Iraq & Kurdistan

Our author explains the intricate rivalries and alliances that are currently defining Iraq’s future. Whether it is assessing the risks of giving old battles new energy — such as those between the Shi’a and Sunni Arabs or between the federal state and the Kurds — or the friction between different factions in both Baghdad and Irbil undermining one another, our Iraq & Kurdistan Focus publication is a vital asset to any current or future investors. To retrieve your free copy of the publication, then click the button below: 

Iraq & Kurdistan Overview

A Summary

The main challenge in Iraq is the low oil prices which, combined with corruption and mismanagement, have eroded the financial resources available to the economy.

The deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003 led to the Sunni-led insurgency against the nascent state; that insurgency caused an indiscriminate crackdown against the Sunnis by a government that was disproportionally Shi’a; the resentment that it created allowed for IS to facilitate its rise causing another war.

As Iraq’s problems mount and its economy weakens, its politicians have struggled to devise effective responses.

A divided polity

Significant progress has been made against IS, and the group is virtually defeated in Iraq but not yet in Syria. The country can, however, only ‘win’ the war if it plans for its aftermath. Already, there are signs that Iraq’s cycle of one crisis feeding into the next will sadly continue.

Defeat of IS promises to leave in its wake empowered Shi’a militias with no accountability; Kurdish forces that unilaterally occupy territory disputed with the Federal Government and threaten to secede; destroyed cities that the country cannot afford to re-build; and refugees that it cannot afford to assist.

If this occurs, Iraq’s downward spiral will continue and the country could find itself embroiled in other conflicts, such as between competing sectarian groups or between Kurdish and federal forces.

We believe that Iraq’s components — as well as its Turkish and Iranian neighbours who wield considerable influence — still retain their impetus towards unity along with a strong nationalistic feeling and a commitment to Iraq remaining as a unified state.

Iraqi politics and the debilitating effects of factionalism

Iraq’s factional politics may be debilitating, but it has become so thoroughly established as the basis of the state that it will be difficult to eradicate.

Iraq is so often characterised as being riven by tension between ‘Sunni’, ‘Shi’a’, and ‘Kurdish’ elements that the political tension within these groups, which is just as damaging, is overlooked.

Division among the KRG

The KRG is a case in point, as it is spoken of as being one of the most coherent areas of Iraq with armed forces – the peshmerga – that are the most effective in the country yet it is divided along factional lines.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the Erbil and Dohuk governorates, is the largest Kurdish party and is dominated by the Barzani family and wants to preserve the presidential system from which it benefits. In short, the KDP is the dominant power in the Kurdish region and, despite all the efforts to create a unified political system, it still controls the region’s key portfolios.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — which has long been the KDP’s main rival and traditionally considered more progressive — has come to be dominated by the Talibani family in recent years. It wants the presidential system reformed into a parliamentary one, which it believes will break some of the KDP’s.

These divisions have been further complicated by the emergence of the Goran party, which split from the PUK in 2007 and is also seeking to puncture KDP dominance.

These divisions are profound and increasingly bitter, and are paralysing the region’s political life.

Meanwhile President Barzani keeps rallying for Kurdish independence as has been show with the organisation of the independence referendum on 25 September 2017.

Divisions among Iraq’s Shi’a component

The divisions among Iraq’s Shi’a components are equally acute, hindering effective government.

The main Shi’a alliance, the National Alliance is riven with competing factions and personalities. The extent of these divisions has come to the fore as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who is from the Islamic Dawa Party, has sought to reform the quota system under which each party or grouping is awarded cabinet posts in line with their election performance.

Some of the big players in the Shi’a camp have stood against these reforms. These include the Al-Badr Organisation, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Al-Fadhila Party. Parts of Al-Abadi’s own party, namely those who support former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki — who is intent on undermining al-Abadi at every turn — have also tried to resist any reform of the system from which they have benefitted.

By contrast the Sadrist bloc, led by cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, has been leading the calls for reform, including demanding a technocrat government, with al-Sadr making use of his ability to mobilise the street, or at least the Shi’a street, to pressure for change.

Something clearly needs to change. Iraq’s citizens have suffered surging levels of violence and plummeting living standards, with millions living in poverty without access to adequate electricity, let alone education and healthcare.

Revolutionary change from above is required, but if this does not materialise revolutionary change from below is a real threat which could prove highly violent.

The best hope now is that Iraq’s politicians will force the change needed to take the country forwards with international support.

Solving the ‘Islamic State’ phenomenon

The emergence of IS didn’t suddenly cause a crisis in Iraq: it merely reflected a crisis that had been a decade in the making.

The group emerged from profound dysfunction within the Iraqi state, and the alienation felt by its Sunni Arab citizens in particular.

It spread because of corruption and in Iraq’s armed forces and because Iraq’s weak political system proved unable to respond adequately.

Local support provided IS with a non-hostile space from which it could operate and expand its influence and, significantly, many Sunni groups chose not to resist, preferring the risk of Sunni extremists to a Shi’a government that they did not trust.

Sectarianism, which is often exaggerated as a cause of tension within the MENA region, is profoundly relevant in Iraq.

So too is ethnic tension. The Kurds have their own autonomous region, and the Shi’a have a demographic majority that tends to safeguard their influence, but Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have neither. Reform in Iraq will need to address the sense of alienation that this had caused.

One of the most disruptive legacies of the fight against IS has been the extent to which it has empowered numerous, unaccountable Shi’a militias, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, some of which have indulged in acts of brutality in the Sunni areas where they had forced IS out of. The Sunnis are now also forming their own Mobilisation Forces in the name of fighting against IS. As such Iraq could end up with a parallel security sector that it cannot contain.

The IS struggle has also empowered the Kurdish forces, who have unilaterally occupied areas such as Kirkuk and Sinjar, the control of which they have long disputed with the Federal Government. Even the Shi’a or tribal elements in the country’s oil-producing Basra governorate in the south have been demanding more autonomy and the right to form their own local armed forces.

If even stable provinces feel compelled to follow the trend of arming themselves and entrenching their interests, Iraq’s unity and government will be undermined rather than protected.

IS has virtually been defeated in the past few months but, without substantial political reform, the end of the war is unlikely to bring about an end to violence.

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