Iraq continues to face varied challenges, including domestic divisions within and between its major communities, as well as pressure from its powerful neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Tehran’s Shia allies in Iraq, who dominate the Baghdad government, are attempting to limit Iraqi Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq.
Divisions within the Kurdish community in northern Iraq have widened, complicating the Kurds’ partnership with the United States against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Iraq’s December provincial elections will increase tensions among major parties and factions and are unlikely to resolve the country’s many political challenges.
More than 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion that removed President Saddam Hussein’s regime from power, Iraq has made considerable progress. A measure of political stability has been achieved, Iraq’s oil export sector is vibrant, and Baghdad has reintegrated into the Arab fold after the decade of ostracism that followed Saddam Hussein’s disastrous August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait. However, the underlying schisms and tensions among Iraq’s major sects and ethnic communities have remained and been compounded by public calls for greater government accountability and transparency. And Iraqi leaders continue to have difficulty balancing their relations with two partners who are historic adversaries of each other, the United States and Iran. The latter, in particular, wields numerous levers through which to influence Iraqi politicians – not least of which is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) arming and training of several Shia politico-military factions who remain outside central government command, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba, and the Badr Organization.
Shia armed political factions form the backbone of the Coordination Framework – a coalition of Arab Shia groups assembled by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that outmaneuvered other Shia groups in late 2022 to form the current government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Shiaa al-Sudani. Sudani has been an ally of Maliki, but, as Prime Minister, he has distanced his government from Maliki’s unquestioning alignment with Iran. Overriding calls by some Coordination Framework factions to expel U.S. forces from Iraq – an expulsion advocated by Tehran – Sudani has supported the ongoing U.S. mission, performed by approximately 2,500 U.S. military personnel, to train and advise Iraqi forces combatting remnants of the Islamic State organization (ISIS). However, apparently reflecting stepped-up pressure by Tehran, Maliki, and pro-Iranian Shia militia leaders, Sudani stated in an August 15 meeting with Iraqi army leaders that Iraq “no longer needs the presence of foreign combat forces on its soil. We are conducting advanced dialogues to determine the form of future relationship and cooperation with the international coalition…” led by the United States. Subsequently, on August 30, and again reflecting Tehran’s escalating agitation against U.S. influence in Iraq, ex-Prime Minister Maliki accused U.S. forces in Iraq of having designs to close the border between Syria and Iraq in order to promote the overthrow of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – a key Iranian ally. Maliki’s comments should be viewed in the context of renewed protests against Assad’s regime, mainly in southern Syria, and reflect Tehran’s concerns about the potential threat posed by the protests to Assad’s regime. Sudani’s suggestion that U.S. forces might not be needed in Iraq much longer undoubtedly concerned U.S. officials because the comments came only one week after Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III welcomed Iraqi Defense Minister Thabit Muhammad Al-Abassi to inaugurate the U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue (JSCD). U.S. officials explained the cooperation pact as establishing long-term U.S.-Iraq security cooperation, well beyond the joint effort to defeat ISIS.
Iran’s efforts to wield preponderant influence over Iraq’s affairs have also aggravated schisms between Iraq’s Arab majority and its Kurdish minority. The Kurds predominate in three northern provinces that are run by a constitutionally semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Representing Tehran’s heightened focus on Iranian Kurdish opposition groups that operate on KRG-controlled territory in northern Iraq, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said on August 28 that Baghdad had agreed to its demand that such factions be disarmed and relocated by September 19. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have cited the deal as an attempt by Iran and its allies in Baghdad to undermine Kurdish self-rule by creating a pretext for Baghdad to dispatch additional government and Shia militia forces into Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Iran-Iraq agreement adds to the steps Baghdad has been taking to curb the KRG’s autonomy by constraining its funding sources. In March 2023, the Iraqi government won an arbitration ruling in a case filed nine years ago to prevent Türkiye from helping the KRG export oil from northern Iraq. Baghdad asserted that only the Iraqi national oil company has the authority to reach oil export agreements with outside parties. After losing the ruling, Türkiye shut down the oil pipeline from northern Iraq to Türkiye’s port of Ceyhan. An August 31 Bloomberg report estimates that the closure of that export route – which halted the exportation of 370,000 barrels of KRG crude oil per day as well as 75,000 barrels per day of Baghdad-controlled crude – has cost the KRG as well as the Iraqi state’s treasury approximately $4 billion thus far. The lost oil revenue, coupled with Baghdad’s reductions in its revenue-sharing payments to the KRG, has caused financial distress in Erbil, the seat of the KRG, and aggravated tensions between the two main Kurdish parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP has become the dominant faction in the KRG hierarchy, putting it in a position to influence the flow of KRG and central government revenues and benefits to the PUK. In an expression of protest against the KDP, the PUK’s armed fighters (peshmerga) have limited their cooperation with the KDP’s peshmerga and with the combined KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. On August 20, Major General Matthew McFarlane, the outgoing commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve that is fighting the Islamic State, questioned the future of U.S. military cooperation with the Kurds unless they reconcile. He stated: “The inability of the KRG to achieve objectives, key results, or milestones outlined in the MoU [Memorandum of Understanding with the United States] could negatively affect the Department of Defense’s ability to continue providing security assistance to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs…if we continue to see a lack of progress, we will consider taking appropriate action to ensure we are investing in something that has a viable future.”
All of the crosscurrents in Iraqi politics and society, including in northern Iraq, will be in play in the upcoming provincial elections, scheduled for December 18. Created by the 2005 post-Saddam constitution, the provincial councils are powerful bodies that set budgets for several sectors, such as education, health, and transportation. The elections, for which candidate filings closed in early August, will restore the councils after a four-year hiatus; they were dissolved in 2019 following nationwide protests that erupted in October of that year, demanding an end to the corruption and nepotism practiced by the major Iraqi factions. The provincial council elections will not be held in the provinces of the Kurdistan Region, but the elections will be held in Kirkuk – a province largely Kurdish inhabited but where the Kurds lost political power in 2017 after a KRG independence referendum triggered a backlash against the KRG by Baghdad. The Kurds will be seeking a return to power in the province but, reflecting their tensions calls for a joint KDP-PUK coalition to run for the Kirkuk council were unsuccessful. The tensions boiled over on September 2 into significant protests by Kurdish residents of Kirkuk against central government forces deployed in the province. It is unlikely that the provincial elections, or any single government policy or initiative, will resolve the fundamental tensions that pervade Iraqi politics, governance, and society.