Iraq - Current Critical Security Issues

Introduction and context

Iraq is a war-torn country which faces enormous security and justice challenges, including a large number of internally displaced persons and concerns that small cells of defeated ISIL remain hiding in rural areas. Iraq’s youth are protesting for a better future with less corruption, better governance and lower unemployment; whilst security forces are being accused of using armed violence towards civilians.

With the defeat of ISIL, Iraq can now focus on reconciliation, recovery and reform of the security and justice sector to efficiently meet the challenges the country is facing. Security sector reform and governance is pivotal for long term stability and peace in the country. The official launch of the SSR process in Iraq was made in 2015, but there are still major challenges facing security and justice sector governance.

This short knowledge product aims to address emerging concerns in a country of high interest to ISSAT Members. It builds on ISSAT’s work, as well as on open-source documents and maps out some of the critical challenges impacting the security landscape in a given country. This note also aims to be a conversation starter and ISSAT welcomes comments and contributions from its Members and Community of Practice.

Internal Population Displacement and Returnees

The humanitarian and displacement situation in Iraq are one of the world’s most volatile and acute. Large waves of displacement have been tracked for more than 50 years driven by a combination of factors such as internal armed conflict, external intervention and political, ethnic and religious oppression, in addition to natural disasters including floods and earthquakes. The latest wave of displacement began in late 2013, when ISIL began to take over large swaths of territory. At that point, 2.1 million people were already living in internal displacement due to previous conflicts. The number of IDPs peaked at 4.1 million in 2016.

A decrease in scale and intensity of armed violence in 2018 allowed for around 900,000 displaced Iraqis to return to their hometowns. Since 2014, IOM estimate that around 4.6 million (February 2020) IDPs returned to their hometowns, amidst concerns about forced IDP returns and IDP vulnerability. According to IOM, around 1.4 million Iraqis remain internally displaced (February 2020), with over seventy percent of those originating from the Northern Ninewa and Salah al-Din governorates.

IDPs face challenges in access to safety and security, fair standard of living, employment, land and property, documentation, family separation and/or reunification, participation in public affairs, and justice services. Furthermore, inter-communal divisions between host communities and IDPs are also representing a challenge for future reconciliation and reintegration. The question still remains how to reintegrate IDPs into their host communities, if they are unable to return to their place of origin.

Armed Groups and Insurgency

Insurgent attacks by Daesh fighters and Sunni militias in western and central-northern Iraq, as well as, terrorist attacks across the country, continue to threaten the safety and security of Iraqis. Citizens still feel threatened of ISIL or other extremist groups if they are not eradicated (NDI, 2019).

There is also insecurity in the south with armed tribal groups and violent confrontations between rival Shia military groups which seek to control neighbourhoods in the capital, Baghdad. The neighbouring ongoing conflict in Syria facilitates arms, drugs, refugee flow and people trafficking and enables armed groups operations.

ISIL has suffered from territorial downfall and are today almost eradicated from the territory. It is although estimated that between ten and twenty thousand ISIL fighters are still active in the region and remain a threat to stability. As a small-scale insurgency, they indiscriminately target Iraqi civilians and commit human rights abuses. The United States-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL continues its military operations in Iraq and Turkey focuses its operations in northern Iraq. The unstable and fragile security landscape in Iraq is jeopardizing a legitimate and efficient national security sector. It further demonstrates different interests and visions among the population based on sectarian, ethnic or regional ties. 

Civil Action and Youth Discontent

Since the Fall of 2019, Iraq and especially Baghdad, has experienced civil protests, as thousands of mostly young people, have been demonstrating in different parts of the country against corruption, unemployment and poor public services. The protests, which started off in a non-violent and peaceful manner, has become more violent as time has passed. Security forces have responded using water cannons, tear gas, live rounds and rubber bullets. Several hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands injured. Tens of thousands of residents in the southern governorate of Basra were reported to have been poisoned and hospitalized by polluted drinking water, fueling ongoing protests against government’s mismanagement of the neglected south.

Nearly 60% of Iraq’s population is under 25 years of age which is impacting the society and the country’s development. Lack of proper education, early marriages, gender inequalities and high unemployment rates are issues that affect the governance, security and justice needs by the population.

The civil protests in Iraq are one in a series of similar global mass demonstrations that have occurred over the past years. They have had significant repercussions on the security situation in the country, as they reveal shortcomings of State institutions and test the civilian accountability over security actors. Strong national consensus has been formed around the need for the government to be responsible for all firearms control and regulation and removal of all armed manifestations in public spaces. These protests in Iraq are an important watching theme for donors in the security and justice sphere, as this not only demonstrate citizen’s dissatisfaction but also reveals clashes between citizens and government, and between youth and government. Increased training and capacities in human rights training and non-violent protests controls are areas that are in need for support.

Weak Governance and State Institutions

Iraq’s public sector institutions have not been successful in equitably allocating resources across the country and its population and extend basic public services, including access to security and justice in an effective manner. In a poll from NDI 2019, most citizens see the government from federal to local level as ineffective, and a vast majority (74%) acknowledge that they are not aware of the government priorities. For decades state institutions have been captured by sectarian interests and decimated by corruption. The politicization of state institutions and control over state resources have undermined the effective and equitable delivery of services, thus exacerbating the crisis of legitimacy, the challenges to state authority, and, ultimately, the spiral of violence that we see in Iraq today. As noted in the 2011 World Development Report, weak institutions and a lack of legitimacy undermine states’ ability to provide basic security, justice, and economic opportunities for their citizens and can therefore be a key cause of conflict. This holds true in Iraq, where the fragility of key public institutions and processes is reflected most starkly in the chronic weakness of its civil service, public financial management, state-owned enterprises, public investment management, and judicial system.

Lack of Public Trust

Weak governance and accountability, unrepresentative institutions and insufficient access to security and justice services across the country result in lack of public trust in public services. A recent survey from NDI revealed that lack of public trust and low confidence in national elections, drive perceptions that Iraq remains a divided country and increases support for protests. This further strengthens divisions according to sectarian lines in society. According to the Head of UNAMI, increased public trust in governmental institutions is key for development in Iraq, particularly after the fight against ISIL. Lack of public trust is also driven by a view of ineffective and unaccountable governmental apparatus.

Despite a general lack of trust, citizens tend to do have increased trust in army and police institutions, and in the Popular Mobilization Units[1] as the security situation is slowly stabilizing. However, citizens seem to have less trust in judicial institutions and provincial councils.

Today, Iraq needs robust and functional accountability mechanisms and community reconciliation to recover from conflict and its associated societal traumas. For this aim, restoring public trust in the judiciary and justice system to hold perpetrators accountable of key importance.

Corruption

Endemic corruption is one of the main threats to Iraq’s stability, alienating the population from its ruling elite and driving young people into a protest movement that demands radical change. In a recent poll, more than 80 % of Iraqi’s were concerned, or very concerned, about corruption at the highest levels of government and the population perceive it to be getting worse. In Kurdistan, over 90% say that corruption is getting worse. Corruption among senior politicians and civil servants is systematically undermining trust in the government and destroys the legitimacy of leaders.

Transparency International (TI) scored Iraq on rank 162 out of 180 in 2019. This was a rise of six ranks compared to 2018 and Iraq is now on the same level as Cambodia and Chad. Further, Iraq was ranked by TI as the fourth most corrupt country in the Middle East, only better off than Syria, Yemen and Libya. For comparison, the three countries better than Iraq was Iran (146), Lebanon (137) and Egypt (106).

However, until now, political corruption has been primarily treated as an individual crime. Little recognition is given to corruption as primarily driven forward by the structure of the political system and the role that Iraq’s political parties play in it.

Public Financial Management

A recent survey from NDI reveals that the lack of financial stability is one of the main concerns among the population, and this sparks frustration and conflict. Enhancing public financial management is crucial for building the efficiency and effectiveness of state services and the situation in Iraq is no exception. Additionally, it is crucial to ensure accountability in the management of public resources. Weak public financial management increases the risk of mismanagement of resources and opportunities. In Iraq, formal channels by which public finance and procurement processes are managed hides the processes through which resources are raised and spent. Such parallel processes are unclear and difficult to change, especially as they tend to shift power from the state to other actors. This keeps a vicious cycle of a weak, unreliable and opaque public financial management system. 

Human Rights Violations

Human rights violations are common in Iraq. Security forces are accused of detaining suspects without court order, arrest warrant, or any other justification of arrest. Authorities are accused of violating the process for detainees to see a judge within 24 hours, to have access to a lawyer throughout interrogations or to have families notified of their detention. Detainees have witnessed torture in prisons, in some cases leading to death. Courts sentence individuals convicted of terrorism-related offences to death, frequently after questionable trials that reportedly rely on torture-tainted evidence.

Iraqi families with perceived ISIS affiliation because of their family name, tribal affiliation, or area of origin, have been denied security clearances required to obtain identity documentation or other civil documentation. This has impacted their freedom of movement, right to education, right to work, and right to apply for welfare benefits and obtain birth and death certificates. Although numerous ethnic and religious minority groups are living in Iraq, the government does not guarantee equal treatment and access to public services.  

Gender Inequality

Over recent decades, the rights of Iraqi women have been significantly weakened, and their parity with men has suffered setbacks in a number of areas. However, demands for increased gender equality are increasing.  While the legal position of women was relatively strong compared with other countries in the region and Iraqi women have traditionally taken part in society through education, labour and politics, this reality has now receded. The influence of women started to decline in the 1980s with Saddam Hussein. Women empowerment’s main constraints are largely economic, social, and cultural, driven by sectarian, ethnic and family-related boundaries. Harassment, domestic and sexual violence are constantly reported, and women have few legal frameworks that could be used to protect their rights. Iraq’s criminal code includes criminalizing physical assault but lacks any explicit mention of domestic violence, and even when sexual assault can be criminalized, it does not apply in a marriage. Donors need to not only focus on women, but also to steer gender programming to male roles and unpack traditional gender roles through for example public awareness campaigns.

Weak territorial integrity

Iraq has historically been a battleground in regional power struggles, and this is continuously reflected in its domestic political dynamics with a multiplicity of armed groups with ties to neighbouring states. While many areas of Iraq continue to be relatively secure, pockets of violence exist where armed groups continue to be active. PMU armed groups are operating and fighting in parallel with national security forces, and the myriad of security actors are undercutting state monopoly of violence and state legitimacy. This further leads to incoherent national defence and weak territorial control and integrity.

In addition, Iraqi provinces have a large margin for self-control and a legal right to create autonomous regions. One example of such a region is Kurdistan with its own judiciary, parliament and security forces, located in northern Iraq. In addition, Shia-dominated south has been demanding the right for an autonomous southern region, even though this is facing resistance from other opposing groups. With increased regional tendencies for autonomous rule along sectarian, ethnic and nationalistic lines, the State’s backbone risks further weakness and disintegration, increasing insecurity and lack of access to public services including justice by the population.

Tackling those sensitive challenges in a country like Iraq requires the presence and vested interest of regional, internal and local powers. This today is the biggest challenge Iraq is facing for its State-building and reform processes.

[1] Popular Mobilization Units (also known as Hash’d al Shaabi) are an umbrella organization consisting of more than 50 different militias with ties to the government, performing along the lines of national security forces.

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DCAF-ISSAT Iraq SSR Country Backgrounder

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