A year after Iraqis took to the street, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says, “The spirits of the protest remain strong,” but that reforms undertaken so far don’t match the scale of the crises facing Iraq: “...
Iraqis hit the streets in unprecedented numbers last October, calling for political and economic reforms, greater job opportunities for youth, and better government services. In the year since, the country has been rocked by a number of developments, including growing U.S.-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil, the COVID pandemic, and increasing citizen disenchantment with the country’s political system and its sectarian foundation. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed and Elie Abouaoun look at where Iraq’s protest movement stands today, the economic impact of COVID, the prime minister’s call for early elections, and U.S.-Iraq relations.
Iraq and the United States have launched a reset in relations, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussain said in a USIP forum August 20. Following at least a year of strain in bilateral ties, this week’s negotiations in Washington will produce a broader relationship than previously, “not only limited to security matters,” Hussain said during an official visit alongside Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi just 15 weeks after he and his government took office. Their talks at the White House, State Department and with other officials will be vital in setting the next chapter of U.S-Iraq relations.
As Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi makes his first official visit to Washington, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says the trip is a chance to reset relations between the two countries, but “it’s really important to not define the relationship … just in terms of security,” and also focus on Iraq’s economic challenges and recovery from ISIS.
The Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq over a year ago, is determined to regain territory in the region. It will take a combination of military and financial pressure, attention to public grievances, and the repatriation and rehabilitation of people who lived or fought with ISIS—as well as those who were subjugated by them—to foil the militant group’s ambitions, according to senior U.S. officials. This already tall ask has been made even more challenging by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iraq’s social and political landscape has changed drastically after an escalation of regional and global power competition, the COVID-19-induced health and economic crises, and the unprecedented uprising by peaceful demonstrators in October 2019 that led to formation of a new government. These developments have exacerbated long-standing ten-sions, feeding public distrust in the state and tribal violence in the south. They have also detrimentally affected minority communities, especially in ISIS-affected areas, creating openings for ISIS remnants to step up attacks and contributing to continued internal displacement of over one million persons.
Amid the global pandemic, ISIS and the havoc it still wreaks have largely fallen out of the headlines. Nonetheless, the terrorist group’s genocidal march against Iraqi minorities has continued. In Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, ISIS has targeted the Kakai minority with multiple, vicious attacks. The plight of the Kakai community in Iraq is a microcosm of the larger existential challenges Iraq faces. Ethnic and sectarian divides have been a flashpoint for conflict and division for decades. For Iraq to move past the wreckage of ISIS, prevent the terrorist group’s resurgence, and advance its struggling democracy, the Kakai must not only be protected but woven more meaningfully into the diverse tapestry that is Iraq—and the United States has the opportunity to help.
The assassination of our colleague and friend Husham al-Hashimi by unidentified gunmen in Iraq comes as a shock to those who knew him, and to those who did not. Not because assassinations in Iraq are unfamiliar, but rather for other reasons, the most important being Husham’s personality, his experience, ethics, and dedication to the cause of peace in his country; also because of the optimism felt by many after Mustafa al-Kadhimi took over as prime minister and the measures he undertook.
In 2014, Islamic State militants committed genocide against religious and ethnic minorities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, across northern Iraq. Kidnapping, rape, and murder marked this campaign of terror; thousands fled their homes. Six years later, with ISIS defeated militarily and its leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, dead following a U.S. raid, many displaced Iraqis have yet to return to their homes. The obstacles they face range from bureaucracy to a fear for their lives amid signs of an ISIS resurgence to Turkish airstrikes against groups Ankara sees as threatening its national interest.
As the United States and Iraq engage in important talks this month, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says the focus should be “Iraq-centric policy,” even as Baghdad “is under a lot of pressure from Iran and its allies … to use the dialogue to put pressure on the United States to withdraw its troops and limit U.S. influence.”