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The resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq: Political and military responses


The Islamic State (IS) is back, or so the headlines say. The key thing is that IS never left. While IS may have gone underground, reorganized, and slowly rebuilt, it has continued to carry out attacks. And what is equally, if not more, concerning is that IS is growing in strength. If anything is to be learnt from the history of the organization, it is that it is vital to address this now before it grows too strong. However, military solutions alone are not enough. A number of political issues in Iraq need to be addressed in parallel in order to starve IS of space to operate. This essay puts forward the wider political issues connected to IS resurgence, as well as the key priorities for the new government.

Significant increase in Islamic State attacks

Recent assessments point to a recovery of IS with a significant increase in the number of attacks in the second half of 2019 and in the first quarter of 2020. Additionally, the militant organization’s geographical reach and activities have almost doubled since late December 2018 across the provinces of Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah al-Din. In May, IS militants launched multiple coordinated attacks near the city of Samarra, in Salah al-Din province. The offensive was one of the deadliest in a series in recent weeks which killed 10 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) members. Significantly, Samarra is home of the Askari Shrine—one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites—and is where the sectarian civil war first broke out in 2006. It is also the home town of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of IS. 

The militant group’s sleeper cells also carried out attacks in the south and west of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The district of Hawija, its surrounding villages and the Hamrin mountain range (which extends across Diyala, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din provinces) have long been prone to an IS insurgency. IS utilizes these areas to build its network and carry out attacks that further undermine the limited state reach in the area.

Islamic State exploits security and governance vacuums

IS feeds on security and governance vacuums, and although these already existed in Iraq, recent delays over the formation of the government further exacerbate the issue. IS has used these vacuums to build its networks and capabilities over the past few years, resulting in its current resurgence. Moreover, these vacuums, along with Iraq’s failure to regulate the informal economy, help IS to finance its activities.

Disputed territories in the country also contribute to the security and governance vacuums; the ongoing conflict between the Government of Iraq (GOI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over these territories is a destabilizing factor that remains to be addressed. The territorial establishment of IS in 2014, and the pushing out of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the wake of the fraught Kurdistan referendum for independence in 2017 negatively impacted security cooperation. Tensions over the sovereignty of these areas were transformed into a multi-sided competition between rival political and security actors. The ongoing GOI–KRG disputes have allowed IS militants to regroup and plan attacks in the region. Despite making some progress to enhance coordination between the two in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, on the ground cooperation between the GOI and the KRG remains limited and security vacuums persist. 

Exacerbation of COVID-19 lockdown

The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has exacerbated Iraq’s already negative economic outlook. The country is facing an unprecedented economic downturn dragging it deeper into crisis as a result of diminishing oil revenues, output cuts and the COVID-19 lockdown. The economic impact of COVID-19 and historically low oil prices are likely to limit the state’s capacity to fully engage in areas where IS is resurging, particularly whilst engaging with the demands of protestors in the south. Moreover, IS militants have been exploiting the lockdown by intensifying their attacks in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and in rural Baghdad. This has raised concerns that the group might be staging a comeback, while the Iraqi security forces are sidetracked with administering curfews, maintaining stability and preventing the spread of the pandemic disease. Since March, this has been further compounded as the United States-led coalition withdraws from smaller bases to redeploy to other locations in the country.

Political negotiations prevent long-term planning 

Problems with elections and the formation of the government have existed since the first elections in 2005 following the establishment of the new Iraqi constitution. There are several key issues

First, the party list voting system favours the political elite. This prevents politicians from being held to account and makes it difficult for new voices to enter the political sphere. Although some inroads were made through the 2019 protests, the protests were not enough to affect real change. Second, rather than cabinet positions being allocated through sequential proportionality rules based on seats won, coalitions must be built after the election. This entails months of negotiations for the formation of the government and the distribution of cabinet posts. This creates uncertainty and limits the amount of time that the government has to tackle Iraq’s more deserving issues. Third, this political brokerage leads to promises and deals that effectively hinder the government when it is finally formed.

Combined, these issues make it difficult for the government to initiate the type of longer-term planning that is needed in Iraq to tackle corruption, diversify the economy, improve water management, mediate climate change, and, importantly, provide security across the entire country. Paradoxically, it is the political elite—entrenched on survival—that needs to change the election system and government formation process; the very system that created them and ensures their survival. Although IS may not be able to win broad support as a result of these issues, it does fuel resentment and creates operating space, by taking away from the government’s focus. 

Challenges for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi

Two competing forces characterize government formation and the political scene following the 2018 national elections, each vying to assert their influence: a top-down political system reinforcing identity-based politics and the post-2003 political order—which undermines the prospect for real reform and change—and a grassroots social force demanding a complete overhaul of the ethnosectarian power-sharing, symbolized by mass protests and low voter turnouts. As a result of this competition, Iraq was left without a functioning government for over five months due to persistent disagreement over the appointment of cabinet positions following the protest-enforced resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Two prime minister-designates, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi, struggled to bypass the deeply entrenched ethnosectarian division of spoils and eventually failed to satisfy the political blocs and form a government.

The third prime minister-designate, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, did manage to gain the support of the parliament and form a full government and has promised sweeping reforms. However, without his own political base and a strong election mandate, he too will be a hostage to the political blocs and their leaders who expect favourable contracts and the appointment of their loyal members in the government bureaucracy. The new government, like its predecessor, will owe its survival to the fragile compromise between the two rival blocs of Islah and Bina that emerged from the 2018 inconclusive national elections.

Going forward

As has been highlighted, addressing the resurgence of IS goes beyond the military and is connected to wider political issues. However, expectations of Kadhimi need to be realistic. He is at the mercy of those political actors that put him in power. He has also entered the government at a time of widespread protests, COVID-19, a resurgent IS, and a budget decimated by the historically low oil prices. To top this off, time is ticking towards the 2022 election, leaving him little time to implement change. However, there are a number of things he can, and must, do.

Firstly, he needs to focus on reforming the election laws. Changes that also address government formation would be difficult and thus the election laws should be the main focus, with anything more being considered a bonus. However, the promised early elections must follow to help address the perception that people across the country feel unrepresented. Kadhimi has begun to reverse some of the harsh actions taken against the protestors, however, recent protests have been met by violence once again and it is important that this is addressed and he ensures those who violently attack protestors are held accountable. 

The resurgence of IS needs to be dealt with now, before it grows too strong. Part of this involves election law reforms and early elections, but it also involves a military component, and in this Kadhimi needs to address issues with the international coalition against IS to ensure they continue to invest in partnering Iraq in this fight and do not withdraw further. This is no easy task, as it also involves appeasing those who want the coalition to leave Iraq, negotiating US/Iran relations, while curbing the influence of the militias and bringing them under the control of the state. Talks with the USA begin this month. 

Calls for anything beyond the above, such as large-scale reforms, economic diversification, and so on, are unrealistic. Implementing the above is in itself a monumental task for Kadhimi and will surely test him and the political system. However, the importance cannot be understated, and, at a minimum, he needs to do the above in order to provide a new government with the opportunity to engage in the long-term planning that Iraq desperately needs.


Dr Dylan O’Driscoll is an Associate Senior Fellow in the SIPRI Middle East and North Africa Programme.
Shivan Fazil is a Researcher in the SIPRI Middle East and North Africa Programme.