Security Situation in Central and Southern Iraq

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The aim of this COI Focus is to examine the security situation in Central and Southern Iraq, including the capital Baghdad. The area comprises the provinces of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah al-Din (Central Iraq), the capital province of Baghdad and the provinces of Southern Iraq: Babil, Basra, Karbala, Maysan, al-Muthanna, Najaf, Qadisiya, Dhi Qar and Wasit. Research focused in particular on the period from March 2019 to January 2020.

This COI Focus is a partial update of the EASO report on the security situation in Iraq: EASO Country of Origin Report Iraq, Security Situation, March 2019.

During the period studied for this COI Focus, there was a further drop in violence by the remnants of the former Islamic State (ISIS), which has not maintained permanent control over territory in Iraq since November 2017. As of 2019 and early 2020, ISIS was primarily a rural phenomenon, hiding in inaccessible areas of Central Iraq, from where it carries out attacks on the security forces and also on civilians. Since the loss of its last remaining territory in Iraq, ISIS has been pursuing a guerrilla strategy, primarily carrying out targeted attacks on positions of the Iraqi army, police and PMF in the provinces of Central Iraq and the rural outlying areas of Baghdad Province. ISIS also targets people who perform some form of security function, such as police personnel or mukhtars who are well informed about their village or neighbourhood. These persons and their families are the victims of targeted executions. Large-scale attacks, with or without suicide bombers, have become exceptional. Currently, the majority of victims are counted among combatants from both sides rather than among the civilian population.

The trend towards diminished violence by ISIS is clear across the country. In Baghdad, attacks have been greatly reduced, while throughout Southern Iraq, the terrorist organisation is virtually absent. There are occasional local flare-ups, particularly in Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah al-Din where the frequency of ISIS attacks is still relatively high, but nowhere is it comparable to the period from 2013 to 2016. The (total) number of attacks and casualties is significantly lower.

Demonstrations by civilians against corruption and dysfunctional infrastructure are an annual phenomenon in Iraq. After relatively quiet summer months, serious demonstrations erupted in Baghdad and Southern Iraq in early October 2019. As in the summer of 2018, the government and pro-Iranian militias attempted to crush the protests by force. But despite the use of water cannons, tear gas and gunfire against the mostly young demonstrators (half of the Iraqi population is under 25 years old), the protests did not abate and the demonstrators' demands became more radical: they called for the resignation of the entire political class and demanded new administrators not rooted in the system of power sharing between the ethnic and religious power blocks (Muhasasa).

Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands wounded during the protests. Thousands of protesters were also arrested and mistreated. Dozens of activists were kidnapped or murdered, and the media who covered the demonstrations extensively were threatened and attacked. What started as a student protest movement against high youth unemployment and against the dismissal of a popular commander of the Counterterrorism Forces grew into a broad movement with considerable popular support that shook the political system to its foundations.

The repression of the demonstrations was carried out by the army and police as well as by pro-Iranian militias that receive material and logistical support from Iran. Since 1 October 2019, there have been more victims throughout the country during these demonstrations than as a result of ISIS.

Iran plays a very active role in Iraq, and the increasing escalation of the conflict between the US and Iran has a strong political influence in Iraq. The US and Iran both have a military presence in the country. In the course of 2019, there were repeated reciprocal attacks within Iraq between the US and the pro-Iranian militias, and in one case directly from Iran. Israel also launched strikes at installations of the pro-Iranian militia in Iraq. Turkey carried out several air raids on positions of Kurdish militia in Sinjar.

The deadly US attack on Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad was the peak of the confrontation, but tensions and reciprocal attacks continue. From a political perspective, there are strong calls in Iraq for an end to foreign military interference in the country. The pro-Iranian Shias primarily want the US to leave, whereas the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs are opposed to this. The latter in particular would prefer to see the pro-Iranian militias leave Central Iraq, and have now become de facto allies of the US.

In the Sunni areas of Central Iraq, the situation has remained remarkably quiet. During the reporting period, there were no demonstrations against the government. Although these areas share the same problems of failed infrastructure and endemic corruption, the population is afraid to be identified through protests with the rebellion of Sunni extremists, especially ISIS.

In the disputed territories, the Kurds and Baghdad jostle for power. Following the loss of part of the disputed territories in the wake of the September 2017 referendum, some places have experienced a power vacuum: the central government has proved unable to provide the necessary security and protection against the remaining ISIS militants in rural areas. ISIS was happy to exploit this situation. Despite their opposition, the Kurds and Baghdad are now forced to re-establish security cooperation in order to efficiently fight the extremist militants in these zones.

The return of IDPs has been delayed. One and a half million displaced people have still not returned to their former homes. There are several reasons for this: war damage, security problems due to current conflicts or contamination with explosives, as well as dire economic prospects make many IDPs hesitant to return. The communities in the ISIS-occupied areas have been heavily scarred by events and are often torn along ethnic, religious and tribal lines. Although the government is putting pressure on communities to speed up returns, demands for punishment and retribution together with fears of a resurgence of Islamic State have deepened resistance to the return of families or clans associated with ISIS. In some areas there is little to no return of IDPs.

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