Thursday, December 19, 2019

Iraq Situation Report: December 10 - 18, 2019

By Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest in Iraq and its effects on political-security dynamics. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This Iraq SITREP map covers the period December 10 - 18, 2019.

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s political elite has oriented around three initiatives to placate protesters before holding new parliamentary elections: 1) to create a new electoral commission to oversee future elections; 2) to pass an electoral law reforming how seats are won in the parliament, and 3) to choose a prime minister to replace the resigned, but still caretaker, PM Adel Abdul Mehdi until elections occur. Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR), approved a new electoral commission on December 5. The CoR twice failed to reach consensus on a new election law before the scheduled votes on December 11 and 18. President Barham Salih extended the deadline to select a replacement prime minister but attempted to pass his constitutional responsibility to identify the largest parliamentary bloc to the CoR speaker. Neither official has identified the largest bloc and no coalition has consolidated around any one candidate, exacerbating infighting among political elites and their militias. Iran’s proxy militias, meanwhile, continue to deliberately and violently target three groups—protesters, nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his supporters, and the U.S.-led Coalition—in order to drive political action in Iran’s favor. Sadr, who is in Iran, willingly or unwillingly made two concessions in the face of Iranian pressure: shutting down his popular Facebook page and closing some offices affiliated with the Sadrist Movement for a period of one year. Sadr, however, retains his core sources of political power: his militia, his personal brand, and popular religious veneration for his family. Sadrist parliamentarians continue to oppose all PM candidates proposed by Iran-friendly political parties.

11 Dec: Iraqi Parliament Fails to Vote on Electoral Reform. The Council of Representatives (CoR) convened in a scheduled session to vote on an electoral reform law but adjourned after failing to hold a vote. Members of Parliament (MPs) stated that the disagreement between blocs is primarily over Article 15 of the bill, which will determine what percentage of MPs will derive from party lists or independent candidacies. All current MPs won their seats by party list and wish to maintain the status quo. Sadr’s populist Toward Reform bloc is the only party advocating for abolishing list-based voting completely.

15 Dec: President Salih Attempts to Dodge Constitutional Requirements and Deadlines. Iraqi President Barham Salih sent a formal letter requesting that CoR Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi identify the largest bloc in the CoR. The President of Iraq is constitutionally responsible for inviting the largest bloc within the CoR to designate a prime minister, who then has 30 days to form a Council of Ministers. President Salih never formally identified the largest bloc during the 2018 elections, but rather allowed an informal coalition to nominate the consensus candidate, Adel Abdul Mehdi. Salih stated in his letter to Halbousi that the resignation letter of Caretaker PM Mehdi reached the President’s office on December 4, not December 1 as previously understood. Salih used this legal loophole to extend the 15-day deadline to nominate a new PM to December 19.

16 Dec: Parliament Ducks Salih’s Request. CoR Speaker Halbousi did not respond to President Salih’s letter, but CoR Deputy Speaker and Toward Reform member Hassan al-Kaabi responded to President Salih’s request with a formal letter stating that Salih had been “notified” of the largest bloc following the 2018 election. Kaabi implied that the largest bloc which elected current Caretaker PM Mehdi could again choose a new PM. The coalition of parties which compromised to elect Mehdi has since splintered into opposing blocs.

13-16 Dec: Political Blocs and Grand Ayatollah Sistani Reject Possible PM Deal. Iran-friendly Conquest Alliance (47 parliamentary seats) likely floated the name of Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani as a replacement PM candidate. Sudani immediately resigned from the Dawa Party and the State of Law Alliance (25 seats) in order to appear more independent. Iranian proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) organized a protest march in Central Baghdad in support of Sudani on December 14. Anonymous sources in Najaf close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told AFP that Sistani vetoed Sudani as a candidate. One hundred seventy members of the CoR also reportedly signed a petition on December 16 stipulating that the new PM must not be a member of a political party, must not have held any political office since 2003, and must not hold dual citizenship—stipulations which Sudani clearly does not meet. Sudani has served in multiple cabinet and elected positions since 2003. One hundred sixty-five MPs constitute the absolute majority required in Iraq’s parliament in order to approve a new government. Demonstrators have vocally denounced Sudani.

18 Dec: Political Blocs Provide Last-Minute Candidates as Acceptable Replacements for PM Deal. Several political blocs and independent candidates put forward names to fill the PM post in the hours before the December 19 deadline to designate a new prime minister. Iran-friendly parties State of Law (25 seats) and Conquest Alliance (47 seats) put forward a new candidate, Qusay al-Suhail, who is the current Minister of Higher Education in PM Mehdi’s caretaker government. He is a former member of Sadr’s Toward Reform party but left to join the State of Law Coalition. Alternatively, a representative of Wisdom Trend (29 seats) suggested that Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the current head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, has the best chance of becoming PM because he is not linked to any political party. Political blocs did not vocally reject Kadhimi. Current MP Faiq Sheikh Ali also announced his independent candidacy in a letter to President Salih. Ali is a proponent of electoral reform, a secular liberal, and a longstanding critic of the Iraqi political establishment. He enjoys a significant social media following but has not yet been backed by a powerful bloc.

18 Dec: Parliament Fails Again to Vote on Electoral Reform. The CoR held two consecutive sessions in a failed attempt to pass an electoral reform bill. The CoR voted in the first session to pass just 14 of the 50 total articles comprising the pending bill, stopping short of the key reform. CoR Speaker Halbousi immediately started a new session, but the total number of present MPs fell from 224 to 207. Halbousi received requests to postpone votes on Articles 15 and 16 for further discussion and amendment, but only 71 of the 207 MPs voted to postpone. Halbousi, however, was forced to abruptly end the session because the CoR lost quorum. The CoR is scheduled to reconvene on December 23.

11-13 Dec: Demonstrators Kill and Lynch Boy. Unidentified demonstrators killed and lynched a 16-year-old from a traffic light near Wathba Square in Central Baghdad on December 11. The boy reportedly fired a weapon into the air in order to deter protesters from congregating near his home. Protesters then swarmed and stabbed him repeatedly before hanging his body from a lamp post. Police were present at the scene but did not intervene. Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stated that if the persons responsible for the killing were not found within 48 hours, he will order the Blue Hats to withdraw from the square. The Blue Hats are a reference to men loyal to the Sadrist Movement who wear blue baseball caps and are under orders to protect protesters. Some Blue Hats have been given training by Sadr’s militia, Saraya al-Salam. The Blue Hats reportedly conducted a de facto citizens’ arrest of four people on December 13 in relation to the December 11 attack.

13 Dec: Sadr Attempts to Deescalate With Some Concessions, But Retains Key Capabilities. Moqtada al-Sadr closed a massively popular Facebook page that he uses to communicate with followers following targeted violence by Iranian proxy militias. The page, “Mohammed Saleh al-Iraqi,” posted one word: “Goodbye.” It has not yet been updated. Sadr also issued an official statement announcing the closure of the offices of the Sadrist Movement for one year. Sadr notably “excluded” his personal office, thereby retaining his personal brand; the shrines of his father and two brothers, thereby retaining his religious influence; and the Saraya al-Salam militia, thereby retaining his ability to participate in armed conflict. The members of Sadr’s political party, Toward Reform, continued to participate normally in parliamentary proceedings.

10-16 Dec: Iranian Proxies Continue Targeted Attacks on Protesters. Iranian proxies escalated their campaign against activists and organizers in Baghdad and across Southern Iraq using kidnappings, knives, guns, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Militias are identifying protesters through security cameras and government databases, according to Iraqi newspaper al-Mada. The widespread kidnappings, torture, and assassinations targeted at least 18 activists and their families between December 10-16 in Baghdad, Basra, and Diwaniyah. Most of these incidents are not reported to authorities. Hundreds of protesters are reportedly still missing following recent kidnappings in Baghdad alone. Several activists were immediately admitted into intensive care units following their release.

10-13 Dec: Iranian Proxy Forces Exchange Assassination Attempts with Sadrists Following Clashes in Baghdad. Likely Iranian proxy militias detonated an IED targeting the home of a Sadrist official in Amarah, Maysan Province, after midnight on December 10. Likely Sadrist Saraya al-Salam militants detonated three IEDs on the same night in Amarah targeting the leader of local Iranian proxy militia Ansar Allah al-Awfiya', a medical complex affiliated with Iranian proxy AAH, and an unspecified local AAH leader. Masked gunmen, likely from Iranian proxy militias AAH and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), clashed with unarmed Sadrist Blue Hats in Central Baghdad on December 6. Assessed Iranian proxies performed a drive-by shooting targeting a vehicle containing the son of Ja'far al-Musawi, a spokesman for the Sadrist movement, in the Zafaraniya District in Baghdad on December 13. Musawi’s son survived.

11 Dec: Iranian Proxies Conduct Another Rocket Attack Near Baghdad International Airport. Iranian proxy militias, assessed to be KH and AAH, fired two Katyusha rockets which struck the “outside perimeter” of Baghdad International Airport near a base holding U.S.-led Coalition forces. The rockets caused no significant damage. This latest attack brings the total number of attacks on or near Coalition positions to at least ten since protests began in October.

11-15 Dec: U.S. Officials Openly Identify and Call Out Iran for its Proxy Violence toward Coalition Soldiers. Anonymous senior U.S. military officials told Reuters and the New York Times on December 11 that Iranian proxy militias, specifically KH and AAH, are to blame for the recent rocket attacks on facilities housing American personnel in Iraq. At least 11 separate rocket attacks have targeted such facilities since early October. U.S. officials said that Iranian proxy militias are approaching a “red line.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warned in an official statement on December 13 that “any attacks by [Iran], or [its] proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive U.S. response.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with PM Mehdi by phone on December 15 and asked Iraq to help prevent such attacks.