What 2016 meant for Iraq: the fight against ISIS and Government Crisis

2016 was one of the most critical years for Iraq. As the fight against ISIS continued, the main agenda items of the country were domestic political developments, anti-government protests, cabinet revision, the Hashd al Shaabi controversy, economic instability, the Bashiqa crisis with Turkey and the Mosul operation. Besides, disagreements with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Administration (IKRG) continued while the economic crisis and discussions about the IKRG’s role against ISIS raged on. Nevertheless, the most important problems of 2016 in Iraq were the government crisis and the fight against ISIS which will impact the period ahead. Therefore, it is necessary to review the year 2016 and signify the expectations for the next year.


The fight against ISIS and the Mosul Operation

2016 was the most successful year in the fight against ISIS. The Iraqi army has acquired the control of the road to Mosul after capturing one of the ISIS strongholds of Ramadi, sweeping Fallujah in the first half of 2016 and liberating Shirgat which is situated along the north-south road. After these developments, all eyes turned towards an operation headed for Mosul.

While the Fallujah operation was going on, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense declared that an operation for Mosul named “Fatah” had been launched on 24 March 2016, yet it did not transform into a full-fledged military operation, rather remained as preparations for a greater operation. At the first stage, the town of Gayyara and surrounding villages were cleared of ISIS and Gayyara was made a base of operations, yet afterwards no further progress was made. This operation was conducted by the Iraqi army with the aerial support of the US-led coalition. Meanwhile, longstanding disagreements were seen with regard to the forces that would take part in the operation. Much had been discussed about whether the Hashd al Shaabi and the Pashmarga would join under which circumstances. There were also numerous debates about whether the Hashd al Watani, the local militia trained by Turkey in Bashiqa which composed of the people of Mosul led by the former Mosul governer Atheel Nujaifi.

These discussions triggered serious tensions with Turkey about its military presence in Bashiqa. The Iraqi officials even made statements declaring that armed action would be initiated against the Turkish troops in Bashiqa if they were not withdrawn. Turkey supported the decision by  the Mosul Provincial Council that rejects the participation of the Hashd al Shaabi in the operation and warned that sectarian clashes would arise if the Hashd al Shaabi joins the operation.

In addition, the PKK’s presence in Sinjar in the west of Mosul has increased tensions. Rumors about the PKK’s willingness to participate in the operation aimed at Tel Afar have deteriorated the complex situation about the Mosul operation. Only with the U.S. leverage, a consensus was reached between the Iraqi central government and the IKRG. Following the consensus, the Mosul operation pioneered by the Iraqi army was launched on 17 October 2016. It is declared that approximately 15,000 Pashmarga and 30,000 Iraqi security forces personnel take part in the operation. The Iraqi security forces are composed of the army units mostly and besides there are also units from the federal police, the local police, the anti-terrorism force and tribal fighters.  In addition, the forces of the Hashd al Watani, which were trained by Turkey in the Bashiqa camp, joined alongside the Iraqi security forces.

Besides, the Hashd al Shaabi launched an operation toward Tel Afar as of 1st November 2016, capturing the road between Mosul and Raqqa after long discussions about its participation in the Mosul operation. Moreover, it has liberated the majority of villages around and encircled the city after capturing the Tel Afar airport. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government stated that the Hashd al Shaabi forces will not enter the city center in Mosul and Tel Afar. The statement declared that the 72nd and 92nd regiments of the Iraqi army would enter Tel Afar.

The plan for the Mosul operation has five dimensions. According to this plan, the Iraqi forces has advanced to the line of Hammam al-Alil and Shura from the south, to Tel-Qaif in the north from the Mosul dam, to the Hazir-Bertalle-Bashiqa line in the east, to the Hamdaniyah-Bashiqa line in the southeast and to the Hammam al-Alil-Tel Afar lline from Gayyara in the southwest.

In two and a half months from the beginning of the operation until the end of 2016, a significant progress has been made and more than 40 neighborhoods were liberated. The fact that these neighborhoods in the outer ring of Mosul are largely deserted has enabled the quick advance of the operation. Yet, the operation has almost come to a halt when it reached the inner neighborhoods where there are civilians and a tougher resistance from ISIS. The United Nations explained in a statement that as of December 2016, 1,959 Iraqi army personnel were killed and more than 4,500 were wounded. According to the IKRG Ministry’s casualty reports about the Mosul operation, approximately 1,600 Pashmarga fighters were killed while almost 10,000 were wounded. The Iraqi central government has declared that the first phase of the operation was completed as of 11 December 2016 and the operation was temporarily halted for a review of the plans. Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, who had declared beforehand that Mosul would be liberated before the end of 2016, stated that they need three more months to sweep ISIS from Mosul.

Therefore it would not be wrong to suggest that the Mosul operation is going to occupy Iraq’s agenda for at least the first half of 2017. Even if the operation is completed, efforts for maintaining order and security in Mosul and deciding upon its future will likely be the top agenda item in 2017. In addition, the fight against ISIS will continue in 2017 as well. Several towns such as Hawija to the south of Kirkuk and Qaim and other villages of Al Anbar are still under the ISIS’s control. It is most likely that operations will be launched against these areas after or simultaneous with the Mosul operation. Given these circumstances, as ISIS loses territory it will be on the lookout for opportunities to carry out sensational attacks inside Iraq just like the attack in Kirkuk just before the Mosul operation. Therefore, it is likely that ISIS and counterterrorism will remain in the first place of the Iraqi agenda.

Quo vadis the Iraqi Politics?

 The 2016 agenda of Iraq composed of the fight against ISIS, government crises and reform efforts. The protests for reform which have been continuing since August 2015, have reached a new threshold with the developments in 30 April 2016. After Moqtada al Sadr’s calls for protest, the demonstrators stormed into the Green Zone, the district of Baghdad known for housing government and embassy buildings. The protesters broke into the Iraqi Parliament building and tried to enter the Prime Minister’s office. After protesting in the Green Zone for a few hours, they were dispersed and chased out of the place by the Iraqi police.   

Haider al Abadi’s government is hard pressed by issues such as the ongoing corruption and economic problems and inadequate public services, which are still unresolved even though one year passed since the formation of the government. The pressure over al Abadi is further amplified by the issues such as the lack of a decisive success against the ISIS, the government’s failure to control the militia groups and the increasing demands of countries such as the U.S., Russia and Iran. He reduced the number of ministers in the cabinet from 22 to 16 and presented his list to the Parliament on 31st March, only to be rejected by almost all parliamentary groups on the grounds that al Abadi did not consult them. Thereafter, al Abadi has sought to keep the momentum and asked the political groups for names to be included in his new list. Yet, Moqtada al Sadr continued the protests arguing that the “government needs to be freed from factionalism.”

Despite the ongoing protests and disagreements in the parliament, al Abadi managed to get the necessary confirmation for five of the ministers in his second list. Nevertheless, it did not end the government crisis in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament sacked Defense Minister Khaled al  Obaidi in August and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zabari in September, for corruption charges. Their positions still remain vacant.

In addition, the start of the Mosul operation in October postponed the controversy about the government and has occupied the agenda of the Iraqi politics. Nevertheless, the common procedure requires that provincial and district elections should be held in 2017, and parliamentary elections should be held in 2018. A general consensus has been reached as to hold both elections in 2018. Therefore, the issues of “government crisis” and “political negotiations” will likely be once again at the forefront of the political agenda before the local and general elections of 2018.