Iraq’s government declared military victory against the terrorist insurgents of the Islamic State group (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) in December 2017, but counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations against the group are ongoing. Iraqis are shifting their attention toward recovery and the country’s political future. Security conditions have improved but remain fluid, and daunting resettlement, reconstruction, and reform needs occupy citizens and decision makers. National legislative elections are scheduled for May 12, 2018, and campaigning reflects issues stemming from the 2014-2017 conflict with the Islamic State as well a range of preexisting internal disputes and governance challenges. Ethnic, religious, regional, and tribal identities remain politically relevant, as do partisanship, personal rivalries, economic disparities, and natural resource imbalances. Iraq’s neighbors and other outsiders continue to pursue their interests in the country, at times cooperatively and at times in competition.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is seeking reelection in May, but rivals from other factions and movements are running as competitors. While Iraq’s major ethnic and religious constituencies are each politically diverse, many Iraqis advance similar demands for improved security, government effectiveness, and economic opportunity. Prime Minister Abadi and other politicians increasingly employ cross-sectarian political and economic narratives, but identity driven politics continue to influence developments across the country.
The Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq (KRI) enjoys considerable administrative autonomy under the terms of Iraq’s 2005 constitution, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) expects to hold legislative and presidential elections sometime in 2018. Kurdish voters overwhelmingly favored independence in a controversial KRG advisory referendum on September 25, 2017, amplifying political tensions with the national government and prompting criticism from the Trump Administration and the United Nations Security Council. In October 2017, the national government imposed a ban on international flights to and from the KRI, and Iraqi security forces moved to reassert security control of disputed areas that had been secured by Kurdish forces after the Islamic State’s mid-2014 advance. Much of the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk—long claimed by Iraqi Kurds—returned to national government control, and resulting controversies have riven Kurdish politics. Iraqi and Kurdish security forces remain deployed across from each other along contested lines of control while their respective leaders are engaged in negotiations over a host of sensitive issues.
Internally displaced Iraqis are returning home in greater numbers, but stabilization and reconstruction needs in areas liberated from the Islamic State are extensive. As of March 2018, an estimated 2.3 million Iraqis remain internally displaced (IDPs), and authorities have identified more than $88 billion in reconstruction needs. Paramilitary forces have grown stronger and more numerous since 2014, but have yet to be fully integrated into national security institutions. Some figures associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias that were organized to fight the Islamic State are participating in the 2018 election campaign and may cooperate with or challenge Prime Minister Abadi, including individuals with ties to Iran.
In general, U.S. engagement with Iraqis since 2011 has sought to reinforce Iraq’s unifying tendencies and avoid divisive outcomes. At the same time, successive Administrations have sought to keep U.S. involvement and investment minimal relative to the 2003-2011 era, pursuing U.S. interests through partnership with various entities in Iraq and the development of those partners’ capabilities—rather than through extensive deployment of U.S. military forces. U.S. economic assistance bolsters Iraq’s ability to attract lending support and seeks to improve the Iraqi government’s effectiveness and public financial management. The United States is the leading provider of humanitarian assistance to Iraq and also supports post-IS stabilization activities across the country through grants to United Nations agencies and other entities.
The Trump Administration has sustained a cooperative relationship with the Iraqi government and has requested funding to support Iraq’s stabilization and continue security training for Iraqi forces beyond the completion of major military operations against the Islamic State. The nature and extent of the U.S. military presence and mission in Iraq is evolving in 2018 as conditions on the ground change and newly elected Iraqi officials make their training needs and requests clearer.
To date, the 115th Congress has appropriated funds to continue U.S. military operations against the Islamic State and to provide security assistance, humanitarian relief, and foreign aid for Iraq. Appropriations and authorization bills under consideration for FY2018 would largely continue U.S. policies and programs on current terms.