February 2015 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 January 2015
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MIDDLE EAST

Iraq

Expected Council Action

In mid-February, Special Representative Nickolay Mladenov will brief the Council on the Secretary-General’s reports on the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and on Iraq’s compliance with resolution 1284 regarding the repatriation or return of Kuwaiti missing persons or property. UNAMI’s mandate expires on 31 July 2015. 

Key Recent Developments

The security situation in Iraq reached crisis levels with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) surprise takeover of Mosul in June 2014. Since then, what was already a dire situation has deteriorated into an even more widespread humanitarian and protection crisis. As a result of armed conflict or terrorist acts, a conservative estimate of 12,282 Iraqis died and 23,126 were injured in 2014—the highest levels since the all-out sectarian warfare of 2006 and 2007. As of January, the crisis has left 5.2 million Iraqis requiring aid and 2.1 million internally displaced. Humanitarian access to millions is severely restricted in areas controlled by ISIS and associated armed groups.

Shortly after the fall of Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—whose leadership was characterised by power consolidation and stoking of sectarian tension—resigned. Haider al-Abadi succeeded him in August 2014 with a mandate to form an inclusive government to unify Iraq’s Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish citizens. The government’s formation was completed on 18 October 2014, and Abadi’s announced priorities included fighting ISIS, tackling sectarian divisions, addressing corruption, restructuring the security forces and improving relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). 

When Mladenov last briefed the Security Council on 18 November 2014, he reported that while the destabilising presence of ISIS posed a very real threat to regional and global security, the formation of a unity government in Baghdad had averted the collapse of the Iraqi state.

There have been several significant developments during Abadi’s tenure to date. He removed 36 commanders from the Iraqi Security Forces, reportedly all Maliki loyalists. Abadi tackled corruption by purging the military payroll of 50,000 “ghost soldiers”—personnel who are dead, missing, absent or did not exist and whose “pay” was siphoned off by senior officers. Iraq’s finance minister has called for further reforms to address other pervasive forms of graft in the military—such as selling military materiel on the black market, which is how some US-provided arms have wound up in ISIS hands. The new unity government has tried to stem militia violence outside the command and control of Iraqi forces, and airstrikes against Sunni civilian areas in the western provinces have subsided.

Abadi also shepherded the breakthrough agreement between Baghdad and Erbil over oil exports and revenue sharing. On 2 December 2014, Baghdad and Erbil finalised their agreement to reinstate the KRG’s share of financial resources from the Iraqi budget, staving off the Kurdish push for independence. In return, the KRG will resume selling its oil via Baghdad and share revenue with the central government. (Maliki had cut off funds from Baghdad when agreement could not be reached in the 2014 budget regarding revenue sharing with Erbil. The KRG subsequently began selling its oil via Turkey, bypassing the central government.)

Shortly after this agreement was finalised, security cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil was significantly enhanced. In mid-December 2014, Kurdish peshmerga forces launched an operation to retake Sinjar, which had been overrun by ISIS. The peshmerga broke ISIS’s siege of Mount Sinjar, where thousands of the Yazidi minority community had been trapped since August 2014. Nevertheless, ISIS has largely maintained control of the territory it captured in June 2014.

At a 3 December 2014 meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels and at a 22 January meeting in London, Abadi appealed to anti-ISIS coalition members to deliver more training and weapons to Iraq to counter ISIS. However, there are differences between Baghdad and Washington about Iraq’s readiness to execute a complex ground offensive against ISIS.

The US-led anti-ISIS airstrikes have stalled further advance by ISIS and have killed thousands of ISIS fighters as well as members of the group’s senior leadership. The containment of ISIS has also been sustained by Iraq’s reliance on Shi’a militias and the Kurdish peshmerga. What has been more difficult to secure in order to break the stalemate and tip the balance toward the government are a competent military and the cooperation of Sunni tribal fighters. In principle, Baghdad’s promises to support Sunni fighters against ISIS by arming them and absorbing them into a prospective national guard seem to offer a way forward. However, in practice, there is a deep distrust between Sunnis and the Shi’a-led government. Delivering on this promise is controversial in Baghdad and remains elusive in the near term since it is only envisioned as a step after Iraqi forces clear ISIS from the western provinces. Similarly, restructuring a notoriously corrupt military into a force trusted by all sects in Iraq and capable of retaking Mosul and Fallujah by the summer of 2015 seems equally challenging—especially when the actions of Iraqi Security Forces and associated Shi’a militias backed by Tehran demonstrate a bias towards protecting Baghdad.

Tehran has deepened its influence in Iraq following the fall of Mosul. Iranian military advisers helped organise Iraq’s Shi’a militias to stop ISIS’s advance to Baghdad. Iraq’s ministry of the interior went to a member of the Badr bloc—the political arm of a Tehran backed Shi’a militia. Media reports indicate Iran has sold Iraq $10 billion’s worth of arms over the past year and on 30 December the two countries formalised their military cooperation to rebuild Iraq’s army. 

Tehran has also conducted its own airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Iraq near the border with Iran, most recently in early December 2014. The US-led coalition does not coordinate its airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq with Iran—explicit military cooperation between Tehran and Washington would be impossible given the Iranian nuclear file and Iran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.  Nevertheless, both countries have long-term interests at stake in Iraq and both rely on Baghdad to ensure that their respective anti-ISIS airstrikes do not conflict. (A similar tack the US-led coalition takes with Damascus vis-à-vis its anti-ISIS strikes in Syria.)

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein briefed the Council on 18 November 2014 along with Mladenov. He reported severe and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws perpetrated by ISIS and associated armed groups in northern Iraq, including wanton killings and summary public executions; abductions, rape and enslavement of women and young girls, with reports of girls and women being openly sold at slave markets; brutal violence and the forced recruitment of children as young as 12; and deliberate persecution of ethnic and religious groups. He added that Iraqi Security Forces and affiliated armed groups had also violated human rights and that the conduct of particular military operations, including air strikes and shelling, may have also violated the principles of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law.

The Security Council had previously condemned such human rights violations in a 31 October 2014 press statement, in particular ISIS’s massacre of 322 members of the Al Bu Nimr tribe who cooperated with the government against ISIS in Anbar province. Media reports indicate that the lack of government action to stop the massacre has undermined its ability to convince other powerful Sunni tribes to take an active anti-ISIS stance. 

Iraq has suffered a fiscal setback due to the 2014 budget impasse over Kurdish oil exports, ISIS’s massive looting of Mosul’s banks and plummeting global oil prices. As a result, Iraq requested that its final reparation payment to Kuwait, due in 2015, be postponed until 2016. The UN Compensation Commission agreed to the request on 18 December 2014.

Sanctions-Related Developments

The 1737 Iran Sanctions Committee met on 8 December to consider the mid-term report from its Panel of Experts.  It seems this report indicated that Qassem Soleimani, an influential member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been in Iraq in violation of a travel ban imposed by the Security Council.

Human Rights-Related Developments

In a press briefing on 20 January, the spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights drew attention to the establishment by ISIS of unlawful, so-called “shari’a courts” in the territory under its control. These “courts” have ordered cruel and inhuman punishments for men, women and children accused of violating the group’s extremist interpretation of Islamic law or for suspected disloyalty. Recent examples include two men who were “crucified” after they were accused of banditry and a woman who was stoned to death for alleged adultery. In addition, there were reports that educated women, particularly women who have run as candidates in elections for public office, have been targeted, with three female lawyers executed in the first two weeks of the year. 

Civilians suspected of violating ISIS’s rules or who are suspected of supporting the Iraqi government have also been victims. Four doctors were killed in central Mosul, allegedly after refusing to treat ISIS fighters; 15 civilians from the Jumaili Sunni Arab tribe were executed on 1 January in Fallujah for their suspected cooperation with Iraqi Security Forces; and on 9 January, at least 14 men were executed in a public square in Dour, north of Tikrit, for refusing to pledge allegiance to ISIS.

Key Issues

The key issue for the Council is supporting an inclusive government in order to avert the territorial and political disintegration of Iraq, which could have catastrophic implications for regional and international security.

Another issue is how to address the mutually destabilising impact of the Syrian civil war and the Iraq crisis beyond the US-led anti-ISIS operations in both countries.

Options

Aside from following the situation in Iraq through briefings, options seem limited since the security response to ISIS is happening outside the Council’s purview.

Council Dynamics

Council members uniformly support UNAMI’s mandate, which they believe is broad enough and flexible enough to allow Mladenov to fulfil the mission’s good-offices role.

Despite a flurry of activity in the latter half of 2014 in response to the spread of ISIS, Council members have quickly reverted to a “wait-and-see” mode on Iraq. Except through the lens of counter-terrorism, Council members have been unable to approach the connected crises in Iraq and Syria holistically. It is likely that they will continue to treat the two situations as discrete issues. Condemning the Tehran-backed regime in Damascus is difficult to reconcile with supporting the Tehran- and US-backed government in Baghdad. 

Council members France, Jordan, Lithuania, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US are part of the anti-ISIS coalition—though not all directly participate in air strikes.

The US is the penholder on Iraq issues in general, and the UK is the penholder on Iraq-Kuwait issues.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolution
30 July 2014 S/RES/2169 This resolution renewed UNAMI for a year and increased the reporting period to every three months versus every four months.
Security Council Press Statement
31 October 2014 SC/11625 Condemned the murder by ISIS of Sunni tribesmen in Anbar Province whose bodies were found in a mass grave, these tribesmen had been cooperating with the government in the fight against ISIS. Welcomed the completion of the formation of an inclusive government representing all segments of the Iraqi population.
Security Council Letter
19 December 2014 S/2014/961 This was UN Compensation Council’s decision to allow Iraq to postpone its final payment to Kuwait until 2016.
Security Council Meeting Record
18 November 2014 S/PV.7314 This was the quarterly briefing on Iraq.
Secretary-General’s Reports
31 October 2014 S/2014/776 This was the report on Iraq/Kuwait missing persons and property.
31 October 2014 S/2014/774 This was the Secretary General’s report on UNAMI.