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Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa
Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa
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  1. Executive Summary
Report 90 / Middle East & North Africa

Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa

Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues.

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Executive Summary

Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues. In August and September 2009, large-scale, horrific attacks targeting minority communities took scores of lives. Arabs and Kurds are locked in a political deadlock. The bloodshed and institutional paralysis are symptoms of the country’s shifting battle lines: from an essentially Sunni versus Shiite sectarian struggle, mainly centred in the capital, to a predominantly Arab against Kurdish ethnic fight playing out along an extended axis of friction. It will be near-impossible to resolve the crisis without tackling outstanding nationwide political issues. But Ninewa cannot wait. Urgent interim steps are needed to achieve equitable local power sharing and joint security patrols between Arabs and Kurds in disputed districts, as well as to ensure better minority protection. All this requires a continued and active U.S. role. Washington might be on its way out, but its hands will be full even as it heads for the exit.

For Arabs and Kurds, the real prize remains Kirkuk, where emotions run highest and oil reserves are richest. But, precisely because of these stakes, Kirkuk also is where much national and international attention has turned and efforts undertaken to, if not resolve the conflict, at least freeze it. Not so in Ninewa, where local factors have brought the dispute to a head and which has become the focal point of the ethnic battle.

Ethnic relations in Ninewa have a chequered history. The struggle between Arab and Kurdish nationalisms has been especially acute, notably in the capital, Mosul, home to deeply rooted Arabist feelings. The Kurds have paid a heavy price. The state has made aggressive attempts to contain or suppress their national aspirations. The Baathist regime in particular engaged in forced displacement and discriminatory resource distribution. Kurds saw a chance for redress in 2003 and seized it, launching an offensive to rewind the clock and undo the effect of past practices. This too had a cost. Operating largely in an ad hoc manner, without due process and by dint of force, they took control of several districts, including many towns and villages, seeking to incorporate them into the Kurdistan region and, largely thanks to the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 provincial elections, they established political dominance in the governorate.

At the same time, Ninewa proved fertile ground for a Sunni-based insurgency, fuelled by the governorate’s strong Arabist, military and (Sunni) religious tradition and propelled by growing anti-Kurdish and anti-Shiite resentment. Groups taking up arms against U.S. troops and Kurdish fighters exploited the long, often unguarded Syrian border and a history of cross-border trade, while finding ready recruits among former officers, Baathists and an increasingly destitute youth to impose their rule over predominantly Sunni Arab areas. From 2003 to 2008, Ninewa appeared caught between Kurdish dominance and Sunni insurgents.

Gradually, the political landscape shifted. Insurgents – especially the more Islamist – overplayed their hand; U.S. and Iraqi forces re-energised efforts to stabilise Ninewa; and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to push back Kurdish territorial advances. Perhaps most importantly, Sunni Arab leaders entered the political fray, coalescing around a resolutely nationalist, anti-Kurdish platform.

The 31 January 2009 provincial elections brought the new phase in the Arab-Kurdish tug-of-war to a head. Four years earlier, Sunni Arabs had boycotted the polls, viewing the entire political process as illegitimate. They were not about to repeat the mistake. United around the al-Hadbaa National List (Qaemat al-Hadbaa al-Wata­niya), they triumphed, waging a campaign focused on two key points: Ninewa’s Arab identity and the inviolability of the Baathist-era de facto boundary line that has separated the governorate from Kurdistan since October 1991. The elections were a demographic corrective. Kurdish parties won roughly a third of council seats under the banner of the Ninewa Brotherhood List (Qaemat Ninewa al-Mutaakhiya); this was as they had anticipated given their population share. But though they accepted their significant electoral decline, they feared al-Hadbaa’s virulently anti-Kurdish rhetoric, resented its efforts to diminish Kurdish military, administrative and cultural influence and insisted on sharing power. When al-Hadbaa rejected this demand, they boycotted the provincial council.

The resulting local government paralysis, coupled with al-Hadbaa’s decision to reassert provincial government rule over disputed territories heretofore under Kurdish control, has led to an alarming rise in tensions. Conflict chiefly has occurred where Arabs and Kurds vie for administrative control and where Iraq’s army and Kurdish peshmergas face off across an increasingly tense divide. On several occasions, these forces have come perilously close to head-on collision. Further contributing to the governorate’s growing instability and tinderbox quality is the vast array of official and unofficial armed groups: the national army and police; the Kurdistan regional government’s (KRG) security forces (peshmerga) and security police (asaesh); what remains of Sunni Arab insurgent groups; and tribal militias.

Caught between Arabs and Kurds are ethnic and religious minorities in whom the central government has evinced little interest. While Ninewa is majority Arab with a strong Kurdish minority, it also counts a number of smaller groups – Christians, Yazidis, Turkomans and Shabaks – that may comprise a mere 10 per cent of the population but are concentrated in disputed borderlands between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. They have suffered a disproportionate share of the hardship caused by war, occupation and intercommunal violence and fight today for survival. At times co-opted, at others threatened by one of the camps, they have become vulnerable pawns in a contest that often sees them as little more than fodder. In August and September 2009, four bombings took over 100 lives and left many hundreds more wounded. For minorities, these have been among the deadliest of months.

There have been signs of late that the federal government and its Kurdish counterparts, with U.S. help and pressure, are seeking to address the problem. But dangers remain high, especially as U.S. military disengagement has begun, with unpredictable consequences on various actors’ calculations and the overall balance of forces. Although significantly diminished, insurgent groups also remain active. They could decide to focus on anti-Kurdish attacks or step up violence against minority groups in disputed territories in hopes of prompting greater unrest and encouraging Arab-Kurdish recrimination.

Any successful effort to defuse the crisis needs to be two-tracked. As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, Iraq’s fundamental and festering problem concerns the allocation of power, land and resources. With national elections approaching in early 2010, it is hard to imagine the federal government, KRG or any domestic party engaging in politically costly compromise, however urgent the need. At the governorate level, however, steps could be more realistic. Arabs and Kurds should agree on an interim arrangement that gives the latter a legitimate share of power while allowing the former to govern; Kurdish military and police forces should be formally incorporated into federal army units and Ninewa’s security police, respectively, under joint command and with joint patrolling. Minority groups should be given far greater protection and subjected to far fewer attempts at manipulation. The idea, floated by some U.S. officials, of temporarily inserting American soldiers in joint army-peshmerga patrols is interesting and not only because it might produce immediate benefits. It would also send a message about Washington’s longer-term commitment that would be no less indispensable.

Mosul/Washington/Brussels, 28 September 2009

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.