Iraq’s Pre-election Turmoil
Iraq’s Pre-election Turmoil
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Iraq’s Pre-election Turmoil

Given Iraq’s history of election-season instability, the upcoming presidential election could deepen existing tensions rather than unify the country. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group proposes several actions for the EU and its member states to work toward overcoming intra-Iraqi challenges.

This commentary on pre-election turmoil in Iraq is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Iraq has won the battle against ISIS, but will it win the post-ISIS peace? This is the question the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faces as it heads into the election season. Rather than providing a reprieve, the parliamentary and governorate elections scheduled for 12 May 2018 threaten to perpetuate instability. If the past is any guide, Iraq will see several months of pre-election posturing, alliance formation and inflamed political rhetoric, followed by a prolonged and turbulent period of post-election government formation.

It may not be the best time, therefore, for external actors such as the EU and its member states to work toward intra-Iraqi reconciliation, reconstruction, and the demobilisation and integration of militia members – all of which are desperately needed. Yet there are steps Iraq’s international partners can take to help it navigate this period, given that some important matters have been settled – though not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction – and that ISIS’ defeat has generated hope that post-2003 Iraq has finally turned a corner.

Iraq faces major challenges ahead of the elections. It needs to find a way for displaced persons (IDPs) to participate without fear of intimidation, diminish – without provoking local instability – the role of sub-state actors such as the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), and reconnect damaged localities to the state. It must also lay the groundwork for post-election negotiations between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Erbil over the core issues that have vexed their relationship: the dividing and sharing of political control and oil revenues in the disputed territories. These priorities are interconnected; the EU and its member states can help Iraq make progress, however limited, on all of them through the deft use of reconstruction funds. As for the Kurdistan region, it is undergoing its own post-referendum upheaval, and the EU and its member states can do much to assist the Kurdish polity organise credible regional assembly elections and carry out a much-needed political transition.

Rule by PMUs

The decision by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to press ahead with the Kurdish independence referendum on 25 September 2017 aimed in part to strengthen his hand in independence negotiations with Baghdad. That decision boomeranged badly. Near-unanimous international opposition to the referendum enabled Abadi to deploy his security forces in the disputed territories, retaking most of them from the Kurdish peshmerga, including Kirkuk and its oil fields. The military action was performed by U.S.-trained elite military units, but victory was claimed by the auxiliary militias known as PMUs, backed by Iran. Baghdad’s show of strength should not conceal its enduring weakness: it still lacks the capability to hold territories it has taken, making PMU rule a reality in many localities.

While it is difficult to generalise about the PMUs’ ties to Iran and their relations with local communities, to the extent that they pursue objectives consistent with an Iranian strategic agenda and are recruiting fighters from among the local population to help secure those interests, they are creating a parallel model of rule. This model, familiar from Iran itself during the early years of the Islamic revolution, as well as from Iran’s role in Syria and Lebanon, is bound to keep the federal state weak or erode it further.

Abadi, who like his predecessors has tried to balance Iran’s interests with those of the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia, faces a serious challenge: the PMUs have sprouted political parties primed to compete in the national elections, and are co-opting local tribal and minority leaders, giving them an advantage in local elections. To prevail in the elections and create a governing majority, Abadi will have to work with some forces that oppose Iran’s spreading influence, including former rivals and adversaries such as Kurdish parties and Sunni politicians; exploit intra-Shiite divisions; and solicit the support of the Shiite religious establishment headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In addition, he will need to try to reduce the PMUs’ role in the disputed territories by reinserting state security forces that recruit manpower from among the local population, and luring back skilled government administrators who fled these areas after ISIS arrived, many of whom found shelter in the Kurdish region and became co-optation targets for the Kurdish parties.

Another reason to reduce the PMUs’ role, especially in Sunni-populated areas, is that their presence may reignite local grievances and trigger a resurgence of anti-government, or even jihadist, sentiment and activism.

An unravelling communal fabric

The proliferation of sub-state actors during the fight against ISIS triggered rival co-optation efforts on the premise that he who provides security earns the right to govern. Such governance is highly unstable, because there is no central arbiter, and usually short-lived. Hence the need for state institutions to reassert control. This ambition was long thwarted by the Kurdish claim to many of the disputed territories, but since the ill-conceived Kurdish referendum and its aftermath, meaningful dialogue and negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil should again become possible after the formation of a new government.

The federal state needs to return as a central arbiter willing to allow significant decentralisation of administrative power. The National Reconciliation Commission should lead an effort to promote intercommunal reconciliation. The agency best placed to assist such efforts is the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), whose 2009 report on the disputed territories remains fundamental for understanding how to address the territories’ status and resolve the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over sharing and dividing political control and oil revenues.

Society’s militarisation

ISIS’s 2014 onslaught militarised Iraqi society, giving young men little option but to fight or find a way to leave the country. Militias that battled ISIS eventually will need to be demobilised and their members reintegrated into society. The obvious solution would be to use this manpower in a major reconstruction effort but pervasive corruption within a largely dysfunctional state poses serious challenges to this project. Reconstruction funds are controlled by a handful of actors and channelled through preferred parties to benefit only a few. The PMUs seem to have an advantage in the competition for funding through the influence of associated politicians in Baghdad. The international community should ensure that the reconstruction funds they provide are “colour-blind” to the extent possible: spread evenly to communities in need, regardless of the recipients’ ethnic or religious identification; and channelled through legitimate state agencies rather than through sub-state actors such as the PMUs.

Troubles in the Kurdish region

Fallout from the Kurdish independence referendum was not limited to loss of the disputed territories. It also shook the Kurds’ faith in their leadership, its decision-making and its legitimacy. Anti-KRG protests broke out in Suleimaniya governorate in December 2017, in part because the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which dominates the area, had been weakened by the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani. It is too early to predict where the Kurdish region is headed, but there is no doubt that it needs to refresh its leadership. The best way forward is to allow the emergence of new parties and guarantee free and fair elections to the Kurdish parliament, tentatively planned for April 2018.

An EU role in helping Iraq to stabilise

The EU and its member states have an abiding interest in seeing Iraqis reconcile and the country stabilise. Reconstruction funds are the best instruments at their disposal. Therefore, they need to carefully implement their new Strategy for Iraq, based on a detailed understanding of the country’s shifting political landscape, to disburse these funds without making matters worse. To shape a political outcome that promotes reconciliation and stability, the EU and its member states should prioritise the following actions in the implementation of their Iraq strategy over the next year:

  • Continue to provide humanitarian aid to IDPs, and assist the government in facilitating their voluntary return home;
  • Financially support UN-led reconstruction efforts;
  • Provide reconstruction funds to the government, not to non-state actors, and ensure that they are disbursed in an equitable manner to communities most in need;
  • Encourage the demobilisation of militias and reintegration of fighters as part of a larger effort to reform the security sector;
  • Encourage the Abadi government to reassert federal sovereignty in the disputed territories by deploying locally recruited security forces and restoring local government using skilled administrators brought back from their areas of displacement;
  • Ask UNAMI to develop a strategy and update its important 2009 study on Iraq’s “internal disputed boundaries” as soon as possible, and to help jump-start Baghdad-Erbil negotiations once a new federal government and a new Kurdish regional government are formed;
  • Encourage the leading Kurdish parties to assure free and fair KRG assembly elections in 2018, and allow new political parties to emerge and participate.

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