Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fallujah Control of Terrain Map: May 31, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and Patrick Martin

The operation to retake Fallujah has advanced towards the city limits since ISW’s May 26 Fallujah map, as joint forces from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization, and Sunni tribal fighters close in on a multiple-axis assault to encircle the city. The ISF and Popular Mobilization continue to recapture terrain north of Fallujah, including al-Sajar, and consolidate holdings around Garma District, which was recaptured on May 23. Popular Mobilization Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S. designated terrorist and Iranian proxy leader, arrived in Arimiyah, north of Saqlawiyah, on May 31, in order to oversee operations on the western axis, as the ISF and Popular Mobilization work to uproot ISIS from the area. Joint forces retook Saqlawiyah’s city center on May 30, but they will need to secure the area before moving into Fallujah city. The ISF entered Fallujah’s city limits on May 30, when forces from the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) reached Hayy al-Shuhada, the southernmost neighborhood in Fallujah, where they face stiff ISIS resistance against moving into the city.

Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias maintain a steady presence in northern Fallujah, where reports have surfaced of abuses against Sunni populations. Several local sources claim that Popular Mobilization fighters destroyed the Great Mosque in Garma while chanting sectarian slogans and vowing to kill residents. Sources claimed that militias prevented the Sunni Waqf head from entering Garma to organize Friday prayers, have looted homes and factories around Garma, and arrested civilians. A notable tribal sheikh in Garma claimed that Popular Mobilization militants kidnapped 73 men from Garma District and executed 17 of them on charges of belonging to ISIS. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, however, criticized media outlets for distorting the truth and inciting sectarianism through false reporting on events in Fallujah.

Shi’a militia abuses against the Sunni population might further radicalize Iraq’s Sunni population. Fallujah’s population has suffered under ISIS’s rule for over two years, but residents may be inclined to remain complicit or even identify with ISIS’s extreme sectarian ideology if they feel terrorized by Shi’a militias. Joint forces have opened several corridors for safe passage out of the city that lead primarily to recaptured terrain to the north and south of Fallujah. However, the U.N. has reported that only 3,700 civilians out of the estimated 50,000 remaining in the city have fled from Fallujah over the past week. ISIS has prevented civilians from leaving the area, by force and by requiring a steep payment to leave. Nevertheless, historically anti-government Sunni residents, some of whom were complicit when ISIS first took the city in January 2014, may be inclined to support ISIS rather than seek aid from Shi’a militias. The mindset that Iraqi Sunnis are better off under extremist ideology than in a Shi’a-driven government can perpetuate the Salafi-jihadi movement in Iraq. Until Iraq can guarantee Sunni representation and security, extremist groups will continue to find shelter amongst Iraq’s Sunni population.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: April 30 - May 26, 2016

By Genevieve Casagrande

Russia has continued its air campaign against the Syrian opposition, despite its claims to temporarily suspend airstrikes against Syrian al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra and the opposition. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced a temporary pause in its air campaign against Jabhat al Nusra in order to give opposition groups time to distance themselves from the jihadist group on May 25 and again on May 27. The withdrawal of opposition forces from key frontlines jointly held with Jabhat al Nusra – particularly in Aleppo – would likely render core opposition-held terrain vulnerable to advances by pro-regime forces. Russia is conducting a concerted effort against opposition forces in Aleppo, following opposition gains against pro-regime forces in southern Aleppo throughout April and May 2016. Russian air operations have largely concentrated against positions along the opposition’s last remaining supply route into Aleppo City from May 13 - 26, including against towns northwest of the city and areas in Aleppo’s northern industrial outskirts. Pro-regime forces remain positioned to encircle and besiege opposition forces in Aleppo City by severing this supply route. Pro-regime forces continued low-level ground operations supported by Russian airstrikes from May 12 -17 to complete the encirclement through the city’s northern industrial districts, although these efforts were unsuccessful.

Russia remains a decisive military force in the Syrian conflict, despite its alleged drawdown. Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesperson Col. Steve Warren stated that Russian currently retains “almost identical” military capabilities following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal on March 14. The distribution of Russian air operations in northwestern Syria demonstrates Russia’s continued prioritization of support to the Assad regime. The military assets that Russia maintains in theater allow it to respond within 24 hours to threats to regime terrain. Russian airstrikes escalated against opposition forces in northern Homs Province and southern Hama Province from May 12 – 16 and again from May 19 – 22 in response to renewed opposition operations against regime forces in the area. This concentration of strikes in defense of pro-regime terrain, however, was largely unable to reverse opposition gains.

Russia has meanwhile continued to present itself as an effective partner in the fight against terrorism, while continuing to function as a destabilizing force in the Syrian conflict. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced on May 20 that Russia had presented a plan to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to begin joint airstrikes against “international terrorist and illegal armed groups” that violate the cessation of hostilities agreement. U.S. officials subsequently denied the existence of any such agreement. Russia caveated its proposal for joint strikes, stating that Russia would not accept any arrangement that prevented it from conducting unilateral airstrikes in Syria. Russia is unlikely to halt military action against mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition, which remain the Assad regime’s largest adversaries. Russia has continued to indiscriminately target both Jabhat al Nusra and mainstream opposition factions in northwestern Syria despite the International Syria Support Group’s agreement to new measures to reinforce a nationwide cessation of hostilities on May 17. Russian airstrikes continued to primarily target opposition forces in northwestern Syria from May 13 - 26, rather than terrorist organizations such as ISIS. ISW was only able to assess one Russian airstrike against ISIS for the two-week period from May 13 – 26 with low confidence, despite continued ISIS operations throughout Syria.  

The following graphic depicts ISW's assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, Syrian state-run media, and statements by Russian and Western officials. This map represents locations targeted by Russia's air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties.  
High-Confidence reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated both by official government statements reported through credible channels and documentation from rebel factions or activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible.
Low-Confidence reporting. ISW places low confidence in secondary sources that have not been confirmed or sources deemed likely to contain disinformation.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: May 11-24, 2016

by Patrick Martin, Hannah Werman, and Emily Anagnostos

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization, and tribal fighters launched a major operation to retake Fallujah on May 23. The joint force quickly recaptured northern terrain on the first day, including Garma District, a historic hotbed for Sunni extremists including ISIS’s predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq. The joint force continued to consolidate surrounding terrain on May 24 as it advances towards central Fallujah. Security concerns, already heightened by an increase of ISIS attacks in Baghdad, could intensify as the Fallujah operation increases the likelihood of sectarian violence. The ISF must ensure that civilians fleeing Fallujah are not exposed to sectarian violence from Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias both during and after the operation.

Baghdad’s political and physical security are facing grave threats from ISIS, the Sadrist demonstrators, and Iraq’s own politicians. Sadrist demonstrators stormed the Green Zone on May 20 and broke into major government buildings, including the facilities housing the Council of Ministers (CoM), Council of Representatives (CoR), and Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office, before Interior Ministry security forces ejected protestors. The chaos follows a significant increase in ISIS activity in Baghdad and the Baghdad Belts. Deadly attacks targeted civilians in northern Baghdad on May 11 and 17, prompting the Sadrist militia Saraya al-Salaam to briefly deploy across Baghdad’s Shi’a neighborhoods before Sadr ordered their withdrawal on May 18. ISIS’s activity is significantly increasing in Baghdad’s northern Belts area. The group launched spectacular attacks in the districts of Balad on May 12 and 13 and Dujail on May 21, and carried out a large attack aimed at damaging the Taji Gas Plant near Camp Taji on May 15. Increased ISIS activity in the northern Belts and Baghdad could deteriorate the security situation to levels not seen since late 2014.

The deadly attacks indicate that ISIS is taking advantage of Iraq’s unstable political situation. ISIS has demonstrated intent to both exacerbate sectarian tensions and increase the possibility of intra-Shi’a conflict; its attacks have generated friction between the Sadrists, rival Iranian-backed proxy militias, and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).The Sadrists are exacerbating tensions by putting thousands of unruly demonstrators out on the streets against Iranian proxy militia forces and units from the Interior Ministry, controlled by the rival Badr Organization, who have little interest in seeing the Sadrists succeed. ISIS will have opportunities to increase its attack capabilities while the ISF and the Popular Mobilization are engaged in operations on multiple fronts, including recent successful operations which regained control over Rutba District on May 19 and the Ramadi-Jordan highway on May 20. However, both the ISF and Popular mobilization have also committed significant forces towards completing the encirclement of Fallujah and clearing ISIS from western Diyala Province. These efforts have required further forward deployments of Baghdad and southern-based security forces away from their bases in southern Iraq. Forces shifting in southern Iraq leaves the area vulnerable to a resurgence in ISIS attacks and opens avenues for ISIS to launch attacks into Baghdad from the South.

Iraq Control of Terrain Map: May 23, 2016

By Patrick Martin with Emily Anagnostos and Hannah Werman

Key Takeaway: The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has made significant gains in the Euphrates River Valley over the past two months, recapturing almost the entirety of the southern bank. The ISF, backed by tribal fighters and Coalition airstrikes, recaptured Hit District, west of Ramadi, on April 14 before recapturing nearly the entirety of the area between Hit and Baghdadi Sub-district over the subsequent weeks. Some villages, particularly on the northern bank of the river, remain under ISIS control. ISW is changing the status of these areas to Joint ISF-Sunni Tribal Fighter Control Zones.

Joint ISF and Popular Mobilization forces have launched operations to recapture the Fallujah area. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced the effort to recapture Fallujah on May 23 at a meeting with senior ISF officials and proxy militia leaders, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri. The ISF, large numbers of Popular Mobilization fighters, and Iranian proxy militiamen engaged in a concerted push to clear Fallujah's northern environs. The groups cleared Garma Sub-district, a historical safe-haven for Sunni extremist groups and a longtime base for ISIS attacks into the Baghdad area, on May 23. The ISF, backed by Coalition airstrikes and tribal fighters, also recaptured a stretch of highway south of Fallujah between the Habaniya base and Amiriyat al-Fallujah, a town that faces constant pressure from ISIS, on May 7. ISW is thus changing the status of this area to ISF Control Zone.

The ISF also recaptured Rutba, a district that sits along the Jordan-Ramadi highway in western Anbar, on May 10. ISW is thus changing the status of Rutba to ISF-held location. Claims by the Joint Operations Command (JOC) that the ISF fully control the highway between the Trebil border crossing with Jordan and Ramadi could not be confirmed.

A joint Iraqi Shi'a militia, Turkmen, and Peshmerga force recaptured the Shi'a Turkmen village of Bashir, south of Kirkuk, from ISIS on April 30. The operation was a symbolic victory for Iraqi Shi'a militias and Turkmen militias, as Bashir was the site of a massacre of Turkmen in late 2014. However, security arrangements remain tenuous, as the Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) often have friction and occasionally clash with Iraqi Shi'a militias and Turkmen militias, particularly in the joint-held town of Tuz Khurmato, south of Bashir. Bashir could thus be an additional source of friction between Turkmen and Kurds. ISW is changing the status of Bashir to Joint Peshmerga and Iraqi Shi'a militia Control.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Iraq Awaits Court Ruling on Legitimacy of Parliamentary Actions

By Emily Anagnostos

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s Federal Court will issue an important ruling on May 25 that could have a major impact on the political crisis.  The issues at stake are the legitimacy of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s ministerial appointments and the speakership of the Council of Representatives.  Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a driver of the political party that has raised the legal challenges. Iraq has been experiencing a political crisis since April 12, and protesters have stormed the Green Zone twice since April 30. They were followers of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been trying to channel a populist protest movement that has been underway since August.  One main issue at stake is the composition of the Cabinet. Sadr and Prime Minister Abadi are not close allies, but they both have sought to replace political party elites with technocratic ministers. Their chief opponent has been Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister and a rival of both. The appointment of ministers requires approval of Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR). The body had fractured on April 12, when a group of members staged an overnight sit-in against Prime Minister Abadi’s slate and the conduct of the Council of Representatives under Speaker Salim al-Juburi.  The group consisted of parliamentarians from many political parties and ultimately claimed a false quorum and enacted legislation. This rump parliament lasted for two weeks, but then disbanded. Some of its members formed a political bloc, called the Reform Front, and launched a legal case to try to preserve some of their rump parliamentary decisions and block some of the ministerial changes underway. The Reform Front is struggling for legitimacy as a legal entity and political power. The crux of the bloc’s legitimacy and its future in the political process has been relegated to the Federal Court to decide. The Federal Court, under longtime Maliki-ally Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud, announced it will hold the first session on May 25 regarding the legitimacy of the legislation passed by the rump CoR on April 14 and the ministerial changes enacted by Prime Minister Abadi on April 26. The Federal Court’s ruling could change the composition and leadership of the Council of Representatives and influence the momentum of Abadi’s reforms.


Iraq’s parliamentary crisis emerged from gridlock over a cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi had announced on February 9 and has tried to execute since then. PM Abadi announced his intent to replace ministers in in Cabinet, which has been a source of patronage for political elites. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr supported the reshuffle and called for the changes to be technocratic, instead of political, appointments. Sadr pressured PM Abadi to present a fully technocratic list by staging a mass sit-in at the entrance of the Green Zone on March 18 and drumming up popular support. The pressure worked and PM Abadi presented a fully technocratic list to the Council of Representatives (CoR) for a vote on March 31. The list was praised by Sadr for its technocratic composition, but other political blocs denounced it due to their lack of input on ministerial candidates. PM Abadi returned the CoR on April 12 and presented a second list which was a compromise of both technocratic and political ministerial candidates. Despite the compromise, political blocs rejected the new list as a partisan attempt to keep the quota system, so it was not put to a vote. When CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi adjourned the session without taking action on the list, several political blocs rejected the delay and demanded an immediate vote. Protesting CoR members, including those from the Sunni Etihad bloc, State of Law Alliance (SLA), the Sadrist-affiliated Ahrar Bloc, the secular Wataniya bloc, and the Kurdish parties, began a sit-in that evening in the CoR building in order to implement reforms.

The sit-in parties demanded the dismissal of the three presidencies, President Fuad Masoum, Prime Minister Abadi, and Speaker Juburi. Members reported on April 13 that they had collection a petition of 171 signatures, which would allow both quorum and absolute majority, required in passing legislation. This was never confirmed and pictures of the list of signatures never seemed to suggest more than 115 signatures, far below the quorum of 165 members. Juburi chaired an emergency CoR meeting the next day on April 13 in accordance with the protesters’ demands in order to discuss the Cabinet reshuffle and quell the protesters’ anger. Sources stated that the meeting met quorum at 174 members. The session, however, quickly descended into chaos after a fight broke out amongst CoR members. Juburi adjourned the meeting until April 14.

The rump CoR formed on April 14 in defiance of Juburi who had arrived to the CoR on April 14, announced that the meeting lacked quorum, and left. The protesters convened their own session, maintaining that the April 13 session remained open and that the quorum reached on April 13 still applied to the session on April 14. Some claimed that the April 14 session also reached 171 CoR members, though later reports stated that it only reached 131 members. The protesters had lost several members overnight, including members from the Kurdish parties and the Etihad bloc. The rump CoR nevertheless claimed they had met quorum and that the actions of April 14 were legal and binding. Under these terms, the protesters voted to dismiss Juburi and replace him with an interim Speaker - Wataniya member and former Baathist Adnan al-Janabi. Janabi adjourned the session until April 16.

However, the rump CoR did not make quorum on April 16, following withdrawals from the Badr Organization, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Etihad. The Kurds had likewise begun withdrawing their support on April 13 and denounced the dismissal of Juburi on April 14. Rump CoR members fell as low as 125 members, far below the quorum threshold of 165 members. The rump CoR lacked the legitimacy to undertake any further legal actions and continued to weaken as an entity which could overtake the legal CoR as the true legislative body.

The Rump CoR Loses Legitimacy

The failure of the rump CoR to meet quorum on April 16 drove the protesters to seek legitimacy from the Shi’a religious establishment. The Shi’a establishment instead rebuked the actions of the rump CoR and called for political agreement, not division. The rump CoR also botched an attempt to gain legitimacy by tricking withdrawn political blocs into returning to a session on April 19, as called for by President Masoum to resolve the split in the CoR. The session made quorum but Juburi failed to appear at the session for unknown reasons. When it was revealed that Juburi would not chair the session and instead the rump CoR was in charge, the Kurdish blocs left in an outrage. The rump CoR claimed that the initial presence in the meeting had met quorum and the meeting was valid, even though the walk-out of several parties left the session far below quorum. The rump CoR suffered another blow when the Ahrar Bloc withdrew from on April 20. As the beacon of technocratic reforms in the April reshuffle process, the Ahrar Bloc had initially provided the rump CoR a stamp of approval of its legitimacy. The absence of the Ahrar Bloc not only further reduced the rump CoR’s numbers far below quorum, but also indicated that the rump CoR could not assume the position of being the “true” CoR and was relegated to a rogue group of CoR members operating outside of the political framework.

The rump CoR continued to fall short of legitimacy and their failure to meet quorum, which they needed in order to operate according to legitimate standards, weakened the rump CoR’s efforts. Even members of the movement saw the continued lack of quorum as a sign of failure and suggested reintegrating into the “legal” CoR.  Meanwhile, the “legal” CoR, chaired by Juburi, made marked success when it convened on April 26 and voted in five new ministers as a part of the Cabinet reshuffle. The rump CoR physically tried to obstruct the vote and claimed that the session lacked quorum, but the vote continued. The success of the CoR to implement reforms in contrast to the weakened rump CoR tarnished the movement and made it clear that the rump CoR would never gain legitimacy next to the legal CoR.

Establishment of the Reform Front

The rump CoR formally ended its sit-in on April 27, moving to form an opposition bloc on April 28. The Reform Front represents the new political bloc under which the members of the now-disbanded rump CoR have organized. ISW assesses that the Reform Front has 84 members, primarily from the Dawa Party and Wataniya bloc. The Reform Front, despite the failure of the rump CoR, continues to maintain that the rump CoR was a legitimate legal body. It maintains that the decisions made in the rump CoR, primarily the dismissal of Juburi, were constitutional and binding. The Reform Front has added to the political stalemate in the CoR by boycotting until Juburi leaves his position and new elections are held. This stance has put the Reform Front at odds with the other political blocs who have rejected the legitimacy of the rump CoR. The Kurdistan Alliance and Etihad have boycotted the CoR as well, but their boycott was the result of the failure to protect CoR members from the April 30 protest which stormed the Green Zone. Ahrar continues to boycott until a technocratic government is installed. Their conditions for return are party-specific, but ultimately hinge on the assumption that Juburi remains as speaker.

Reform Front Composition

The composition of the Reform Bloc currently exists in a two-party polarity between Wataniya members and pro-Maliki members of the Dawa Party, following the withdrawal of the majority of its original participants. This odd alliance between two political rivals, former PM Maliki and his competitor in the 2010 election Ayad Allawi, rests on a similar search for power and influence rather than on common policy objectives. The Reform Front originally claimed to have 98 members on April 28, the majority from Wataniya and Dawa. The Reform Front also boasts a majority of the members from the Dawa in Iraq Party, a party in the SLA but distinct from Maliki’s Dawa Party, as well as several members who have defected from their political blocs.

The Reform Front is not a united front, however, as it has two dynamic leaders within the bloc each vying for control of the Front and the future Iraqi Government.  The pro-Maliki members dominate the Reform Front with an alleged 42 members, and as such Nouri al-Maliki has a strong claim to the bloc as its leader. Maliki had announced his support of the protests in the CoR on April 14, calling the events in the CoR a mature political movement” in opposition to earlier Green Zone sit-ins that aimed to bring down the political process.” Maliki denied on April 21 any rumors that he was leading the rump CoR despite the heavy presence of pro-Maliki supporters in the movement. Maliki’s position with the rump CoR offers possible legitimacy to the movement, however his position in Iraqi politics is deeply controversial, and even a deal-breaker, among other political parties and leaders, including Ayad Allawi.

Ayad Allawi joined the rump CoR sit-in himself on April 13 and has operated as a public and vocal spokesman for the Reform Front. Allawi, however, claimed that he has a “fundamental disagreement” with Maliki on May 12, indicating that the Reform Front does not represent a new political party with shared interests but rather a coalition of forces who still answer to their original political affiliations. Allawi and Maliki share a history which will continue to put the two leaders at odds. Allawi’s Wataniya party won the popular elections in 2010, earning the right to the form the government. Allawi was in line to become the next prime minister and replace Maliki, who had held the premiership from 2005. However Maliki persuaded the Federal Court to reword the definition of “largest bloc,” allowing the SLA to gather more political allies in the CoR and reclaim the premiership. Maliki remained Prime Minister and Allawi struggled to remain politically relevant.

The Reform Front made claims of having over 100 members as of May 18. ISW has assessed that the Reform Front has 84 members as of May 19, giving credence to the possibility that the Front does have significant numbers. The Reform Front has attracted most of its members from the SLA, diminishing the latter’s size dramatically. This new configuration would legally make the Reform Front the largest bloc in the CoR, giving it the right to form the government and chose the prime minister. The Reform Front has not yet made claim to this right and the SLA has avowed on May 17 that it still holds the right to the premiership. The weak legitimacy of the Reform Front, however, diminishes its claim to the right to form the government. However, a favorable upcoming ruling from the Federal Court could put the Reform Front in a stronger position as a political bloc in the CoR.

The Federal Court Decides on Legitimacy of Rump CoR

The Federal Court, the highest judicial body in Iraq, will issue a ruling on May 25 regarding the constitutionality of CoR sessions held on April 14 held by the rump CoR and the April 26 session which voted in new ministers under the chairmanship of Speaker Juburi. The court announced on May 12 that it had received six lawsuits regarding the CoR. Three cases regarded the dismissal and replacement of ministers on April 26 and three regarding the constitutionality of two April CoR sessions. The Federal Court announced on May 18 that it would hold the first hearing of those on May 25 in order to rule on the legality of the April 14 and April 26 CoR sessions. A decision regarding the April 14 rump CoR session, during which protesters voted out Juburi, would be a de facto ruling on the legality of Juburi’s position as CoR speaker. A decision regarding the constitutionality of the April 26 will likewise either validate or undermine the future of PM Abadi’s reform program.

Implications of the Court Ruling

A decision regarding the April 14 session will decide whether the actions of the rump CoR were constitutional to dismiss Juburi and elect an interim speaker. The Reform Front has stated it will respect the decision of the Federal Court, however an unfavorable ruling would further diminish the Reform Front’s legitimacy. The Reform Front has maintained that it will not return to the CoR while Salim al-Juburi is speaker. A ruling that established that the rump CoR lacked quorum on April 14 will erase the dismissal of Juburi and eliminate the Reform Front’s leverage over the political process. The Reform Front will need to return the CoR and heed Juburi as speaker or else lose its ability to act as a political party as it has lost its ability to act as political entity following the collapse of the rump CoR.

The decision of the Federal Court on May 25 will affect the decision of other boycotting political parties to return as well. Osama al-Nujaifi, leader of the Mutahidun in the Etihad bloc, announced on May 18 that the party is waiting for the decision of the Federal Court regarding the way forward. The ISCI-affiliated Mowatin bloc likewise announced on May 21 that it is waiting on the decision of the Federal Court “to solve the crisis.” Spokesman for the Mowatain Bloc Habib al-Tarafi stated on May 19 that the logical and right solution is to wait for a ruling from the Federal Court by resuming CoR sessions again,” and that such court decision will be binding. A judicial ruling could provide the push to break the stalemate in the political process by offering a solid foundation for political blocs to move forward and rebuild the political process.

Likewise, the Federal Court’s ruling on the April 26 session will either add credibility or destroy PM Abadi’s attempts to implement his Cabinet reshuffle. The April 26 CoR session is also under question for reaching quorum, and should the session be found lacking, the decision will set back PM Abadi’s attempts to implement reforms and cost what little momentum he gained from the session. SLA member Jassim Muhammad Jaafar stated that he expected the Federal Court will return the condition of the CoR to what is was before April 26, adding that PM Abadi will be forced to present his new Cabinet again before the session. Jaafar stated that these conditions are most likely to satisfy both sides” in the CoR, and that he expected the CoR to be unable to hold sessions until after the ruling.

However, it is unclear if all political parties will return to the negotiation table even if the obstacles of the constitutionality of April 14th and 26th are resolved. The issue of legality was only one hurdle for the Reform Front, who may be unwilling to fully cooperate with Juburi as CoR Speaker and may seek new leverage in order to guarantee their return. The Reform Front will continue to seek more members to add to its ranks in order to force the government’s hand into conceding to its demands. The Reform Front will continue to hold the dismissal of Juburi as one of their primarily demands even if the Federal Court rules in favor of his survival. The Reform Front could stall the political process at a time of thawing in political relations, most notably with the announcement that some Kurdish parties will return to Baghdad. The Reform Front sent a delegation to the Kurdistan Region on May 22 to meet with Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani and a delegation from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has not yet announced their return to the CoR. The Reform Front will continue to bid for the KDP’s return to the CoR as a part of the Front. The Reform Front’s growing size and pressure on the government could successfully be used as leverage to achieve its demands through nonconventional means.

The Reform Front has consistently seen that the future of Iraqi politics will be a two-party dynamic between a larger Reform Front and a bloc formed from the current government. Maliki cleverly has a foot in both parties as a prominent leader within the ruling State of Law Alliance and a notable supporter of the Reform Front. Nouri al-Maliki even issued an initiative for political solution on May 23 in which he noted that only he was able to bring the Reform Front back into the fold of the CoR, and that to do so the next CoR session would need to vote on the survival of CoR presidency. If Maliki can successfully reunite the two CoRs, he will cement his position as a leader in the Reform Front and in the future political process. It will also displace Ayad Allawi as leader of the Reform Front.

The Federal Court’s upcoming rulings on May 25 may provide a staging area to resume political dialogue as it can provide a binding resolution to controversial questions. However, beyond May 25, the decisions of the Federal Court will likely prove superficial. The Reform Front is unlikely to renege its demand that Juburi leave its position, if the Federal Court rules in Juburi’s favor, and instead will seek to gain addition leverage over the CoR, likely by courting more political parties, such as the Kurdish parties, to grow its ranks. The ruling can also further complicate the already complex political situation, allowing Maliki the opportunity to work the confusion in his favor and reestablish himself at the forefront of the political scene in Iraq. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Kurdish Objectives in Iraq’s Political Crisis

by: Emily Anagnostos with Patrick Martin

Key Takeaway: Iraqi politics are deadlocked. Several political parties and blocs boycotted the Council of Representatives (CoR) following the Sadrist protesters’ first breach of the Green Zone on April 30. The Kurdish Alliance, a bloc that consisted of nearly one-fifth of the CoR, withdrew on May 5. The bloc has now split, and two of its component political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, formally reunited on May 14 to create a new bloc.  The PUK and Gorran were incentivized by the urgent need for financial assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and likely by Iranian urging. A loan from the IMF in which Baghdad and the KRG will have a share proved decisive in incentivizing their cohesion. The PUK-Gorran Alliance will therefore likely strengthen ties between Baghdad and Arbil. Their rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), retains ambitions of regional independence and a stranglehold on political power in the KRG. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will either have to reintegrate or seek new political partners. The PUK and Gorran will likely eventually return to the CoR. Although they are still negotiating with the KDP, Kurdish parties are unlikely to return the CoR as one entity, ending what had been a significant, cohesive bloc. The new political alliance will nevertheless shift the power dynamics of both Baghdad and Arbil.


The Kurdistan Alliance has been the framework under which Kurdish political parties have formed a consensus agenda in the Iraqi Parliament since 2005 elections. The Kurdistan Alliance since 2014 elections had been comprised of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), the five of which constituted the entirety of Kurdish representation in the Iraqi parliament and are the five largest parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). These five political parties are answerable to both the politics of Baghdad and those of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurdistan Alliance has primarily aimed to maintain Kurdish influence within the Iraqi Government in order to guarantee financial and budgetary assistance for the KRG.

The Kurdistan Alliance persistently blocked Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s attempt to create a technocratic government through his cabinet reshuffle, proposed first on February 9, 2015. The bloc has insisted on retaining the ethnic and sectarian quotas that ensure Kurdish representation within the government, preserve Kurdish control over ministries, and ensure that the Iraqi Presidency remains in Kurdish hands. The bloc’s goal in the reforms was retaining positions for Kurdish leaders, such as Minister of Finance Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the KDP. PM Abadi’s reform plans, however, seek to end the quota system on principle which threatens guaranteed Kurdish representation and may lead to a decrease in Kurdish representation.

The Kurdish parties had presented a unified bloc in Baghdad until May 1, while within the KRG they have been fractious and struggling with one another for power. KRG President Masoud Barzani has retained his office past when his term limit ended in 2013 when the legal council in the KRG parliament twice granted him a two year extension, first in August 2013 and then in August 2015, granting him full powers until the 2017 parliamentary elections. His rivals in the Gorran Party, the second largest party in the KRG, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) denounced this extension, calling for new presidential elections and even for a new form of government. The political crisis split the KRG on October 12, 2015 when the KDP blamed Gorran for the large-scale anti-KDP demonstrations which erupted in Sulaimaniyah Province over unpaid salaries. The KDP expelled Gorran from the KRG, demanding that Gorran not return to the government until they had replaced several Gorran members whom the KDP blamed for the political tensions. The split in the KRG has continued since then without resolution. The KDP and Gorran have yet to reconcile and Gorran has not returned to the Kurdish Government in Arbil. The PUK attempted to act as a mediator between the five main political parties in the KRG in early 2016 in order to restore Gorran to the KRG. All five Kurdish parties met on February 3 for the first time since October 2015. They were scheduled to meet again on February 7 in the presence of Masoud Barzani, but the KDP “indefinitely delayed these negotiations for reconciliation. These divisions have created incentives for Gorran and PUK to try to thwart Barzani’s consolidation of power, and even to seek recourse in Baghdad to achieve those gains.

The Kurdistan Alliance Withdraws from Baghdad Politics

The Kurdistan Alliance withdrew from Iraq’s Council of Representatives in Baghdad, outraged over the failure of security forces to secure the CoR building during the April 30 protests, when Sadrist Trend-driven protesters stormed the Green Zone and the parliamentary building and physically assaulted Kurdish CoR members. Those assaulted included PUK senior member Ala Talabani, niece of PUK founder Jalal Talabani, and Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad. The Kurdish parties left for Iraqi Kurdistan on May 1 after escaping the Green Zone and announced that they would not return to Baghdad until their physical safety was guaranteed. One Kurdish CoR member stated that there was “no hope in the current government” to contain the crisis, and called CoR Speaker Salim Juburi’s efforts to resolve the crisis as temporary and incapable of being implemented.  The Kurdish parties on May 5 refused to come back to the CoR for the next session, originally scheduled for 10 May.

The Kurdistan Alliance’s withdrawal from Baghdad represents a major inflection point in the Iraqi political crisis because the Kurdish parties control a significant proportion of the CoR and have the ability to help determine a quorum as well as advance and dismiss legislation. Their unified walk-out gave the Kurds a new source of leverage over the CoR, as Iraq’s political process remains paralyzed without their participation. 

The Kurdistan Alliance’s Demands

President Masoum met with senior ISCI member Adil Abdul-Mahdi on May 6 to discuss the political crisis and future plans in the Ministry of Oil, especially regarding the mission of self-sufficiency in the oil industry. The Kurdish demands regarding oil and gas laws were likely a central focus of this conversation as a solution to resume the political process in Baghdad. Kurdish demands also included addressing Article 140 in the Constitution regarding the disputed status of Kirkuk Province, a highly controversial topic which will not be resolved in these negotiations.  President Masoum continued to meet with other political parties with significant clout in the Iraqi Government, including meetings with ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim, National Alliance leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and SLA leader Nouri al-Maliki all individually on May 9, where Masoum likely acted as mediator between political parties in order to relay the financial prerequisites of the Kurdish CoR members’ return and hear the negotiating terms from these three Shi’a political leaders. These negotiations were not decisive and failed to draw the Kurdish political parties back to Baghdad.

Most Kurdish demands of Baghdad were driven by money rather than security.  Initially, the Kurds maintained that the primary condition of their return to Baghdad was a guarantee that the events of April 30 would not repeat, calling it a “black day” in Iraqi political history. But the Kurdish political bloc continued to pursue its enduring demands for legislation in Baghdad on the core issues of revenue sharing, budget relief, and the status of the disputed internal boundaries (DIBs) that it wishes to incorporate into the Kurdish region. The KRG currently struggles to pay the salaries of both its government employees and its Peshmerga forces and, like Baghdad, is burdened with falling global oil prices. The Kurdish Alliance thus replaced the blustering of the previous days in order to demand more tangible financial concessions from Baghdad. These demands include the payment of government and Peshmerga salaries and implementation of oil and gas laws which would help the KRG’s floundering economic situation. They were relayed between various political parties by Iraqi President Fuad Masoum, a senior member of the PUK who also speaks on behalf of the Kurdish parties in Baghdad’s power politics.

The Kurds also issued a set of demands which were both unreasonable and unattainable. The walk out on May 1 was coupled with the publication of an op-ed by Masrour Barzani, nephew of KRG President Masoud Barzani, calling for an “amicable divorce” from Baghdad on May 5. The KDP thereby added the threat of declaring independence to the list of demands. Masoud Barzani announced back on January 26 that he would seek to hold a referendum before the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, likely using the upcoming U.S. elections as a tangible deadline to foster a sense of imminent change.

Baghdad Vies for Kurds to Return

The threat that Kurdish parties would withdraw indefinitely, and possibly permanently, from Baghdad changed the ongoing negotiations among Iraqi Government leaders who immediately prioritized negotiations for the Kurdistan Alliance’s return. But because Baghdad’s leaders were themselves fractured over Abadi’s reforms among other issues, several political groups within Baghdad will vie for the Kurds’ return to the CoR and into new political agreements. The emerging Reform Front, created from the rump parliament session on April 27, seeks Kurdish membership in its efforts to reach a quorum. Abadi hopes to court the Kurds back into the political process in order to resume his reform legislation and to block the Reform Front’s efforts to changing the status quo.

CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi was among the first to visit some Kurdish parties in order to secure their return to the political process in Baghdad, but he went to Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the PUK, rather than the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil where the KDP prevails. Juburi’s outreach to Kurdish leaders on May 8 appeared to be relegated to the Kurdish opposition parties of the PUK and Gorran, with Juburi visiting recently-returned Gorran leader Nushirwan Mustafa, who had returned to the Kurdistan Region on April 28 after seven months in London seeking medical treatment. The timing of his return is not coincidental. Juburi also met with Gorran Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad and PUK leader Ala Talabani. Gorran and the PUK stand to lose from continued political absence and are less committed ideologically to an independent Kurdish Region as the KDP. They also have stakes in removing the political stranglehold of President Barzani over KRG politics.

The international community, led by Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jan Kubis, finally achieved a breakthrough that softened some Kurdish parliamentarians’ hardline stance against their return to the CoR by appealing to financial interests. Kubis carried out a series of meetings in both Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the PUK, and Arbil, the headquarters of the KDP, on May 8, where he reminded the Kurdish parties that they would have access to the much needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan only if they participated in the government in Baghdad. Iraq stands to gain significant financial support from a proposed $15 billion loan from the IMF over the next three years. The KRG, as a part of Iraq, would stand to inherit a portion of that fund, which, if approved, is slated to release the first of three installments in June 2016. The prospect of massive financial support through the IMF loan is further enticement for Kurdish parties to remain active in the Baghdad government.

The Kurdish Alliance Fractures

The Kurdistan Alliance has formally fractured over these financial incentives. The threat of no international financial assistance has motivated several Kurdish CoR members to walk away from stringent Kurdish demands of independence and from the KDP. The Iraqi Government has continued to court Kurdish opposition parties, who are the most likely to soften at prospects of the IMF loan, as Prime Minister Abadi personally sent a delegation to Sulaimaniyah on May 12 to meet with PUK member Ala Talabani and Gorran Second Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad. The IMF loan was the weight needed to break apart the Kurdistan Alliance. Gorran and the PUK announced on May 14 that they had ratified a new political alliance. The two announced that they would run on the same list in 2017 elections and would coordinate in political efforts in the KRG, in the CoR, and in provincial governments.

The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will seek alternative demands and negotiations for participation in Baghdad and will be more willing to cooperate with the federal government than the KDP in order to achieve their financial demands. A Reform Front member made an unconfirmed report on May 13 that suggested that the PUK-Gorran Alliance and Baghdad plan to carry out significant financial negotiations including handing over oil sales to Baghdad in exchange for Baghdad providing salaries for Kurdish employees in Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, and Arbil provinces.The PUK and Gorran are not in favor of declaring independence of Iraqi Kurdistan at this time, and a senior PUK official, Mulla Bakhtiar, noted during Juburi’s May 8 visit that “we are still a part of Iraq.” Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG and PUK member Qubad Talabani later stated on May 15 that now was not the time for Kurdish independence, pointing specifically to the KRG’s weak economy and infrastructure. The KRG, with the PUK-Gorran Alliance in charge, would remain a part of Iraq and would seek negotiations with Baghdad.

The PUK and Gorran together have 29 CoR members (originally 30; one Gorran member has joined the Reform Front) to the KDP’s 25. Currently 216 of 328 CoR members are assessed to be boycotting CoR sessions, the possible return of the new PUK-Gorran Alliance would likely influence other blocs, notably the Sunni Etihad bloc with roughly 40 active members, to return as well. (The current size of Etihad is unclear, as some members have joined the Reform Front, but Etihad likely retains a sizeable number of members.) These additions could put the CoR in range of meeting quorum and resuming sessions. The KIU and KIG may also be persuaded to follow the PUK-Gorran lead and return their seven CoR members to Baghdad. The Reform Front will try to court the PUK-Gorran Alliance to join their bloc in order to sway the CoR majority in their favor. Nouri al-Maliki praised the new PUK-Gorran Alliance on May 18 as an “important step” to overcoming divisions within the Kurdistan Region and “an overall understanding with Baghdad.” The Reform Front will likely increase relations with the new alliance in the coming days in order to persuade the PUK-Gorran Alliance to considering rejoining the CoR as a part of the Reform Front.

Note: ISW has tracked Iraq’s building political crisis since early February, following political reforms proposed by Prime Minister Abadi and the challenges to them.  The Council of Representatives (CoR) has also faced challenges from an increasingly fractious set of parties some of which have attempted to break off from the CoR and form a “rump” Parliament that later morphed into a new opposition bloc, the Reform Front, composed of members from various parties.  As with all political maneuvering, ISW has relied on media reporting as well as our own assessment of likely political coordination, cooperation, and alignment among and between individuals and parties.  We are currently re-examining our methodology in light of recent maneuvers and statements leading up to the CoR Ramadan break and will update our CoR graphic when that analysis is completed.

Iran and the New PUK-Gorran Alliance

Iran has used its historic relationship with the PUK in order to facilitate this Kurdish political reorganization consistent with their interests: preventing Kurdish independence, marginalizing Barzani, and returning to a stability in Baghdad consistent with the status quo prior to protests. Iranian representatives therefore conducted a series of meetings with the PUK after the April 30 protests, likely in an effort to steer them politically and guide their demands. Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaifar met with KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on May 3 to discuss the political crisis. Danaifar met on May 4 with Second Deputy Secretary General of the PUK Barham Salih in an unpublicized meeting that did not reach vetted media. Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi likewise visited both PM Nechirvan Barzani and President Masoud Barzani in Arbil on May 15, the latter of whom Alavi invited to visit Tehran. Alavi then with Barham Salih and First Deputy Secretary General of the PUK Kusrat Rasul Ali in another unpublicized meeting in Sulaimaniyah on May 15. Iran likely has their own requests of the PUK and Gorran, including the return of the Kurdish political parties to Baghdad in order to restore stability in the Iraqi government. The Iranians have likewise used their relationship with the PUK to corral President Masoud Barzani’s move towards independence and attempts to monopolize power.  

The KDP Reacts

The new PUK-Gorran Alliance is also large enough to be a formidable rival to the KDP in KRG. The PUK became the third largest party within the KRG after the 2013 parliamentary elections when Gorran split from its ranks and formed its own party, seizing 24 seats in the KRG parliament and reducing the size of the PUK from 29 seats in 2009 to 18 seats in 2013. The KDP remains the largest party with 38 seats. As 2017 elections in the KRG approach and as President Barzani continues to remain as president beyond his term limit, the re-merger between the PUK and Gorran, which at current numbers would boast a combined 42 seats in the KRG parliament, could pose a significant political driver and perhaps a threat to Barzani, who has occupied his office since since 2005. The KDP unsurprisingly denounced the new alliance as “deepening internal issues” within the KRG on May 18.

The KDP is now fracturing internally. Some members still call for independence.  One KDP CoR member stated on May 10 that the “partnership between Baghdad and Arbil has collapsed.” President Masoud Barzani’s speech on the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on May 16 called for recognition that the Sykes-Picot had “ended” and to treat Iraq as a “brother and neighbor” and no longer a partner. These strong condemnations of continued contact with Baghdad contradict actions and statements made by other ranking KDP members.

Other KDP members would prefer to remain in Baghdad politics.  KDP member and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari met with President Fuad Masoum on May 11 about the impending IMF loan.  KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani stated on May 12 that “as long as we are part of Iraq, we should not be cut off from the political process,” calling for the Kurdish CoR members to return to Baghdad. Nechirvan Barzani’s statement echoes sentiments closer to PUK official Mulla Bakhtiar than to KDP associates and family members.  Some KDP members may therefore return to the CoR on their own accord.

Alternatively, the lack of cohesion in rhetoric may be a way for the KDP to maintain its political leverage. President Masoud Barzani’s continued rhetoric requires political negotiators in Baghdad – whether it is Abadi or the Reform Front – to likewise increase their bids for the KDP’s return. Meanwhile, PM Nechirvan Barzani and key KDP officials like Zebari continue to soothe Baghdad’s concerns that their bids are unreceived and provide continued physical contact between the KDP and Baghdad. The KDP will not relinquish power easily, whether in Baghdad or Arbil, and will play all its cards in order to make Baghdad cater to its demands..

Baghdad Sweetens the Deal

President Fuad Masoum arrived in Arbil on May 16 and May 17, meeting with President Masoud Barzani and later with Vice President Qubad Talabani to stress the importance of political solutions. Masoum also met with PUK founder Jalal Talabani and with Gorran leader Nushirwan Mustafa in Sulaimaniyah on May 19 to congratulate the new PUK-Gorran Alliance and discuss the return to Baghdad. Masoum seeks to bring the Kurds back to Baghdad while maintaining the cohesion in the Kurdish bloc.

On May 17, the Iraqi Central Bank, managed by Ali al-Alaaq, announced that it will open a branch in the Kurdistan Region as the result of talks between the “federal government” and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Alaaq, a prominent member of the Dawa Party, was part of the delegation personally sent by PM Abadi to meet with PUK and Gorran officials in Sulaimaniyah on May 12. The opening of a banking establishment in Arbil that is directly and inherently connected to Baghdad suggests long-term coordination between Baghdad and Arbil and an intent to establish continued relations. The opening also underscores that the Kurdistan Region will not move for independence any time soon and instead will continue negotiations that allow for long-term financial support from the Iraqi Government in return for the Kurdish parties’ return to the CoR. Additionally, the announcement on May 19 that the IMF has  a $5.4 billion standby agreement to Iraq, with the ability to receive up to $15 billion from international aid over three years, and the rumor that the Kurds would receive 17% of this loan, adds further pressure and enticement for the Kurds to remain active in the Baghdad political process. The personal visit of Oil Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to visit President Masoud Barzani in Arbil on May 19 also suggests that the KRG and Baghdad will continue to conduct financial agreements. These signs of the KRG’s continued financial dependence on Baghdad indicates that all Kurdish parties will return to the CoR, however it is unclear when they will return and if they return as a cohesive bloc or separate entities.

Will the Kurds Return to Parliament?

The fracture of the Kurdistan Alliance will force the Kurdish parties to reevaluate their positions in both Baghdad and Arbil. It is unlikely that the Kurdistan Alliance as it existed before April 30 will remain. The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will shift the power dynamics within the Kurdish political parties. The PUK and Gorran are likely to return to the CoR as negotiations, primarily over the IMF loan, continue. The KDP may return as well, but it is unclear if it will return within the framework of the PUK-Gorran Alliance or outside of it. The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will likely work more closely with the Abadi government in Baghdad.

PM Abadi may find the Kurdish parties with the PUK-Gorran Alliance at the helm a more malleable and open-minded political ally that can help him retain his control over the government and keep pro-Maliki political forces at bay. The PUK and Gorran will likely soften their position on Baghdad’s oversight in northern Iraq if Baghdad can guarantee substantial financial support to the alliance’s primary support base in Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk provinces. The PUK-Gorran Alliance’s current disinclination towards Kurdish independence will also ease the concerns of Abadi, Iran, and the U.S. which seek a unitary Iraq. 

The KDP may seek new partners within the CoR in order to maintain its relevance as the PUK-Gorran bloc moves ahead. Maliki’s Reform Front is trying to entice it, a dangerous course of action because it could empower the Abadi government’s main challenger. But the PUK-Gorran alliance itself is also negotiating for the KDP’s return, and it can offer a combination of concessions in Arbil and Baghdad that help stabilize both, a tremendous boon for an Iraqi government on the verge of collapse.