Iraq faces an array of obstacles this year, as the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struggles to unify competing factions and confronts the brutal militants of the so-called “Islamic State” militarily. Abadi must navigate significant economic challenges and massive displacements of citizens because of the fighting, while struggling to meet terms set out by the country’s Kurdish Regional Government in the north and the Sunni coalition who joined his government in Baghdad.
The Iraqi military, dominated by Shias and aided by aligned militias (locally known al-Hashd al-Sha’eby or Popular Mobilization Units) and a small number of Sunni volunteers, last week began an Iranian-backed offensive against the Islamic State in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, about 95 miles north of Baghdad in Saladin Province. Sarhang Hamasaeed, a senior program officer for the Middle East and Africa, considers the factors at play and the risks ahead.
What is significance of the Tikrit offensive?
A: Regaining territory from the Islamic State would be a big victory for the Iraqi security forces. But it also effectively would mean a Shia-dominated force taking over a predominantly Sunni area. The operation is being conducted by the majority-Shia Iraqi Army with Shia militias and Sunni volunteers, and there are rumors and mixed news reports on the degree of Iranian involvement, including whether the offensive is being led in part by General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's special operations Quds Force. So the operation also carries symbolic significance because Iran fought Iraq an eight-year war under Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni.
If the offensive drives out the Sunni-led Islamic State, the question is who will dominate afterwards and will there be civilian atrocities by the Shia militias like those reported in a recent operation in Diyala. That might spark a backlash and complicate future operations to recapture ground from the Islamic State. The estimated 2,000 Sunni tribesmen taking part in the overall offensive are intended mainly to help hold whatever ground is captured to reduce potential tensions, but it’s unclear whether that will be sufficient.
On the other hand, if the offensive is a huge success with support mainly from Iran rather than the United States, the Iraqi government might be tempted to take the same route in the future, reducing U.S. influence. One other factor is the degree of destruction involved in the operation; that will determine how difficult it will be to reconstitute those communities and ultimately achieve some kind of reconciliation.
Will Prime Minister Abadi be able to achieve inclusive decision-making and the political reforms needed to stabilize relations among Iraq’s various factions?
A: Concerns are building about that, because many leading Shia groups may not be interested in an inclusive Iraq. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is perceived as leading efforts to undermine Prime Minister Abadi. It really very much depends on the Iranians. If they do not see Maliki’s efforts undermining their vision of Iraq, I think nobody will be able to touch Maliki. And so far they’re keeping their options open, because they don’t know how far Abadi will slide into the U.S. camp.
On the other hand, it is unclear how the engagement of the Sunnis and Kurds with Baghdad will change once the common danger of the Islamic State subsides. There is no guarantee that collaboration on security will translate to sustained political breakthrough. Regional powers – e.g. Turkey and the Gulf States – may engage more actively to counter the Iranian influence, which will likely adversely affect relations among the various factions.
How would you gauge Abadi’s power?
Even though he is very much welcomed by international and some regional powers, he is weaker than when Maliki took power eight years ago. At that time, Maliki had the full support of the Iraqi Army and the international community, especially coalition forces. Today, basically Abadi is standing on quicksand, because many of the fighting forces have loyalties to others, state institutions are weak, alliances could shift, and deals that led to forming the government are fragile.
"The Kurds and Sunnis’ honeymoon with the country’s Shia-majority leadership may be about to come to an end."
Abadi’s government also has run out of time on the three months the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) gave him last year to deliver on pledges related to national-revenue sharing, oil and gas issues, and disputed territories. The government in Baghdad argues the KRG didn’t reach the oil-production threshold of 550,000 barrels per day set in their December agreement. So far, the KRG has allowed extra time because they need working relations with Baghdad to keep international support flowing to the Kurdistan Region as they fight the Islamic State and much-needed funds from Baghdad resume. Time is an issue with the Sunnis as well, because they feel promised reforms are slow in coming and that their tribes are not receiving sufficient military support to fight the Islamic State group, and, further, that their leaders and constituents are being targeted. The Kurds and Sunnis’ honeymoon with the country’s Shia-majority leadership may be about to come to an end.
What other tests will Iraq face this year?
A: Maintaining the fight and managing the liberated areas will be a huge test in several ways. One question is how much revenge killing will occur between those who allied with the Islamic State and returnees who had been driven out, or among anti-Islamic State forces. If this happens, those areas could spiral out of control not because of the Islamic State’s presence but because of internal fighting.
Another issue is the Iraqi government’s ability to provide services, not only in those areas but also in the country’s South, such as in Basra, because of revenue shortfalls caused by plummeting prices for Iraq’s oil combined with the many financial demands. The financial costs of the violence are skyrocketing, including providing aid for some 2.2 million people who fled their homes and the training and equipping of new forces to confront the Islamic State. So that creates the risk of massive public dissatisfaction either with austerity measure or a failure to deliver services.
The third threat is that of further clashes among the victorious forces, such as the Kurds or the Shia militias, once they drive out the Islamic State militants from an area. The Iranians may have an interest in preventing that kind of deterioration to maintain the perception of restored stability.
More broadly, there is a risk of Iraq being torn between the interests of regional powers, represented by the Gulf countries, Turkey and Iran. Turkey may want to keep the varying factions in Iraq under control, especially the KRG because of its ties with the Kurds of Turkey who are fighting for independence or autonomy. The Gulf states are unlikely to tolerate increasing Iranian influence, and may increase efforts to counter it.
What are a couple of steps USIP is taking to ease the risks of violence in Iraq?
A: At the local level, USIP continues to work with the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities (AIM) to start talking early on about the risk of a cycle of violence if people blame entire groups, such as an entire sectarian group or tribe, for atrocities committed by individuals. Minority groups such as the Yazidis who were massacred or driven to Sinjar mountain by the Islamic State last year have been devastated by this wave of violence. Cases of revenge killings there and other areas are already making news. So our goal is to work with Iraqi minorities either in areas where they are seeking haven or when they return to their homes, to ease internal tensions and prevent clashes with other groups.
Second, a team from USIP is working with two Iraqi partner organizations, Sanad for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF), to meet with Shia and Sunni tribal and political leaders to try to forestall a cycle of revenge over a June 2014 massacre at the Iraqi Army’s Camp Speicher near Tikrit. An uncertain number of Shia soldiers were reportedly executed by the Islamic State, but later reports blamed local Sunni tribes. Different politicians, including allies to former Prime Minister Maliki, have tried to seize on that, which many interpret as attempts to stir trouble throughout the country. We’re trying to identify leaders on both sides who can communicate directly rather than relying on rumors or inflammatory media.
How can the U.S. and other outside parties be most helpful?
A: It’s important that the international community maintains focus on the zones of conflict, even as they have to deal with violent extremist threats at home, such as the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. The social and political factors that produced the Islamic State also need attention; military victories are not enough, and civil society needs support because non-governmental organizations are still a new concept so local funding is hard to find.
With the plunge in oil prices in the past six months, Iraq doesn’t have the resources it once had, and the costs of recovery are mounting day by day. They also need technical assistance to cope with the varying demands of reform and provision of public services. Even when they have the money, they don’t have the know-how they need.
Also, whatever commitments are made by parties on the ground to resolve any burning issues, the international community can work with factions to make sure those commitments are carried out, such as inclusive government, reintegration of civilians who were forced from their homes by the fighting and support for reconstruction in Sunni areas.
Can Iraq possibly hold together through all this?
A: Iraq is decentralizing by default rather than by any managed process. That trend adds not only to the risk of breakup, but also to the increasing instability even within each of the 18 provinces, as the powerbrokers who are losing national prominence jockey for authority more locally. The competition over power, increasing militarization in the country, lack of sufficient local government capacity and resources, and already existing public dissatisfaction with government delivery of services and corruption are ingredients for provincial instability. We need to pay attention to areas outside the Islamic State “hot zones,” too.
While there are serious threats that Iraq faces, they also bring openings for positive advances if Iraqi leaders, regional powers and the international community work together to seize them. There is way to build on the security collaboration among the different actors, as well as reform laws and institutions to address deep-rooted ethno-sectarian fears and reduce corruption. Ultimately, such actions could improve relations between the Iraqi people and the state.