Expected Council Action
In mid-July, Special Representative Nickolay Mladenov will brief the Council. Deliberations will likely focus on the prospects of forming a unity government and the security implications of the seizure of north-western Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the territorial consolidation of Kurdistan.
The Secretary-General’s report on the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) will also be presented, and the mission’s mandate, which expires on 31 July, will likely be renewed for a year.
Council members are also due to receive a report on Iraq’s compliance with resolution 1284 regarding the repatriation or return of Kuwaiti missing persons or property.
Background and Key Recent Developments
An already dire security situation in Iraq reached crisis levels when ISIS spearheaded its surprise takeover of Mosul on 10 June. This crisis was preceded by almost daily coordinated and sectarian attacks in 2013 and 2014 against civilians, law enforcement personnel and government officials in the lead-up to the 30 April elections. According to UNAMI, at least 7,818 civilians were killed in 2013, compared to 3,238 in 2012. The death toll continues to climb in 2014, with UNAMI reporting a minimum of 4,000 civilians and 698 members of the Iraqi security forces already killed by the end of June. The UK-based Iraq Body Count project puts civilian deaths in 2014 at 8,266.
In Anbar province, ISIS has been in control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi since December 2013 and had been expanding its presence in Nineveh province for several months before its takeover of Mosul. (Anbar and Nineveh provinces make up the entire western border of Iraq with Syria and Jordan.) The ongoing expansion of territorial control by ISIS in a contiguous area of eastern Syria and north-western Iraq has been possible because of a power vacuum in eastern Syria, where the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has neither the inclination nor the capacity to launch major counter-terrorism efforts, and severe sectarian political divisions in Iraq, which have been exacerbated by the lack of security following the US withdrawal in 2011 and the sectarian policies of the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The recent tension is linked to a government crackdown against Sunni protests that began in April 2013, largely due to the fact that the Shi’a-led government was consolidating its hold on power. It is also linked to the anti-terrorism laws that led to mass sweeps and detention of Sunnis. This has been compounded by the heavy-handed Iraqi military assault on Fallujah to rout ISIS, including aerial bombardment of residential areas. These military operations and the government’s sectarian policies have left large parts of the Sunni population estranged and with little confidence in the government’s willingness or ability to protect their interests or their lives. Civilian displacement has been severe, with more than 427,000 people in Anbar province uprooted in the course of six months, and media reports indicate up to 500,000 have fled Mosul since the ISIS offensive began in earnest on 5 June.
In light of these developments, Mladenov briefed Council members twice in June. On 4 June, he reported that the 30 April elections gave Maliki 92 of 328 seats in parliament—the largest number of seats but not the majority needed to ensure Maliki a third term as prime minister without having to form a coalition with Kurds and Sunnis. The Council issued a press statement the next day praising the completion of the election process, calling for an inclusive government and encouraging a humanitarian response to the situation in Anbar. While Mladenov made clear that Iraq was facing grave challenges, no one anticipated he would brief the Council a week later on the possible unravelling of the state.
Council members issued a press statement on 11 June deploring the fall of Mosul. The previous day Maliki called an emergency session of parliament for 12 June to declare a state of emergency. A quorum could not be reached because a significant majority of the Kurd and Sunni blocs boycotted the session; they were extremely wary of granting Maliki even more extraordinary and authoritarian powers.
Mladenov briefed Council members on 12 June directly after the boycotted parliament session and two days after Mosul fell to ISIS in an offensive that began on 5 June in Samarra. Fighting continues in Samarra, which has become a front line for the Maliki government. Fighting is also ongoing for the strategic city and refinery of Baiji, the largest in Iraq. Although it mainly supplies domestic markets in the north, its loss to ISIS would be a blow to the Maliki government, potentially affecting fuel supplies further south.
In Mosul, ISIS fighters took control of government buildings, including the regional headquarters of the central bank, and military bases stocked with US-provided arms, munitions and equipment. ISIS released thousands of prisoners from city jails, some of whom may potentially join their ranks. ISIS claims to have already transported large weapons caches and armoured vehicles back to Syria.
Iraqi forces fled Mosul, offering very little resistance to an attack by only approximately 800 to 2,000 ISIS fighters. Mladenov attributed the disintegration of Iraqi forces in Mosul to several factors: two senior generals abandoned their posts, forces were overstretched due to fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi, and two longstanding issues played a part, namely corruption and the force structure, by which troops were deployed to areas where they had little or no affiliation with the local population. Meanwhile, ISIS cannot maintain control of seized territory in isolation from other Sunni groups. It needs active cooperation in the areas from which it stages its operations. Former Baathist military commanders with ties to the areas under insurgent control, including former Vice-President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, are part of the fight against the government. While there was a disintegration of state authority in the north, Mladenov said it was not a countrywide phenomenon as forces largely withdrew from Anbar and Nineveh provinces to secure Baghdad.
After the fall of Mosul, ISIS and other groups continued to make gains, including taking control of western border crossings. By 23 June, ISIS had seized control of a Syrian border crossing. Baghdad and ISIS both claim they are in control of the single crossing into Jordan and another into Syria. Jordan, anticipating such a development, had already increased its security forces on the border with Iraq to prevent the spread of ISIS into Jordan. Analysts think ISIS is aware it would be a tactical error to spread its operations into Jordan. Such a move would likely clarify the true US red line in terms of the regional balance of power.
Similarly, ISIS does not seem to be encroaching on areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and protected by its highly disciplined Peshmerga forces. The KRG has secured and expanded its borders, taking control of a border crossing with Syria and the long-disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk on 12 June after Iraqi troops melted away. Any potential for military cooperation between the central government and the KRG against ISIS and Sunni forces may involve Baghdad’s acquiescing to the KRG’s pursuit of unilateral oil and gas deals. On 22 May and 9 June—before the fall of Mosul—the KRG piped crude oil to Ceyhan in Turkey, bypassing the central government. This action raised fears in Baghdad that such economic independence would lead to a broader declaration of independence, and Iraq threatened legal action against any buyer. On 20 June, Israel received a first shipment of this disputed oil.
Recent events may force Baghdad to seek cooperation with the KRG nonetheless, and it is expected that KRG oil exports will be used as political leverage during discussions to form a new national government. On the other hand, having captured Kirkuk and secured independent export capacity, the KRG has less incentive to join the central government and may be looking to unilaterally declare independence. US Secretary of State John Kerry met with KRG President Massoud Barzani on 24 June in an attempt to persuade him to participate in the political process in Baghdad.
Iraq relies on good relations with both Iran and the US, and Maliki has asked “friendly governments” for help. On 16 June, Iran and the US informally and briefly discussed Iraq on the sidelines of talks on the nuclear file. Both have reportedly deployed reconnaissance drones to gather intelligence, but not necessarily in coordination.
On 19 June, the US said it would send 300 military advisers, including elite Green Beret commando units, to Baghdad and was prepared to take targeted military action if necessary. However, US President Barack Obama said that US troops would not return to combat in Iraq and that Iraq needed a leader who could deliver an inclusive political solution. Kerry underscored those messages to Maliki during a 23 June visit to Baghdad.
Iran continues to be an ally of the Maliki government but has expressed opposition to any US military intervention. Iran is seriously concerned about the Sunni threat that ISIS poses to Iraq, has positioned troops along the joint border and authorised air strikes if ISIS forces come within 60 miles of the border. It is widely reported in the media that Islamic Revolutionary Guard units from Iran are in Iraq helping to organise the security forces and Shi’a militias—including members of Hezbollah.
It may be difficult for Maliki to stay in power given the high level of distrust Kurds and Sunnis have in his leadership. Furthermore, there are significant challenges to Iraq’s unity, including KRG threats to peel even further away from the central government as well as re-emerging splits in the Shi’a base. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shi’a religious authority in Iraq, has activated militias to support Iraq in fighting ISIS. However, Sistani also delivered a thinly veiled criticism of Maliki by calling for a government that has broad national support and avoids past mistakes. Moktada al-Sadr, a powerful Shi’a cleric heading the large and experienced Mahdi Army, vowed his forces would never be under government control. However, Iran is still clearly backing Maliki and his address to the nation on 25 June gave no indication he was willing to concede his electoral advantage in forming the government, a process expected to begin on 1 July.
Human Rights-Related Developments
In a 13 June statement, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed extreme alarm at the dramatic deterioration in the situation in Iraq as forces allied with ISIS overran a succession of major population centres. Hundreds were killed and half a million people were displaced. Pillay warned of the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the crossfire, targeted in direct attacks by armed groups or trapped in ISIS-controlled areas. Humanitarian access was also a major concern. She reminded the parties of their obligations under international law to treat troops who have laid down their arms humanely and to observe the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. On 16 June, Pillay condemned the series of executions by forces affiliated with ISIS of hundreds of non-combatant men in the previous five days and of religious leaders on 12 and 14 June.
The key issue for the Council is averting the territorial and political disintegration of Iraq, which would have major negative implications for regional and international security.
Another immediate issue is how the Council can bolster counter-terrorism efforts to curtail the spread of ISIS. Related to this is whether and how to address the mutually destabilising impact of the Syrian civil war and the Iraq crisis—in particular, ISIS operations in both countries.
A more manageable issue for the Council is determining how UNAMI can contribute to a political process that yields an inclusive government and responds more effectively to the humanitarian crisis and sectarian tension.
UNAMI’s mandate has not significantly changed since the adoption of resolution 1770 in 2007. One option is to adopt a resolution that does little more than renew this existing mandate without adjustment.
While UNAMI is a political mission not equipped to operationally address the various and very serious security issues, another option is to adopt a resolution mandating UNAMI to provide better capacity to address the cross-pollination of the crises in Iraq and Syria, support the establishment of a more inclusive political system and facilitate a humanitarian response.
As for countering ISIS, the Council could include in the UNAMI renewal a substantial reference to resolution 1618 adopted on 4 August 2005 specifically on terrorism in Iraq. Such language could include a strong reaffirmation of member states’ obligations to prevent the transit of terrorists, prevent arms and financing that would support terrorists and emphasise the importance of strengthening the cooperation of the countries in the region, particularly neighbours of Iraq.
While ISIS has been listed under the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida sanctions regime, in practice the Council has done very little to follow-up resolution 1618 on the specific threat of terrorism in Iraq. A further option would be to review, revise and revive the use of the 1518 Iraq Sanctions Committee—which for all practical purposes is defunct and was only ever used to sanction Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime—to now target high-level ISIS fighters and supporters.
Council members have found that publicly addressing the growing violence in Iraq in the past has been difficult, primarily because of US sensitivities related to its 2003 invasion and 2011 withdrawal. Recently, Council members issued two press statements on ISIS and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq—about conditions in Anbar province on 5 June and about the fall of Mosul on 11 June—and were briefed in consultations on 23 June on the wider threat of terrorism in the region. This increase in Council attention contrasts with the routine and at times tangential consideration of the situation in Iraq every four months that has characterised the Council for years, despite repeated warning signs of growing authoritarian tendencies by Maliki, increasing threats from ISIS and other centripetal forces challenging or gnawing at territorial integrity.
This increased attention could signal that, given the political, humanitarian and regional implications of territorial seizures by ISIS and the KRG and pronounced sectarian violence, Council members may be looking to increase engagement on Iraq. Some members have indicated it may be necessary to take stock and deliver a more strategic response before the 31 July renewal of UNAMI.
Some Council members have noted that the same coherence with which the Council approaches the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon needs to be similarly brought to bear on the Council’s approach to Iraq. Mladenov has repeatedly stated that Iraq and Syria are becoming one battleground, and some members feel that the Council should have the capacity to look at these issues holistically. These Council members have expressed concern that treating Iraq and Syria as discrete situations is not a sustainable approach.
On the political front, some members have found it difficult to formulate a Council response to the government-formation process beyond the routine call for an inclusive government. Some Council members are concerned that a display of support at this juncture might be misinterpreted as support for Maliki.
The Council continues to remain impervious to the independent oil exports from the KRG which pose mounting challenges to the authority of the central government. (Since 2007, the KRG has signed exploration and production agreements with many foreign companies, including Chevron and Exxon of the US and Total of France.)
The US is the penholder on Iraq issues in general, and the UK is the penholder on Iraq-Kuwait issues.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|24 July 2013 S/RES/2110||This resolution extended the mandate of UNAMI until 31 July 2014.|
|4 August 2005 S/RES/1618||This resolution was related to terrorism in Iraq.|
|Security Council Presidential Statement|
|10 January 2014 S/PRST/2014/1||This was a presidential statement supporting government efforts to address the security situation and condemning attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaida affiliate ISIL.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|11 June 2014 SC/11437||Deplored the takeover of Mosul by ISIS.|
|5 June 2014 SC/11430||Praised the completion of the election process, called for an inclusive government and encouraged a humanitarian response to the situation in Anbar.|
|14 March 2014 S/2014/191||This was the Secretary-General’s Iraq/Kuwait missing persons and property report.|
|14 March 2014 S/2014/190||This was the Secretary-General’s UNAMI report.|