeming desire to address the displacement crisis is welcome. But if it hopes to ensure that displaced people’s return to normal life is safe, voluntary and sustainable, Baghdad, along with its NGO and donor partners, ought to additionally account for both the informal, communal barriers to return and the issue’s inescapably gendered nature.

Surmounting the informal barriers to return will require more efforts by Iraqi authorities and supporting NGOs to consult community leaders in displaced Iraqis’ areas of origin, and to sensitise residents to the return and reintegration of their former neighbours. The nature of that consultation and any agreements on return will necessarily vary by area, given the specific grievances obstructing return in each locale; in some areas, it may entail resorting to customary tribal mechanisms.[fn]For more, see Bobseine, “Tribal Justice in a Fragile Iraq”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Some communities may also demand that returnees participate in “de-radicalisation” programming. Even if the evidentiary basis for this programming is dubious – in Iraq and elsewhere – it may be unavoidable in order to reassure area residents, who may care about both ensuring that would-be returnees no longer harbour violent intentions and the signal sent by their willingness to participate in such programs.

Material incentives could also help. Iraq has little money to spare, and local resistance to return might be deeply personal. Nonetheless, the distribution of long-promised compensation to residents of post-ISIS areas would likely help temper ill feeling. Baghdad and its partners should also consider making strategic investments in areas where return is tough, linking additional services or reconstruction to community reconciliation.

Donors have an opportunity to step in, helping Baghdad rebuild the country physically and socially by encouraging the reintegration of tens of thousands of women and children.

Given Iraq’s financial difficulties, donors have an opportunity to step in, helping Baghdad rebuild the country physically and socially by encouraging the reintegration of tens of thousands of women and children.

Even for Baghdad to visibly pay attention to these areas’ residents – themselves traumatised by ISIS and the war to defeat it – could help soften their opposition to the return of the displaced. In that sense, the July visit by the minister for migration and the displaced to Ninewa’s Sinjar district was another worthwhile move, for the solicitousness it demonstrates for ISIS’s victims.[fn]Ministry of Migration and the Displaced”, Facebook, 5:10pm, 5 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Policy ought also to take into account how displacement disproportionately affects women and female-headed families, and how women relate especially to the law and Iraq’s customary structures. Wherever possible, the government and its partners should try to maximise these women’s autonomy and agency, so that they can themselves participate in deciding their fate. The government should explore and, if possible, institute administrative changes that would allow displaced women to secure civil documents for themselves and their children independently of their missing or imprisoned husbands. That may mean delinking security clearance procedures from access to civil documentation, or an “amnesty period” in which women could secure basic documents for their children without the father’s involvement.[fn]See “Barriers from Birth”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Baghdad and its partners should also look to support women materially in ways that give them greater independence in considering their legal options and choosing where to live – whether in their home communities or in other areas, where they might struggle to afford rent and living expenses.

It is also important to include women in decisions that affect them. Tribal settlements on return, for example, are concluded among men, despite being largely about the fate of women. These mechanisms thus risk further disenfranchising women. As an example, a displaced woman said she feared for her children if she went home to her Salah al-Din district but, after she was told of a tribal settlement there, felt she had no choice: “If we don’t go back now, [my children] will be fugitives forever. … I don’t want them to go back. But it’s our fate”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  However possible, Iraqi authorities and NGOs should consult women as part of these processes. They should not feel at the mercy of a “fate” decided by men.

Most important of all, of course, is that the Kadhimi government follow through on its stated commitment to investing attention, energy and resources in solutions for Iraq’s long-term displaced, including families with perceived ISIS affiliations. Otherwise, the likely outcome is more ad hoc camp closures, more unsafe returns and more concentration of people with perceived ISIS affiliations in semi-permanent camps, outside society.

VI. Conclusion

Prime Minister Kadhimi’s evident interest in solving Iraq’s displacement crisis suggests that, for displaced Iraqis and those with perceived ISIS affiliations in particular, a better life is possible. His government faces several grave challenges. Still, Baghdad and its partners ought to keep the displaced on the agenda.

Displaced people with perceived ISIS affiliations are Iraqi citizens in Iraq, charged with no crime. Without a solution, they could become lasting pariahs; excluded from normal life, they are in danger of turning instead to destructive coping mechanisms or even in some cases being recruited into organised violence. The Kadhimi government should ensure that resolving Iraq’s displacement crisis remains a priority, both for the country’s future stability and for the sake of these long-suffering Iraqi citizens.

Baghdad/Erbil/Brussels, 19 October 2020