Ahmet Berat ÇONKAR
05 November 2021
Over the last two decades, Iraq has undergone civil war, occupation, a rise in sectarianism and a deep crisis of confidence in the state and its institutions. Some observers claim that Iraq itself is an artificial construct, an amalgam of ethnically and religiously varied populations too diverse to unite under one flag. But this belies the long historical experience of the country and the powerful and enduring appeal of Iraqi identity.
Since 2019, the security situation in Iraq has improved, but the state must nevertheless contend with significant internal threats and external meddling. Internal divisions are mirrored in rival militias and reinforced by non-Iraqi actors, each pursuing their own ambitions. Regional actors including Iran, the Gulf monarchies, and Turkey play a role in the country as are the United States, NATO member countries and – to a lesser degree – NATO itself. Regional rivalries and a greater competition between the NATO Allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, also shape Iraq’s security landscape.
The United States has long been the most powerful external player in the region. US strategic thinkers are increasingly concerned that the Middle East is distracting US attention and resources from more fundamental challenges elsewhere. The recent withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan was partly driven by this logic. The US military has also reduced troop levels in Iraq, although its forces continue to conduct operations against terrorist fighters. NATO itself is involved in an important training mission that has recently been upgraded.
Iraq’s relations with the Gulf countries have grown more complex in recent years, ebbing to their lowest point after the 2011 Arab uprisings when Iraq’s political and religious elite backed Shia protesters in the Gulf. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has since sought to improve relations with the region’s monarchies while attracting new investment from that wealthy region. The Gulf countries, in turn, seek to ensure that Iraq does not move too far into the Iranian camp. Iran, in turn, has sought to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a military, political and ideological threat. It wants to ensure that Iraq neither collapses into civil war nor constructs an alternative democratic model appealing to disillusioned Iranians who might see it as a signpost for a non-clerical Iranian future. Iran consequently seeks to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity while encouraging a friendly, Shia-dominated government.
Several military organisations currently operate under the umbrella of the Iraqi state, including the Iraqi Army, the Counter-Terrorism Service, the Popular Mobilisation Forces and Kurdistan Regional Government security forces. There are also a range of Shia militias which claim to work for the state. While these groups are well-funded with support from backers in Baghdad and Tehran, their reliability remains a concern. Terrorist groups operating on Iraqi territory constitute a direct challenge to security and stability. With the support of pro-Iranian militias, the PKK continues to undermine Iraq’s security while threatening the Iraqi state and the KRG.
Iraq’s economic outlook has rapidly deteriorated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Iraqi state oversees an energy export dependent enclave economy and a bloated public sector. The fall of oil prices has hurt the economy, while insecurity, rampant corruption, and a weak state undermine the capacity of the private sector to create jobs. The corrosion of public finances and persistent sectarianism have contributed to instability. In October 2019, this dynamic triggered one of the country’s most significant social and political uprisings. Elite resistance to change, a lack of government responsiveness and the repression of public dissent have eroded Iraqi confidence in their political system. But trans-sectarian political parties that could bring real and essential change to Iraq’s political system have begun to emerge.