Iraq has been successively ravaged by the 1980-1988 war with Iran, crippling sanctions after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, internal conflict after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and the transnational jihadists of Islamic State after 2014. Its multiple challenges further include sectarian violence and Kurdish separatism. Crisis Group aims to promote locally-centred stabilisation and better governance of post-ISIS Iraq in order to reduce the risk of violent flare-ups in liberated areas and mitigate the impact of foreign strategic competition, notably between Iran and the U.S. Through field research, advocacy and engagement with all sides, we urge countries involved in the anti-ISIS campaign to support security sector and institutional reform in Iraq as well. On the Kurdish front, we urge a return to a UN-led process to resolve the question of the disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, and of oil revenue-sharing.
Memories of the Islamic State’s 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak in Iraq and Syria colour views of its present capacity, leading officials and observers either to exaggerate or understate its threat. In Iraq, the group does pose a danger. Gauging it properly is key to containing it.
Amid ongoing open hostility between U.S. and Iran-backed militias, President Salih appointed new PM designate in attempt to resolve political paralysis, while Islamic State (ISIS) stepped up attacks on civilians and security forces. U.S. President Trump 1 April accused Iran or proxies of planning “sneak attack” on U.S. forces in Iraq; Iranian FM Zarif next day denied accusations. Iran-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah early April warned U.S. against striking group, demanded full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Unknown perpetrators 6 April fired rockets near U.S. company Halliburton in south causing no casualties. U.S. 10 April offered $10mn reward for information on Muhammad Kawtharani, senior Hizbollah military commander overseeing Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Nine pro-Iranian militias 4 April jointly announced efforts to confront U.S. in Iraq. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 7 April announced U.S.-Iraq “strategic dialogue” in June. Efforts to form govt continued: PM designate Adnan al-Zurfi 8 April withdrew nomination due to lack of support from Shiite parties, especially pro-Iranian Fateh coalition; President Salih 9 April appointed intelligence director Mustafa al-Kadhimi as PM designate. Leader of Fateh coalition Hadi al-Amiri attended Kadhimi’s nomination ceremony in sign of support but Kataib Hizbollah 10 April condemned nomination, accusing al-Kadhimi of involvement in U.S. killing of Iran’s Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani and deputy chief of Shiite militia coalition Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Jan. Following 5 April killing of activist Anwar Jassem Mhawwas in Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province, violent clashes ensued between security forces and protesters, which left two dead. Clashes between ISIS and security forces increased throughout month in Kirkuk, Erbil, Nineveh, Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces, with group planting IEDs targeting civilians and security forces; in retaliation, security forces 13 April killed 20 ISIS fighters in Kirkuk. Suspected ISIS suicide attack 28 April targeted Iraqi intelligence directorate in Kirkuk; Iraqi officials said at least three security personnel wounded.
Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.
Should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate to a shooting war, Iraq would likely be the first battleground. Washington and Tehran should stop trying to drag Baghdad into their fight. The Iraqi government should redouble its efforts to remain neutral and safeguard the country’s post-ISIS recovery.
Backlash to the 2017 independence referendum bolstered family rule within Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties. Internal democracy has eroded; ties between the parties have frayed. Only strong institutions in Erbil and renewed inter-party cooperation can help Iraqi Kurdistan to reach a sustainable settlement with Baghdad on outstanding issues.
The fallout is settling after the Iraqi army’s seizure of territories disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. More conflict over these areas, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk, is predictable. The UN should take advantage of today’s quiet to explore negotiations on the contested lands’ status.
In July protests against inadequate supplies of jobs, water and electricity swept across southern Iraq, reaching Baghdad. The ruling elites should heed demonstrators’ calls to improve public services and stamp out corruption – or risk reigniting popular discontent and tempting would-be strongmen to step in.
A struggle looms in Iraq over the future of paramilitary groups assembled to help the state defeat ISIS. These units remain under arms and autonomous. Baghdad should strengthen the interior and defence ministries so they can absorb the paramilitaries now undercutting the state’s authority.
If the United States is forced out of Iraq in an ugly, contentious fashion, it could poison the bilateral relationship. (Quoted with Maria Fantappie)
The Iraqis don’t want either the United States or Iran, but if they have to have one, they would rather have both because they balance each other out.
[Iraqi] people make a direct connection between the failure and the corruption of the Shia political establishment, both politicians and some clerics, and the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
As protests continue to rage across Iraq, both government *and* civic leaders are responsible for charting a way forward and averting new violence.
[A rocket attack on Baghdad's Green Zone] was a way to test the limits of the Americans. Whoever did it is aware that the red line for the Trump administration is bloodshed.
Fifteen years after the change of order in Iraq, it’s the same problem. The central government is unable or unwilling to address problems across the board in Iraq. The corruption is endemic, the government’s inability to deal with it is endemic, and the protests are endemic.
A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.
Originally published in Valdai Club
Turkey’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.
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.