Updated February 3, 2020
Iraq and U.S. Policy
Overview: Protests, Iran-U.S.
Confrontation, and Iraq’s Future
Political Transition Underway
Political differences among leading blocs precluded Prime
A protest movement has swept central and southern Iraq
Minister Abd al Mahdi’s prompt replacement, while
since October 2019, with protestors demanding reform and
protestors demanded an independent candidate with a
political change. Security forces and militia members have
demonstrated record of honest leadership.
killed hundreds of protestors and wounded thousands in
Baghdad and several southern Iraqi cities, fueling calls for
In December 2019 and January 2020, President Salih
the ouster of the ruling elite. Meanwhile, intense
declined to nominate candidates proposed by the
confrontation between Iran and the United States has
predominantly Shia Arab Bin’a (Reconstruction) bloc—the
reinvigorated some Iraqis’ efforts to force an end to the
largest bloc in the unicameral legislature, the Council of
U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Representatives (COR). Salih cited concerns that the protest
movement would not approve of the Bin’a nominees.
Amid escalating Iran-linked threats to U.S. and Iraqi
personnel, a January 2020 U.S. air strike in Iraq killed
Figure 1. Iraq
Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force
Commander General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular
Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. Iran
launched missiles at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. personnel in
response. The U.S. strike eliminated key figures in Iran’s
efforts to shape Iraqi security and politics, but Iran-U.S.
violence has further complicated underlying disputes
among Iraqis over government leadership and the future of
Iraq’s international orientation and partnerships.
In response to the protests and violence, Prime Minister
Abd al Mahdi resigned in November 2019, continuing to
serve in a caretaker role while political blocs and protestors
have deadlocked over selecting a replacement. After issuing
a deadline to leading political forces to overcome their
differences, on February 1, President Barham Salih named
former Communications Minister Mohammed Tawfiq
Allawi as prime minister-designate, initiating a process of
government formation. Many protestors rejected Allawi’s
nomination; others pledged support (see below).
Principal questions for Iraqi and U.S. leaders in 2020
Sources: CRS, using ESRI and U.S. State Department data.
include whether or how to redefine the nature of and
framework for bilateral security cooperation. While some
Leaders of Iraq’s Shia Muslim religious establishment have
Iraqis demand the expulsion of foreign forces, U.S.
expressed solidarity with peaceful protestors, rejected
personnel continue to assist Iraqi forces against Islamic
foreign interference, and condemned killings of civilians.
State (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) threats and build Iraqi capabilities.
Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani on January 31
Iraqi leaders are grappling with the protest movement’s
condemned violence against protestors and called for
insistence on systemic change and an end to corruption and
elections to be held swiftly and independently. The COR
adopted new electoral laws in December, replacing Iraq's
list-based election system with an individual candidate- and
The nature of past Iraqi debates over government formation
district-based system that may require a potentially
and possible national elections suggest that the transition
controversial census to be implemented.
period now underway could be sensitive and extended.
Related outcomes could further complicate U.S. efforts to
Iraq last held national elections in May 2018 for the 328-
cooperate with and assist Iraq’s government. As Congress
seat COR. A pan-ethnic and pan-sectarian coalition of
considers new appropriations and authorization proposals
interest groups agreed to support the Abd al Mahdi
on Iraq, it may do so without certainty about Iraq’s future
government, though differences over policy and leadership
governing arrangements or how further change in Iraq
extended cabinet approval into 2019 and delayed progress
might affect U.S. interests.
on several key issues relevant to protestors. The Sa’irun
(On the March) coalition led by populist Shia cleric and
frequent U.S. antagonist Muqtada al Sadr and the
predominantly Shia Fatah (Conquest) coalition led by Hadi
Iraq and U.S. Policy
al Ameri of the Badr Organization hold the largest number
improved since 2017, but thousands of IS fighters in Iraq
of COR seats. Their respective coalitions have formed the
and Syria are still active. More than 1.4 million Iraqis
cores of rival COR blocs, with Sa’irun anchoring the Islah
remain internally displaced and many more are in need of
(Reform) bloc and Fatah anchoring the Bin’a bloc.
various forms of assistance.
Sadr’s supporters staged a mass protest demanding the
Partnership with the United States
withdrawal of foreign forces in January 2020. They have
The impasse in Iraq presents dilemmas for the
alternately extended support to and withdrawn support from
Administration and Congress as they contemplate how best
other protestors, and in some cases have attacked them.
to promote Iraqi unity and stability, prevent an IS
Fatah includes individuals formerly associated with Shia
resurgence, and limit Iranian influence. Protestors’ calls for
PMF militias with ties to Iran. Iran maintains ties to several
improved governance, reliable local services, more
armed groups in Iraq, including some PMF units. In July
trustworthy and capable security forces, and greater
2019, the prime minister issued a decree ordering the PMF
economic opportunity broadly correspond to stated U.S.
to comply with a 2016 law calling for their subordination to
goals. U.S. officials have advocated for the protestors’
national security command structures. Some complied;
rights to demonstrate and express themselves freely, while
others did not.
signaling U.S. willingness to work with any Iraqi leaders
Some Iraqi officials, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and Iran-
who will move forward on reform priorities. In a series of
aligned Iraqi militia leaders have contended that the protest
statements since October 2019, U.S. officials have urged
movement is a foreign-backed conspiracy. These parties,
Iraqi leaders to respond seriously to protestors’ demands
including some Fatah/Bin’a members, are among those
and to avoid attacks against unarmed protestors, while
most strenuously seeking to eject foreign military forces
expressing broad U.S. goals for continued partnership with
from Iraq. Rocket attacks attributed by U.S. officials to
“a free and independent and sovereign Iraq.”
Iranian proxies threaten U.S. personnel and Iraqis.
“Current conditions in Iraq and the region require an
Views from the Kurdistan Region
independent and honest government committed to
Leaders of Iraq’s federal Kurdistan Regional Government
addressing the needs of the Iraqi people. The
(KRG) have recognized protestors’ concerns and criticized
nomination of Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi as a new
repressive violence, while convening to unify positions on
Prime Minister must be followed up with efforts to
proposed reforms that some Kurds fear could undermine the
accomplish that objective.”
Kurdistan region’s rights under Iraq’s constitution. The two
largest Kurdish parties, the Erbil-based Kurdistan
U.S. Embassy Baghdad - Statement, February 2020
Democratic Party (KDP) and the Suleimaniyah-based
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), hold significant
The United States provides foreign aid and security
numbers of COR seats and won the most seats in the
assistance to Iraq in support of Iraqi operations against the
KRG’s September 2018 election. In July 2019, the KRG
Islamic State, Iraqi security force development, de-mining,
parliament confirmed KDP leader Masrour Barzani as KRG
Iraqi public financial management reform, United Nations-
Prime Minister. His cousin Nechirvan Barzani is KRG
coordinated stabilization programs, and other objectives.
President. KRG leaders had negotiated with Prime Minister
Reflecting Iraq’s needs and its fiscal resources and
Abd al Mahdi over unresolved oil export and budget
constraints, U.S. aid to Iraq blends U.S.-funded programs
transfers, but resolution likely awaits a new government.
with lending and credit guarantees.
Government Formation and Possible Elections
U.S. military personnel are present in Iraq pursuant to a
Prime Minister-designate Allawi served briefly in two
2014 exchange of diplomatic notes under the 2008 U.S.-
cabinets led by former prime minister Nouri al Maliki.
Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement. U.S. and coalition
Allawi has voiced nominal support for the protest
officials considered options for the future of their military
movement’s objectives and protestors’ rights to continue to
partnership with Iraq in 2019, and they are now reassessing
voice their demands peacefully. If approved by the COR, he
related plans and contingencies. Congress has authorized
will have thirty days to propose a cabinet for COR
U.S. train and equip programs for Iraq through December
approval. His nomination does not necessarily reflect
2020, including aid to KRG forces. Since 2014, Congress
baseline political agreement between Bin’a members and
has appropriated more than $6.5 billion for U.S. military
Sadr’s backers. President Salih’s issuance of an ultimatum
train and equip programs for Iraqis. The FY2020 National
to the leading blocs and Sadrists’ clashes with protestors
Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 116-92) limits the
who reject Allawi suggest that serious differences remain.
availability of 50% of FY2020 train and equip funding until
Iraq’s volatile politics may limit Allawi’s ability to govern
the Administration submits assessments and plans for Iraq,
beyond managing government affairs, as authorities prepare
including for “a plan for normalizing assistance... beginning
for early national elections.
in fiscal year 2020.” The act amends the train and equip
authority to state that U.S. programs may “only be
Early elections under a revamped system could introduce
exercised in consultation with” Iraq’s government.
new political leadership, but fiscal pressures, political
rivalries, and the limited capacity of some state institutions
In parallel, more than $365 million in U.S. stabilization aid
may present lasting hurdles to reform. Whether or not
has flowed to liberated areas of Iraq since 2016, including
leaders implement reforms in response to protestors’
funds to aid religious and ethnic minority communities. The
demands, the Islamic State threat, security force
United States is the leading donor of humanitarian funding
management, reconstruction needs, and demographic
for Iraq and has provided more than $2.7 billion in
pressures will present continuing challenges. Security has
humanitarian aid for Iraq programs since 2014.
Iraq and U.S. Policy
Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
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