Islamic State new threat
In 2013 and 2014, violence increased sharply again. In January 2014, Sunni extremists, who called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), occupied parts of the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar.
Despite the violence, parliamentary elections could be held on 30 April. As expected, no alliance gained its own majority, but the rule of law, an alliance formed by al-Maliki, was clearly the largest and al-Maliki thought he had a good chance of remaining. Criticism of him for pursuing a policy that primarily benefited Shiites increased as Isis expanded its control to large parts of northwestern Iraq. Many Sunnis with links to the Saddam regime also supported Isis without being religious extremists. Their reason was the aversion to the Shia-dominated government. After strong pressure from within the country and from the United States, al-Maliki gave up attempts to form a government and let party comrade Haidar al-Abadi take over. This formed a broad government in which both Sunnis and Kurds again took their place. Nevertheless, the crisis worsened.
In late June, Isis proclaimed an Islamic state, a “caliphate”, in the parts of Iraq and Syria they controlled, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. At the same time, the organization changed its name to only the Islamic State (IS). Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed “caliph of the Muslim world”.
With the help of captured weapons and rapid recruitment of militant young men from a wide range of countries, including Sweden, IS conquered ever larger areas and came menacingly close to both the autonomous Kurdish region and the capital Baghdad. IS appeared to be a direct threat to the existence of the Iraqi state and the entire Middle East. Its extremely brutal methods against religious and ethnic minority groups, with mass murder and mass expulsions, upset the whole world and were branded by the UN as genocide . IS was also reported to methodically destroy ancient cultural heritage.
At the request of the Iraqi government, the United States began bombing IS positions in an attempt to push back the militia. Dozens of countries – both from the Western world and the Arab world – joined the US bombing war to varying degrees. In particular, IS’s progress made 2014 the bloodiest year in Iraq since 2007. According to various estimates, between 15,000 and 17,000 people were killed.
IS crushed, but Kurds create new crisis
In August 2015, Prime Minister al-Abadi tried to reduce dissatisfaction with the government and streamline state power. Among other things, a number of top-level political posts were abolished. However, pushing through the entire reform plan proved difficult. It was rejected step by step by the courts on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
In 2016, the army, in cooperation with Shia militias and Sunni clan militias and with air support from the United States, was able to drive IS back out of large areas and take back important cities. In July 2017, IS was expelled from Mosul after more than six months of siege that devastated large parts of the city and forced 900,000 city dwellers to flee. For the rest of the year, extremists lost almost every other area of Iraq they controlled and the “caliphate” was destroyed.
But at the same time, a serious new crisis arose, when the Kurds in the north, despite strong warnings from the government and the outside world, conducted a referendum in September 2017 on full independence. Particularly provocative was the fact that the vote also took place in areas outside autonomous Kurdistan, which the Kurds have ruled militarily since 2014, when IS had driven out the Iraqi army, including the ethnically mixed and oil-rich province of Kirkuk. A rapid Iraqi army offensive drove away Kurdish forces and perhaps 100,000 civilians from Kirkuk, and the government sought to stifle the Kurdish region economically by closing borders and stopping air traffic. There was also an internal crisis between the dominant Kurdish parties who accused each other of betrayal. The referendum was declared illegal by the Iraqi Supreme Court.
A new generation of leaders has since taken over in Kurdistan and is working hard to make relations with the central government in Baghdad work.
Tug of war between the United States and Iran
After the ravages of IS, there remains an extensive need for reconstruction and major problems with how IS supporters should be prosecuted and where their relatives should go. Several of the IS recruits’ home countries have brought home women and children, while the fighters have been treated harshly by the Iraqi judiciary. In Iraq, according to babyinger, IS members risk the death penalty, unlike in Syria, where IS also had control over large areas when the movement’s success was greatest. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been dead since 2019 (he was reportedly hard hit by a bomb belt in Syria), but “dormant cells” of IS members have since struck targets in both Iraq and Syria.
The division in Iraqi politics persists, and is marked by a tug-of-war between forces that the United States supports and groups that work closely with Iran. One attempt after another to bring about a functioning government has failed.
During Donald Trump’s term as president, tensions between the United States and Iran have increased, and have also taken violent forms on Iraqi soil. In early 2020, the United States killed a well-known Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, a key figure in Iran’s foreign operations, in Baghdad. US bases and the embassy in Baghdad were fired upon with rockets, attacks attributed to the Iranian militia.
Iraq is also dependent on trade with Iran, which is why the US decision to reintroduce sanctions against Iran also affects the Iraqi public. Popular waves of protests in Iraq are recurring and are largely rooted in a lack of community service, and infrastructure such as the electricity grid is one of the things that the rulers of Iraq find difficult to maintain without Iran’s help.
Iraq’s largest domestic asset is oil, and falling oil prices from 2014 hampered the country’s prospects of managing reconstruction and other societal needs on its own. In 2020, when an international oil price war and the global corona pandemic coincided, Iraq’s state budget was also punctured, so that the next few years will provide meager revenues for efforts for the needs of its citizens.