Although the security situation has considerably improved since the fall of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2017, in early 2021a car bomb in a Baghdad market killed 32 people and injured 110 others. The Iraqi capital had not been hit by a suicide attack claimed by ISIS since 2019. While suicide bombings have decreased, those targeting American military bases and members of the coalition against this Jihadist group are not. In Baghdad, attacks with mortars or rockets to the “green zone” – the headquarter of the country’s diplomatic representations – are frequent and remain in most cases unclaimed. According to American intelligence, groups responsible for these attacks include pro-Iranian Shiite militias. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has shown zero tolerance for armed groups operating outside the control of the state: but there is still a long way to go. Effects of the pandemic, as well as the volatility in the price of oil, have once again put in crisis the fragile Iraqi economy, reviving the discontent already present in the country before the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Bank, the country is experiencing the largest economic contraction since 2003. Meanwhile, since 2019 protests have not stopped, and thousands of young people come to the streets against the government’s inability to offer a better future, Iranian interference, kidnappings and killings of journalists and human rights defenders. Since then, at least 30 activists have been killed and dozens held in prison. Murders are often carried out in the night by men on motorbikes, remaining in most of the cases unclaimed and unpunished. In May 2021, in Karbala, the killing of journalist and activist Ihab Jawad al-Wazni sparked violent street protests. The killing remains unclaimed and has been seen by Iraqis as a message of the militias affiliated with political parties not accepting criticism of their actions. To date, according to government figures, 565 demonstrators and members of the security forces have been killed in the protests that started two years ago. Despite public statements from Prime Minister al-Kadhimi to prosecute the killers of protesters and activists, no one has yet been brought to justice.
What is being fought for
More and more Iraq is the battleground between the United States and Iran. The tension between the two countries reached its peak on January 3, 2020, when Qasem Soleimani the Iranian commander of the al-Quds Brigades (one of the five forces composing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) was assassinated by an American drone missile in the Baghdad airport area. But Iranian (and American) interests in Iraq have not stopped. Pro-Iranian Shiite militias trained and armed by Iran contributed to the fall of the Islamic State around Mosul, before that Iraqi special forces led by Western countries (US-driven) entered the city and freed it from the followers of the self-proclaimed al-Baghdadi caliph. Nowadays, the growing Iranian influence is one of the main reasons behind the street protests shaking the country for the past two years. The repression carried out by pro-Iranian militias with activists targeted killings and kidnappings remains today unpunished, and one of the main political challenges of next governments will indeed be bringing those militias back under government control. Pro-Iranian militias ask the Iraqi government to withdraw US troops. Since the killing of Soleimani, missile attacks against the “green zone” in Baghdad and military bases hosting foreign security personnel have increased and put at risk many civilians working there.
After the fall of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in December 2017 and the return of all Iraqi cities under the control of the central government and its militias, the situation in the country seemed to improve considerably. In Baghdad terrorist attacks with car bombs and suicide bombers decreased, and 2018 was a relatively quiet year for the population. However, despite Iraq being one of the largest oil producers, levels of poverty and social malaise in the country did not decrease. A power that many pro-Iran Shiite militias acquired since the fall of ISIS enabled them to effectively control many areas of the country and the capital, and malaise finally exploded in October 2019: in major Iraqi cities, thousands of young people began to protest against outside interference, in particular the Iranian one.
Arrests carried out arbitrarily, kidnappings and targeted killings of activists and journalists ended up with the resignation of the government and, in May 2020, the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister. Despite good intentions the new government has not yet managed (at the time of writing) to stop abuses against the activists, leaving unpunished responsibilities for the crimes. In the wave of violence shaking the country from October 2019 until mid-2021, more than 560 people were killed, including activists and security forces. But Iraq has long been the theatre of the clash between the US and Iran, the country’s main financiers. Rocket attacks by militias on foreign military targets are frequent, and Washington routinely blames Iranian-linked Iraqi factions.
At the end of 2019, pro-Iranian Shiite militias that fought alongside regular Iraqi troops (in turn supported and financed by the United States to fight ISIS) began to protest against US bases set up in the country to support the end of the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. After the killing of an American contractor in Kirkuk on December 27, 2019, the US responded with airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against Kata’ib Hezbollah war posts (Iraqi pro-Iranian Shiite militia), killing 25 militiamen and wounding 55. A few days later, on December 31, a group of demonstrators managed to break into the US embassy in Baghdad and set fire to a watchtower, hoisting Kata’ib Hezbollah flags. On January 3, 2020, at one in the morning, an American drone hit a convoy passing near Baghdad airport. On the convoy was Qasem Soleimani, one of the most powerful soldiers in Iran: he was commander of the Quds Brigade (a unit of the Revolutionary Guard) and military strategist of the Iranian army, of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pro-Iran militias in Iraq. Soleimani was also responsible for training the militiamen to be sent to fight.
The attack, claimed by Donald Trump as a success, unleashed Iranian forces that on January 8, 2020, launched thirty ballistic missiles at US bases in Iraq and injured 109 people. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has further affected the fragile Iraqi economy. According to the Ministry of Finance around 7 out of the 40 million Iraqis receive a salary or pension from the government. Due to the oil crisis, government revenues fell by 47.5% in 2020: 97% of revenue for the payment of public salaries comes from the sale of black oil. Wages and pensions have been therefore paid intermittently, thus accelerating the economic and social malaise. The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the volatility in the price of oil are continuing to worsen Iraq’s economic problems. GDP contracted sharply in 2020, putting the country’s coffers under pressure. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), since 2014 conflict and violence have created more than 3.3 million evacuees, 18% of the population. At the moment, more than 6 and a half million Iraqis need humanitarian assistance and out of these, 3 million are children. But Iraq also hosts around 300,000 evacuees from neighbouring countries, mainly civilians fleeing Syria.
Key figure or organization
“Who killed me” is the movement born after the killing of journalist and activist Ihab al-Wazni in his home in Karbala, in May 2021. A social campaign with hashtags and slogans began to circulate the names of all Iraqis killed since the beginning of the so-called “October Revolution”, an expression used to describe protests against corruption and Iranian interference in Iraq’s politics started in 2019. The movement is composed of a dozen groups and associations including al-Beit al-Watani (the national bloc), one of the few parties born after the protests for the assassination of al-Wazni. Their main request to the government is to postpone the Iraqi elections enough to arrest those responsible for the killings. According to the Movement, the government is aware of who is behind these killings, but does not intervene as those individuals would be linked to Iran.
FOCUS 1 – The Pope makes history in Baghdad
On March 5, 2021, the Pope landed in Baghdad: Bergoglio thus became the first Pope to visit the country. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to carry out an apostolic journey in Iraq, but conflicts and internal wars had not allowed it. Upon his arrival in Baghdad, Francis was received by authorities and civil society. In Najaf he met the great ayatollah al-Sistani, the most important Shiite spiritual guide, moving then to Nassiriya and the Ur plain – a symbolic place for the three main monotheistic religions as it would be where, according to tradition, God spoke to Abraham for the first time. In the North of the country, amid the ruins of the war in Mosul, the Pope prayed and defined the exodus of Christians as “an incalculable damage”, holding then the Angelus in a church devastated by Isis in Qaraqosh, the main Iraqi Christian city. The visit ended in the stadium of Erbil – the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which hosts thousands of Christians, with a mass in front of more than 10 thousand people. Among them, several were Christians who fled the ISIS persecution. Finally, the Pope met the father of Alan Kurdi, who died in 2015 in a shipwreck on the Turkish coast and whose photo became sadly famous around the world.
FOCUS 2 – Cultural heritage
On February 26, 2015, ISIS jihadists entered the Mosul museum. In a video posted online, gunmen destroyed archaeological treasures, while a spokesman of the self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi explained that “all symbols of idolatry” distracting attention from Allah were being erased. Most of the destroyed collections were statues from the Assyrian period, dating back to the 7th century BC. Followers of al-Baghdadi also burned down the Mosul public library, which contained more than 8,000 old texts and manuscripts. After several years, the Museum has gradually started to reopen, thanks also to international aid such as that provided by the Louvre.