What's In Blue

Posted Wed 15 May 2024

Iraq: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (16 May), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). Special Representative and Head of UNAMI Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s latest reports on UNAMI and the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-party nationals and missing Kuwaiti property. This will be Hennis-Plasschaert’s final briefing to the Council in this role, as the Special Representative announced during her previous briefing in February that she would step down from her position in late May.

Hennis-Plasschaert is likely to provide an update on recent political developments in Iraq. The Secretary-General’s latest report on UNAMI, which was issued on 7 May and covers developments since 25 January, notes that local governments have been formed in 13 of the 15 federal governorates that participated in the 18 December 2023 governate council elections, which were the first such elections since 2013. The report also describes ongoing political consultations to elect a Speaker of the Council of Representatives (the federal Iraqi legislature) after voting at a parliamentary session on 13 January ended without any of the candidates obtaining an absolute majority. The position has been vacant since the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court ended the term of former Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi in November 2023 following a lawsuit brought by a rival lawmaker. A new vote to elect a successor will reportedly take place on 18 May.

According to the Secretary-General’s report, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has continued preparations for parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), which were initially scheduled for October 2022 but have been postponed multiple times, most recently to 10 June. In a 21 February ruling, the Federal Supreme Court struck down a KRI election law that reserved 11 seats in the regional parliament for ethnic and religious minorities. The ruling also transferred authority to adjudicate regional election disputes from the KRI’s electoral commission to the IHEC and divided the region’s single-constituency system into four separate constituencies. In response, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—one of the region’s two dominant political parties—announced that it would boycott the upcoming elections.

On 10 April, the influential Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced the formation of a new political entity named National Shia Trend. The political bloc associated with al-Sadr won the largest share of votes in Iraq’s 2021 parliamentary elections, but it was unable to form a majority coalition government. After a year of deadlocked negotiations, al-Sadr announced his retirement from politics and called on his supporters to resign their parliamentary seats, allowing the Coordination Framework—a Shi’a coalition considered more closely aligned with Iran—to form a majority coalition and install current Prime Minister Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani. Al-Sadr’s establishment of a new political organisation may signal his return to electoral politics.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Hennis-Plasschaert may also update the Council on developments in the relationship between the Iraqi federal government and the KRI. The Secretary-General’s report notes that budget-sharing arrangements and hydrocarbon management remained key issues between Baghdad and Erbil, while delayed salary payments to KRI civil servants led to recurrent strikes and protests during the reporting period. On 21 February, the Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling on that issue, stipulating that the federal government shall make monthly salary, pension, and welfare payments to KRI civil servants and other beneficiaries from the region’s share of the federal budget. It also reiterated the financial rights and obligations of the KRI under the country’s Federal Budget Law, including the submission of oil- and non-oil revenues to the federal government. While the parties have since reached agreement on ad-hoc transfers of funds, they have continued to express divergent views on implementation of the 21 February ruling. The Secretary-General’s report calls on both federal and KRI leaders to “redouble their efforts in search of mutually beneficial solutions on outstanding issues based on the Constitution of Iraq.”

Hennis-Plasschaert is also expected to update Council members on the country’s security situation, which remains tense amid regional fallout from the Israel-Hamas war. Following the outbreak of the conflict in October 2023, Iraqi militia groups—considered Iranian proxies forming part of the country’s “axis of resistance” across the region—launched dozens of attacks on US military assets in Iraq and Syria, as well as a 28 January drone strike against a US military outpost in north-eastern Jordan in which three service members were killed. On 2 February, the US launched retaliatory airstrikes against 85 militia targets in western Iraq and eastern Syria, reportedly killing 16 people and wounding 25 in Iraq. On 7 February, a US drone strike in Baghdad killed a senior leader of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia group who was allegedly responsible for the 28 January strike. Since then, the Iraqi militias do not appear to have attacked US assets in the region.

The hostilities have raised tensions between the US and Iraqi governments. Iraq condemned the US strikes as violations of Iraqi sovereignty, and some officials called for the withdrawal of the 2,500 US military advisers stationed in the country as part of the global coalition combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). According to the Secretary-General’s report, bilateral talks between Iraqi and US officials, which began in mid-2023, culminated in the launch of the Higher Military Commission (HMC) in late January. The HMC is tasked with evaluating the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces in order to formulate a “specific and clear timeline” to draw down the global military coalition and transition towards “comprehensive bilateral relations” between Iraq and coalition countries. Al-Sudani presided over the first HMC meeting in Baghdad on 27 January, followed by a series of subsequent working group meetings held in Baghdad in February and March. In a joint statement issued after a 15 April meeting between al-Sudani and US President Joe Biden in Washington DC, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to transitioning to “enduring bilateral security partnerships”.

Iraq’s humanitarian and human rights situations are another expected focus of tomorrow’s meeting. According to the Secretary-General’s report, 4.9 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) had returned to their places of origin as at April, while 1.12 million remained internally displaced in formal and informal settlements across the country. In January, the federal government decided to close by 30 July the country’s remaining IDP camps, which host a total of nearly 31,800 families comprising approximately 156,400 people. The Secretary-General’s report calls for “durable solutions” for IDPs in Iraq and says that the government’s decision to close the IDP camps should be complemented by efforts to prevent secondary displacement, with due attention paid to IDPs living outside camps and to other vulnerable returnees.

On 27 April, the Council of Representatives adopted a new law criminalising homosexuality, “effeminacy”, and other forms of private consensual behaviour. The law introduced sentences of ten to 15 years imprisonment for establishing a “homosexual relationship”, and a minimum of seven years imprisonment and a fine of at least ten million Iraqi dinars for “promoting homosexuality”. The Secretary-General’s report says that the adoption of this law “runs contrary to several human rights treaties and conventions ratified by Iraq”, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to welcome the formation of local government administrations and commend the broader efforts of al-Sudani’s government to strengthen public institutions and ensure political stability, which include the adoption of the 2023-2025 Federal Budget Law and continued implementation of the government programme focused on socioeconomic development. Members may also underscore the need to hold long-delayed parliamentary elections in KRI, however, and express concern about the destabilising effects of the broader Middle East crisis on the domestic security situation. Some members might also outline their positions on the upcoming renewal of UNAMI’s mandate, which expires on 31 May. (For more information on the mandate renewal, see the brief on Iraq in our May 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

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