August 2021 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 July 2021
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MIDDLE EAST

Iraq

Expected Council Action 

In August, the Security Council is expected to receive a briefing from the Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on the most recent developments in Iraq and the Secretary-General’s two upcoming reports concerning UNAMI and missing Kuwaiti property and missing third party and Kuwaiti nationals. Both reports are due in August. The briefing will be followed by closed consultations. 

Key Recent Developments 

Tensions have risen in Iraq in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 10 October, stemming particularly from domestic unrest and an exchange of attacks between militias and US-led forces. On 6 June, two drones were shot down above al-Asad airbase in western Iraq, which is currently housing US troops, by the US military’s C-RAM defence system. Earlier on the same day, a rocket above Baghdad airport was also shot down by the US military. On 9 June, there were two separate attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting US-led coalition troops and US contractors. The first of these attacks targeted a military base near Baghdad airport, using drones laden with explosives. In the second attack, three rockets struck Balad airbase, which is used by the US company Sallyport to service F-16 fighter jets flown by the Iraqi air force. There were no casualties in either attack.  

On 26 June, the US carried out airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The strikes targeted two Iranian-backed militias, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the Pentagon blamed for organising drone strikes against US personnel in Iraq. Seven militia fighters were killed and at least six more were wounded during the raids, which also sparked an exchange of fire between the militias and US-led forces in eastern Syria. In a 29 June letter to the Council, the US noted that the airstrikes were intended to deter Iran and Iran-backed militia groups “from conducting or supporting further attacks on [US] personnel or facilities”. On 7 July, 14 rockets struck the al-Asad airbase, resulting in minor injuries to two US personnel. On the same day, a drone attack targeted Erbil airport in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Although the attack was aimed at the US base on the airport’s grounds, it reportedly caused no damage and there were no casualties. The following day, two rockets were fired at the US embassy in Baghdad. One was diverted by the embassy’s rocket defence system while the second fell near the perimeter of Baghdad’s Green Zone, an area in central Baghdad that includes the US embassy. On 19 July, a roadside bomb attack in Baghdad killed at least 25 people and wounded 50 others.   

The recent spate of attacks on US interests has increased the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to expel the US military from Iraq. Following a 15 July meeting in Baghdad with Brett McGurk, the White House’s coordinator for Middle East policy, al-Kadhimi’s office issued a statement indicating that they had discussed “mechanisms for withdrawing combat forces from Iraq and moving to a new phase of strategic cooperation”. During a 26 July meeting with al-Kadhimi, US President Joe Biden announced that that the US combat mission in Iraq would conclude by the end of 2021. He also said, however, that the US military would continue to work with Iraqi forces in their fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and that US troops will “be available to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with [ISIL]”. According to US officials, the announcement will not lead to a significant reduction in the number of US troops in Iraq or a fundamental change in their mission.  

Preparations for the October elections have been disrupted by Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s 15 July announcement that he is withdrawing his support for the current government and will not participate in the polls. Al-Sadr currently controls the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament. In announcing his withdrawal, al-Sadr stated that Iraq was being subjected to a “satanic regional scheme to humiliate the country and bring it to its knees” and warned Iraqis not to “sell your homeland to the corrupt at any price”; some analysts have speculated, however, that al-Sadr is withdrawing in order to distance himself from the troubles that have plagued Iraq in recent months. In the aftermath of his announcement, hundreds of al-Sadr’s supporters across the country burned their electoral cards to demonstrate that they intend to boycott the elections. This development has further complicated efforts to build public confidence in the polls. Those efforts had already been hampered by attacks on activists connected to the protests that formed part of the Tishreen movement, which began in October 2019 and led to the elections being called. In an effort to bolster public confidence in the elections, the EU announced on 21 June that it will send election observers to Iraq to monitor the polls.  

Protests have continued to sweep Iraq in recent months. On 25 May, demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahir Square to demand accountability for attacks that have reportedly targeted more than 70 activists involved with the Tishreen movement through assassinations, attempted murders and abductions, seemingly with impunity. One protestor was killed and dozens more were injured during these protests. Similar protests took place on 18 July, when hundreds of Iraqis assembled in Baghdad to call for accountability for the murders of civil society activists. In early July, significant demonstrations in reaction to widespread power outages erupted in Baghdad and cities in Iraq’s southern provinces, including Basra, where protesters gathered in front of the main electricity company’s office to demand better service. Demonstrators also took to the streets in Nasiriya to protest government corruption following a fire that tore through the COVID-19 ward of a local hospital, which resulted in 92 deaths and more than 100 injuries. 

Human Rights Related Developments 

On 12 May, the UN Human Rights Office and UNAMI issued a report that found that freedom of expression in the Kurdish region of Iraq was increasingly curtailed in the previous year. The report documented a pattern of targeting people for reporting on or criticising the actions of public authorities. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, noted that the “the pattern of repression documented in this report is deeply worrying, highlighting not only the threats and intimidation of critics, but also the chilling effect such actions can have on others seeking transparency and to hold public authorities to account”. The report called on the regional authorities to take immediate steps to fully protect the right to freedom of expression and to end harassment, intimidation and reprisals against journalists, human rights defenders, and activists.   

Key Issues and Options 

Council members are following the political, security and humanitarian situations in Iraq closely. Following the briefing from Hennis-Plasschaert, Council members could issue a press statement addressing issues of concern to them, such as the importance of curtailing violence, promoting accountability and laying the groundwork for peaceful and fair elections.  

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 Iraq, as demonstrated by the recent attacks on US personnel and contractors and the US response to those attacks. The Iraqi government routinely states that it does not wish to become a theatre for Iran-US tensions. Turkey continues to conduct military operations against Kurdish positions in 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 the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). Ambassador Sven Jürgenson (Estonia) is the chair of the 1518 Iraq Sanctions Committee. 

UN DOCUMENTS ON IRAQ
Security Council Resolutions
27 May 2021S/RES/2576 This renewed the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) for one year with expiration on 27 May 2022.
18 September 2020S/RES/2544 This resolution renewed the mandate of UNITAD until 18 September 2021.
Security Council Letters
29 June 2021S/2021/614 This was a letter from US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield concerning the US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on 26 June.