November 2020 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Iraq

Expected Council Action 

In November, the Security Council is expected to receive a briefing by the Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on the most recent developments in Iraq and on the two latest Secretary-General’s reportson UNAMI and on the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives. Both reports are due in November.  The fifth report of the Special Adviser and head of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) is also due in November. If the measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are still in place, the meetings are likely to be held as videoconferences.

UNAMI’s mandate expires on 31 May 2021 and the mandate of UNITAD expires on 18 September 2021. 

Key Recent Developments 

Attacks continue to be directed against the US military and diplomatic presence and the US-led Global Coalition against Da’esh (the Coalition) in Iraq. These attacks are usually not claimed by any groupThe US blames Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq and has attacked their bases in retaliation. The Coalition is represented by about 2,500 troops and the US has about 5,200 troops stationed in the country. On 9 September, the US military announced its intention to withdraw about 2,100 troops from Iraq. On 15 September, a British diplomatic convoy was targeted by a roadside bombing in Baghdad. In late September, the US increased its pressure on Iraq to ensure the protection of its sites, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to close the US Embassy in Baghdad, the largest US diplomatic mission globally. During a press conference at the Department of State on 14 October, Pompeo remarked positively upon efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to increase the number of Iraqi Security Forces for the protection of US diplomatic facilities.

One of the Iran-backed militias that the US has accused of perpetrating attacks against its personnel in Iraq is Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the US has designated a terrorist organisation. Kata’ib Hezbollah is part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), established in 2014 from different, mostly Iran-backed, Shia Muslim fighters to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Da’esh). Last July, then-Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi issued an executive order bringing the PMF under the exclusive control of the Iraqi state and ordering it to cut all links with political entities. He warned that armed groups operating outside the control of the Iraqi state were illegal and subject to prosecution.  

On 11 October, claiming to speak on behalf of groups of “resistance” against the US presence in Iraq, a spokesperson for Kata’ib Hezbollah stated that the group had suspended attacks on US forces, on the condition of a timetable to be put forward by the Iraqi government for US troop withdrawal. The group had not previously claimed responsibility for any such attacks. The spokesperson asked that the government implement a 5 January resolution adopted by the Iraqi parliament calling on foreign troops to leave Iraq. The resolution had been a reaction to the 3 January US strike near the Baghdad airport that killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy of the PMF. According to the online news site Middle East Eye, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered Kata’ib Hezbollah and other armed groups to cease attacks. 

At a press briefing after a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 22 October in London, al-Kadhimi was clear about the challenges Iraq is facing in trying to balance US and Iranian interests. He also reiterated his zero-tolerance policy towards armed groups operating outside of state control. Attempts to rein in the PMF can have severe consequences: for example, on 17 October, PMF supporters burned down the Baghdad headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party after a Kurdish former foreign minister of Iraq called upon the Iraqi government to rid the Green Zone in Baghdad of the PMF. 

According to the World Bank, Iraq’s growth is expected to decline by 9.5 percent this year. This would constitute Iraq’s worst economic performance since 2003. Iraq also continues to depend on electricity imports from Iran to meet around one-third of its electricity needs, for which the US regularly waives the sanctions it has imposed on Iran. During his official visit to Washington, DC, in August, al-Kadhimi signed a number of agreements with US energy companies. 

Renewed protests in different parts of the country on 26 October marked the first anniversary of a major wave of widespread popular protests demanding basic services and systemic changeThe protests ultimately led to the resignation of the Iraqi government last year. Since the start of the protests in October 2019, Iraqi authorities have used excessive force against protesters resulting in 490 deaths, and 7,783 injured, according to UNAMI statistics, and killings and enforced disappearances of activists have increased, with media reports connecting these crimes with some elements of the PMF. 

After two prime ministers-designate had withdrawn their candidacies, Iraqi President Barham Salih named al-Kadhimi as prime minister-designate on 9 April. He seemed to be acceptable to Iran and the US. He will hold the position until elections are held on 6 June 2021. In her latest briefing to the Council on 26 August, Hennis-Plasschaert emphasised that the Iraqi parliament has yet to decide on the delineation of constituencies and parliamentary seat apportionment. 

Regarding the relationship between the federal government of Iraq in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the “Sinjar Agreement” was signed on 9 October. On 3 August 2014, ISIL started its attack on the Sinjar district, home to the majority of the world’s Yazidis (a religious community believed to have been founded in the 11th century). The UN has classified the atrocities against the Yazidis that began with the 3 August 2014 attack as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Hennis-Plasschaert has emphasised in the past that the Yazidi community continues to suffer from insecurity, the absence of adequate services and the lack of a unified administration” and has routinely called upon Baghdad and Erbil (the capital of the Kurdistan region where Sinjar is located) to resolve their outstanding issues. The agreement intends to facilitate the return of IDPs, unify the administration in order to enable reconstruction efforts and establish a consolidated security force. Currently, a number of armed groups are active in Sinjar, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US, among others. UNAMI welcomed the agreement. 

Iraq continues to face significant challenges from ISIL or Da’esh in the form of an intensive rural insurgency as well as sporadic attacks in large cities, including Baghdad. 

COVID-19 case numbers in Iraq continue to rise sharply. As at 30 October, Iraq had 470,633 confirmed cases. 

Human Rights-Related Developments 

On 2 October, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, issued a joint statement with six other Human Rights Council-mandated special rapporteurs and working group members (Elizabeth Broderick, Melissa UpretiAlda FacioMeskerem Geset Techane, and Ivana Radačić of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls and AgnèCallamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) in response to the deadly Basra shooting in August of Dr. Riham Yaqoub and the attempted assassination of Lodya Remon Albarti. They called on the government of Iraq to investigate the killing and attempted killing of the two women human rights defenders. According to the statement, although all human rights defenders in Iraq face serious risks, women also face prejudice, exclusion by society and political leaders, physical attacks, and sexual violence, among other factors. The statement underscored that both attacks were entirely preventable, but “the State had done nothing to keep them safe”. The experts stressed that it was outrageous for women in Iraq to risk or lose their life to defend human rights. 

Key Issues and Options 

Council members are closely following the political, security and humanitarian situation in Iraq. After the briefing by Hennis-Plasschaert, Council members could issue press elements addressing issues of concern to them.  

Council and Wider Dynamics

Council members are generally unanimous in their support for UNAMI and positive developments in Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations. 

Regional dynamics continue to affect IraqThe government routinely says that Iraq has no intention of taking sides and becoming a theatre for Iran-US tensions. Turkey continues to conduct military operations against positions of the PKK in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, despite Iraq’s objections. 

The US is the penholder on Iraq issues in general, and the UK is the penholder on Iraqi-Kuwaiti issues and UNITAD. Ambassador Sven Jürgenson (Estonia) is the chair of the 1518 Iraq Sanctions Committee. 

UN DOCUMENTS ON IRAQ

Security Council Resolutions
18 September 2020S/RES/2544 This resolution renewed the mandate of UNITAD until 18 September 2021.
29 May 2020S/RES/2522 This resolution renewed the mandate of UNAMI until 21 May 2021.