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Iraq: Open and Closed VTC on UNAMI

Tomorrow morning (12 May), the Security Council is scheduled to hold an open VTC and closed VTC on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI). The Special Representative and head of UNAMI, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, is planning to brief from Baghdad.

Hennis-Plasschaert is expected to focus her statement on recent developments in Iraq and on the two latest Secretary-General’s reports—on UNAMI (S/2020/363) and on the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives (S/2020/358).

Iraq’s political situation has remained unstable, and dependent on support from both Iran and the US. On 31 October 2019, Iraqi president Barham Salih announced Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi’s intention to resign, following widespread popular protests demanding basic services and systemic change. The demonstrations had been temporarily halted by the COVID-19 pandemic but resumed on 10 May with a few hundred protesters gathering in central Baghdad.

Two candidates designated by Salih as prime minister later withdrew their candidacies. On 9 April, Salih named Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the current chief of intelligence, as prime minister-designate. He seems to be acceptable to Iran and the US.  Al-Khadimi will only hold that position until elections are held, presumably sometime next year. So far, no prime minister-designate has received support from the protesters. Al-Kadhimi has declared that he will maintain the muhasasa (apportionment system), a political system based on quotas for ethno-sectarian groups. The abolition of that system has been one of the protestors’ core demands.

Hennis-Plasschaert may address UNAMI’s efforts to support the political and electoral process. In his report, the Secretary-General points out that “the final text of the Electoral Law, approved by parliament in December 2019, has yet to be published in the official parliamentary gazette due to the absence of a parliamentary decision on the delineation of constituencies and the apportionment of parliamentary seats per constituency.”

The Iraqi parliament approved a new government led by al-Kadhimi on 6 May, although seven out of 22 cabinet positions (including agriculture, foreign affairs, justice, migration, oil, and trade) still need to be filled. In a 2 May tweet, Hennis-Plasschaert sent a “friendly reminder to politicians” that “Iraq does not have the luxury of time”.

In a 7 May statement, the Secretary-General welcomed progress in the formation of the new government. Given that this process still needs to be finalised, he encouraged “the swift completion of the formation of the government, including by appointing women to cabinet positions yet to be filled” and noted that “in order to address the multiple pressing challenges, Iraq needs a stable and effective government that is able to deliver basic services through responsive state institutions”. He further called for “the implementation of meaningful reforms that make tangible improvements in people’s lives and strengthen Iraq’s democratic institutions”.

The complex security situation in Iraq may be an aspect of the meeting. Iraq continues to be a military battleground for competing Iranian-US interests. March was marked by a string of attacks and counter-attacks on Iraqi soil. The attacks were directed against the US military and diplomatic presence and the US-led Global Coalition against Da’esh. According to media reports, a 16 March attack on the former “Green Zone” in Baghdad marked the 26th such assault since the end of October 2019. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the US blames Iran-backed militias and attacks their bases in retaliation. On 6 May, three rockets were fired at a military compound hosting US diplomats and troops next to Baghdad’s international airport with no casualties being reported. The Iraqi government routinely says that the country has no intention of taking sides and becoming a theatre for tensions between Iran and the US.

The latest Secretary-General’s report also addresses the continued threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Da’esh) in the country. The terrorist group’s kinetic activity has doubled in comparison to the same reporting period in 2019, from 187 to 370 security incidents. Another recurring issue facing the country is Turkey’s military operations on Iraqi soil against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the north of Iraq—which it refers to as “counter-terrrorism action”. The Iraqi government considers these operations as a violation of their sovereignty.

Council members might be interested in hearing from Hennis-Plasschaert in more detail about the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for the country, as well as the UN’s own efforts in this regard. Iraq currently has 2,767 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In his report, the Secretary-General addresses the stigma that persons sick with the novel coronavirus are facing in the country. In this regard, UNAMI has “received credible reports of social stigmatisation of infected persons among their communities, including verbal and physical attacks against them and their property”. In the observations to his report, the Secretary-General reiterates his “call to protect the most vulnerable from social stigma”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on efforts related to missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives. According to the latest Secretary-General’s report on the matter, the 113th meeting of the Technical Subcommittee of the Tripartite Commission (consisting of representatives of France, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UK and the US and chaired by the ICRC), initially scheduled for 20 April, had to be postponed. In addition, a handover of Kuwaiti property also had to be rescheduled due to movement restrictions in both Iraq and Kuwait.

Another issue that could be discussed tomorrow is an increase in domestic violence reports connected to lockdown measures. A 16 April joint statement by OHCHR Iraq, UNFPA Iraq, UNICEF Iraq and UN Women Iraq expressed concern about this development, citing reports of sexual harassment of minors, immolation and self-immolation, spousal abuse, self-harm and suicide due to the abuse of a spouse. They called for the urgent adoption of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law. This was echoed in the Secretary-General’s report.

The falling price of oil, which accounts for about 67% of Iraq’s revenues, is further challenging the country’s economy. There could be references to the potential impact of this on Iraq’s stability.

Looking ahead, the Council will have to renew the mandate of UNAMI before it expires on 31 May.

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