IPCS Discussion

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 neighbour.

Rapporteured by Manuel Herrera, Research Intern, NSP, IPCS.