Iraq After the Islamic State: A New Beginning?
15 Jan, 2019 · 5544
Report of the discussion held on 26 November 2018
On 26 November 2018, IPCS hosted Hayder al-Khoei, Research Director, Centre for Shia Studies, London, for a discussion, titled 'Iraq After the Islamic State: A New Beginning?'. This report provides an overview of the observations made during the interaction.
- Just as there were several factors that led to the emergence
of the so-called Islamic State (IS), there have been several factors that led
to its rapid decline. The most important aspects were the unprecedented
partnerships that came into being to defeat the IS. The US and Iran coordinated
their efforts in a tacit coalition. Additionally, Iraqi forces cooperated with
their Kurdish counterparts. Now that the IS has been defeated, these coalitions
of convenience may not last—an upshot that could adversely affect the security
situation in Iraq.
- With the self-proclaimed Caliphate gone, some Iraqi
officials worry about the re-emergence of a ‘jihadi civil war’ between the IS and al Qaeda (AQ). Both groups
have had conflicting strategies. The IS aims for direct territorial control, whereas
AQ prefers insurgent tactics. While the IS seemed to have won the debate by
conquering large parts of both Iraq and Syria, with the Caliphate gone, the
debate and competition could surface once again.
- There has also been widespread fear of a successor to the
IS, often dubbed ‘IS 2.0’. However, the various structural elements that
facilitated the rise of the IS—such as a security vacuum—are not present today.
Even the Iraqi Sunnis who had been misinformed and supported the group are now
unlikely to support the militants once again. When the IS first emerged in the
country, they were often viewed by the locals as tribal revolutionaries and not
as self-proclaimed Islamic puritans.
However, after having experienced life under the IS rule, the population
has largely turned against the group, making future popular support for the
militants doubtful. Hence, the emergence of an ‘IS 2.0’ with physical territorial
control seems unlikely.
- On the political front, there has been a fundamental shift
in Iraq’s political landscape. While traditionally the various parties united
in ethno-sectarian blocs (Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds) these blocs have
now split, creating inter-ethno-sectarian alliances. This is facilitating
intra-ethno-sectarian competition for the first time in the post-2003 history
of the country. One of the reasons for this change has been an increasing level
of awareness among the population that ethno-sectarian politics has not been
effective. Hence, mobilisation along these lines has become increasingly
difficult. Politicians who were once involved in the sectarian civil war
between 2006 and 2008 are now portraying themselves as staunch nationalists.
This shift demonstrates how politicians respond to the societal trends that
they believe would lead to optimal electoral success.
- Despite the defeat of the IS, Iraq still faces massive
challenges. Arguably the most important one is the fight against corruption.
Corruption is deeply entrenched in the political sphere in Iraq, and the new prime
minister will face challenges trying to tackle it. Corruption has also led to a
disenfranchised population, even amongst Shia Arabs who have formed the
government’s main constituency. By association, the Shia Arabs even seemed to
have been disenchanted with their Shia brethren from Iran. During protests this
year, some of them burned the Iranian consulate in Basra—sending a clear
message to Tehran. If the current government does not deliver on fighting
corruption, protests of this nature will continue.
- Another major challenge is from the Popular Mobilisation
Forces (PMF). When the IS occupied Mosul and was 35 kilometres north of
Baghdad, young Shia men were mobilised to prevent the fall of Baghdad. With the
IS largely defeated, 70,000 to 80,000 young battle-hardened men are moving back
home. With no enemy to fight or no private sector job prospects available,
tensions could come to the fore. The main factions of the PMF are also viewed as
groups that have strong loyalties towards Tehran. While some of these groups
have entered the political sphere, hardliners like the Kata’ib Hezbollah have
remained outside the institutional process. Arguably, it is groups like these
that will pose a major challenge to Iraqi security in the future.
- One of the dimensions that has not received as much
attention is the fact that despite being overrun by terrorists—after a long
period of strife in the post-Saddam Hussein era—the Iraqi economy has performed
reasonably well given the circumstances. This can be substantially attributed
to its oil sales. However, although the oil production and exports have
continued, the country’s economic woes are far from over.
- The Iraqi economy is conditioned by geography. Iraq is an
oil rich country, but 90 per cent of its oil is located in the deep south, in
Basra—a region that was not affected by the war with the IS or other insurgent
groups. The oil facilities remained well secured. The region’s relative
isolation from the rest of the country is more or less why Iraq could export
3-4 million barrels of oil every day while simultaneously fighting off an
existential threat such as the IS. In Iraq in 2014, foreign reserves were
depleted, the currency was on the brink of collapse, and the IS was 30-35
kilometres away from the capital. And yet the currency devaluation was
contained, and the reserves began to be replenished gradually. A lot of this
was to do with the prime minister’s handling of the economy. He enjoyed support
both internally and from outside; but this leads to another problem which the
government is currently facing.
- Today, Iraqis living in the south of the country are
increasingly feeling disenfranchised due to the low quality of their living
conditions. For instance, one of the issues over which there have been some
tensions is on the quality of water supplied to Iraq’s southern regions. Water
supplied to many homes in Basra is not potable. Iraqi citizens from the
country’s southern regions, such as residents of Basra, recognise that they are
essentially bankrolling the economy; ‘feeding’ the rest of the country through
oil production and sales; and that despite this, their living conditions are abysmal.
Few weeks ago, there were severe protests in the region on this matter.
- Regional and international powers are likely to continue
interfering in Iraq’s national politics. In addition to Iran—which has enjoyed
a strong relationship with Iraq since 2003—the new leadership in Saudi Arabia seems
to have set its eyes on the country. This engagement has been welcomed by the Iraqis,
even by the Iraqi Shia community. Shia politicians recognise that they ‘can’t
have all [their] eggs in the Iranian basket’ and that it is in Iraq’s best
interests to balance its ties with Iran by looking to the Arab world. Not only
figures like Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr but even pro-Iran hardliners have
visited Riyadh—a clear indication of this dynamic.
- Another actor that looks to counter Iran’s influence in the
country is the US. Recently, Washington re-imposed sanctions on Tehran by which
it hopes to reduce the latter’s influence in Baghdad. However, since 2003, no
matter what the US has tried in its attempts to curtail Iran’s influence in Iraq,
Iran has always outmanoeuvred them. The large porous border and
well-established smuggling routes between both countries make it difficult for
the US to prevent goods and currency from entering Iran. The US even had to
provide Iraq with a waiver to import Iranian gas used by Baghdad to generate
electricity. This is another indication of Baghdad’s dependence on its eastern
Rapporteured by Manuel Herrera, Research Intern, NSP, IPCS.
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