Expected Council Action
In February, the Council will hold an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on the situation in Iraq. Special Representative and Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert will brief the Council on recent developments in the country and on the Secretary-General’s latest reports on UNAMI and the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-party nationals and missing Kuwaiti property.
Key Recent Developments
The political and security situations in Iraq have grown increasingly volatile amidst regional spillover from the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Following Israel’s invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas’ 7 October 2023 attack, Iraqi militia groups—considered Iranian proxies forming part of the country’s “axis of resistance” across the region—have launched dozens of attacks on US assets in Iraq. These include 2,500 military advisers stationed there as part of the international coalition supporting the Iraqi government’s counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). In response, the US has launched several retaliatory strikes against the militias, including a 4 January drone strike in Baghdad that killed Abu Taqwa, a senior commander of the Harakat al-Nujaba militia, which is a member of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is a coalition of armed Shi’a groups that formed in response to the ISIL/Da’esh insurgency and that is now officially part of the country’s security apparatus, although the Iraqi military exerts limited operational control over the groups, which retain close ties to Tehran.
The Iraqi government condemned the 4 January strike as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. In a statement the day after the attack, the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani announced that the government is “setting the date for the start of the bilateral committee to put arrangements to end the presence” of international forces in Iraq. Subsequently, in a 25 January statement, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced that the US-Iraq Higher Military Commission—previously established in August 2023 to begin the process of phasing down the US-led military coalition—will start holding working group meetings in the coming days to “enable the transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership” between the countries. According to media reports, the US had initially demanded the cessation of Iran-backed attacks against its personnel as a precondition for beginning discussions on the drawdown of its military presence, but it has since dropped that demand amid concerns about further escalation in the region.
On 28 January, a drone strike hit a US military outpost in northeastern Jordan known as Tower 22, located close to the Iraqi and Syrian borders. The attack killed three US military personnel—the country’s first combat fatalities connected to the current regional crisis—and injured over 40 more. US officials have identified another Iran-backed Iraqi militia known as Kataib Hezbollah as the likely perpetrator of the attack. In a statement, US President Joseph Biden said that the country would hold those responsible to account. On 30 January, Kataib Hezbollah announced that the group would suspend further military operations against US forces in the region “in order to prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government”.
Tensions have also risen between Iraq and Iran. On 15 January, Iran launched several ballistic missiles against a target in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), killing at least four civilians. Statements by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed that the strikes targeted an Israeli “spy” facility and served as retaliation for the assassination of a senior IRGC commander in Syria in December 2023 that Israel is presumed to have carried out, as well as for a 3 January suicide bombing at a commemoration of Soleimani’s death in southern Iran in which at least 84 people were killed. ISIL/Da’esh claimed responsibility for the latter attack, but Iranian authorities have continued to attribute it to Israel and linked it to the ongoing war with Hamas.
Iraq denounced the Iranian strike as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, recalled its ambassador from Tehran, and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad. UNAMI issued a 16 January statement on X (formerly Twitter) “strongly condemning” the strikes and asserting that “[a]ttacks, by any side, violating Iraqi sovereignty & territorial integrity must stop”. In a 17 January emergency session, the League of Arab States also condemned the attack.
Regarding the domestic political situation, Iraq held provincial council elections on 18 December 2023. These were the first such elections to take place since 2013. The 2018 provincial elections were postponed for technical reasons and—following the 2019 anti-government protests—the Iraqi parliament passed electoral reform legislation in 2020 abolishing the provincial councils. At the initiative of al-Sudani’s government, however, parliament voted in March 2023 to rescind the reform and reinstate the councils, paving the way for the December elections. These were dominated by a coalition of Shi’a political parties known as the Coordination Framework (CF), which supports the current government and is generally considered to be aligned with Iran. Candidates associated with the CF won 101 of 285 available provincial seats.
Meanwhile, parliamentary elections in the KRI remain in limbo. These elections were originally scheduled for October 2022 but were delayed because of disagreement between the two main Kurdish political parties over changes to electoral constituency boundaries and a subsequent legal dispute between the regional parliament and federal Iraqi courts. On 3 August 2023, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced that the postponed elections would take place on 25 February. On 3 January, however, Iraq’s Independent Electoral High Commission informed the KRG that it would be unable to hold elections on the new date for reasons that have not been publicly announced. In a 9 January meeting with Kurdish officials, UNAMI Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs and Electoral Assistance Claudio Cordone discussed “next steps to facilitate the holding of the KR Parliament’s elections [as soon as possible]”.
On 13 October 2023, Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of Volker Perthes of Germany as head of the independent strategic review of UNAMI, mandated by Security Council resolution 2682 of 30 May 2023, which most recently renewed UNAMI’s mandate. The review, which is due to the Council by 31 March, is tasked with: 1) assessing current threats to Iraq’s peace and security and providing recommendations to optimise UNAMI’s mandate in this regard; and 2) further assessing options to support the Iraqi government in strengthening effective regional cooperation on such issues as border security, energy, water, refugees, and the adverse effects of climate change.
On 4 December 2023, the Council received the biannual briefing from the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL in Iraq (UNITAD). This was the first UNITAD briefing to take place following the Council’s adoption of resolution 2697 of 15 September 2023, which renewed the team for a final one-year, non-extendable term and requested the Secretary-General to submit to the Council a report with recommendations on ways for UNITAD to share its collected evidence with Iraqi authorities. That report was due to the Council by 15 January.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is to prevent the current regional crisis from further threatening the relative stability that Iraq has enjoyed since the current government came into power in October 2022. Domestic issues such as the pending elections in KRI could also raise tensions in this context.
Regarding UNAMI, this month’s briefing is an opportunity for members to gain insight into the possible impact of the regional situation on the mission’s presence in the country and potential implications for its future configuration.
If the situation escalates further, Council members could convene an additional meeting to discuss the specific issue of foreign airstrikes on Iraqi territory. Members could also consider issuing a press statement condemning such violations of Iraqi sovereignty, although they are unlikely to reach consensus on such a product given current Council dynamics (see below).
Council and Broader Dynamics
Council members are broadly supportive of the Iraqi government and the assistance provided by UNAMI. Last year’s adoptions of resolutions 2682 and 2697—respectively renewing the mandates of UNAMI and UNITAD—were unanimous.
The current regional situation, however, has exacerbated broader geopolitical tensions in the context of Iraq. American and Iranian strikes in the country have strained Baghdad’s relations with both countries, while stoking concerns about a direct confrontation between the US and Iran in the region. The escalation may also further inflame relations between the US and both China and Russia, which have forged close ties with Tehran. In November 2022, Council members were unable to agree on a press statement condemning a series of missile and drone strikes that Iran launched that month against Kurdish-Iranian opposition groups in northern Iraq, because of disagreement between the US and Russia about language referencing Iran’s role.
The Iraqi government routinely declares that it seeks a balanced relationship with regional and international security partners and does not wish to become a theatre for geopolitical conflicts.
The US is the penholder on Iraq issues in general, and the UK is the penholder on Iraqi-Kuwaiti issues.
UN DOCUMENTS ON IRAQ
|Security Council Resolutions
|15 SEPTEMBER 2023S/RES/2697
|This resolution extended the mandate of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) for a final one-year non-extendable term, until 17 September 2024.
|30 MAY 2023S/RES/2682
|This resolution extended UNAMI’s mandate until 31 May 2024.
|26 SEPTEMBER 2023S/2023/700
|This was the Secretary-General’s 120-day report on UNAMI, which covered developments from May to September 2023.
|26 SEPTEMBER 2023S/2023/698
|This was the Secretary-General’s report on the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-party nationals and missing Kuwaiti property.