Updated March 20, 2020
Iraq and U.S. Policy
COVID-19, Iran-U.S. Confrontation,
relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and plummeting global
Protests, and Iraq’s Future
oil prices are further upending the status quo.
Iraqi authorities have instituted curfews and travel
Plans for Political Transition Uncertain
restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which
Political differences among leading blocs have precluded
poses serious public health, economic, and fiscal risks for
the prompt replacement of Prime Minister Abd al Mahdi.
the country. Public health measures to slow the spread of
Protestors have demanded an independent candidate with a
the disease have diminished participation in the protest
demonstrated record of honest leadership, with many
movement that has swept central and southern Iraq since
rejecting President Salih’s nominees and alternatives
October 2019. Security forces and militia members killed
proposed by political blocs. Current Prime Minister-
hundreds of protestors and wounded thousands in Baghdad
designate Adnan Al Zurfi has until April 16, 2020, to
and several southern Iraqi cities, fueling calls for the ouster
propose a cabinet list for approval by the Council of
of the ruling elite. While crowds have dispersed, protestors’
Representatives (COR), Iraq’s unicameral legislature.
demands for systemic change and an end to corruption and
foreign interference remain unmet. Meanwhile, intense
Figure 1. Iraq
U.S.-Iranian confrontation has reinvigorated some Iraqis’
efforts to drive U.S. and other foreign forces out of Iraq.
Following escalating Iran-linked threats to U.S. and Iraqi
personnel in 2019, a January 2020 U.S. air strike in Iraq
killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods
Force Commander General Qasem 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 the Iran-U.S. violence has further complicated
underlying disputes over government leadership and the
future of Iraq’s security partnerships. Iran-backed militias
since have conducted additional rocket attacks, killing U.S.
and U.K. personnel in March. U.S. forces retaliated
militarily, and further escalation remains possible.
In response to the protests and violence, Prime Minister
Adel Abd al Mahdi resigned in November 2019, but he has
served in a caretaker role while political blocs and
protestors have deadlocked over selecting a replacement
Sources: CRS, using ESRI and U.S. State Department data.
prime minister-designate. President Barham Salih’s first
nominee, former Communications Minister Mohammed
Leaders of Iraq’s Shia Muslim religious establishment have
Tawfiq Allawi, was unable to garner sufficient political
expressed solidarity with peaceful protestors, rejected
support. In March 2020, Salih nominated the former
foreign interference, and condemned killings of civilians.
governor of Najaf, Adnan Al Zurfi, as prime minister-
On January 31, Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani
designate. Government formation talks have resumed.
condemned violence against protestors and called on
authorities to hold elections swiftly and independently.
Alongside issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic,
Sistani also issued a religious decree in March, calling for
principal questions for Iraqi and U.S. leaders include
collective action to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
whether or how to redefine the nature of and framework for
bilateral security cooperation. While some Iraqis demand
In the current COR, the Sa’irun (On the March) coalition
the expulsion of foreign forces, U.S. personnel are assisting
led by populist Shia cleric and frequent U.S. antagonist
Iraqi forces against Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) threats
Muqtada al Sadr and the predominantly Shia Fatah
and build Iraqi capabilities. U.S. forces remain in Iraq and
(Conquest) coalition led by Hadi al Ameri of the Badr
are consolidating basing locations. U.S. training has been
Organization hold the largest number of seats. Their
suspended due to COVID-19 risks, and U.S. officials say
respective coalitions have formed the cores of larger rival
future training will use “fewer bases with fewer people.”
COR blocs, with Sa’irun anchoring the Islah (Reform) bloc
and Fatah anchoring the predominantly Shia Arab Bin’a
With plans and timing for political transition uncertain,
(Reconstruction) bloc—the largest in the COR.
significant public health, economic, and fiscal pressures
Iraq and U.S. Policy
Sadr’s supporters staged a mass protest demanding the
the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC
withdrawal of foreign forces in January 2020. They have
countries (OPEC+), including Russia, did not agree on a
alternately extended and withdrawn support from other
recommendation to reduce oil production. Iraq’s draft 2020
protestors. Fatah includes individuals formerly associated
budget assumed an oil export price of $56 per barrel.
with Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units and
Economic projections vary, but it appears likely that Iraq
other militias with ties to Iran. A July 2019 prime
will need to draw on reserves, cut salaries, limit benefits,
ministerial decree ordered the PMF to comply with a 2016
and/or borrow to meet salary and budget needs. Already-
law calling for PMF consolidation under state command
low levels of investment spending will likely decline,
structures. Implementation remains incomplete.
including in sectors where failures have fueled protests.
Iraq last held national elections in May 2018 for the 328-
Partnership with the United States
seat COR. In October 2018, a pan-ethnic and pan-sectarian
Since 2017, the Trump Administration has sought to
coalition of interest groups agreed to support the Abd al
promote Iraqi unity and stability, prevent an IS resurgence,
Mahdi government, though differences over policy and
and limit Iranian influence in Iraq. Iraqi protestors’ calls for
leadership extended cabinet approval into 2019 and delayed
improved governance, reliable local services, more
progress on several key issues relevant to protestors. As
trustworthy and capable security forces, and greater
protests intensified in late 2019, the COR adopted a new
economic opportunity broadly correspond to stated U.S.
election law that would replace Iraq’s list-based system
goals. U.S. officials have advocated for Iraqi protestors’
with an individual candidate- and district-based system;
rights to demonstrate and express themselves freely, while
implementation could require authorities to administer a
signaling U.S. willingness to work with any Iraqi leaders
controversial census amid continuing unrest, security
who will move forward on shared reform priorities. In a
disruptions, and unprecedented public health challenges.
series of statements since October 2019, U.S. officials have
urged Iraqi leaders to respond seriously to protestors’
Early elections under a revamped system could introduce
demands and to avoid attacks against unarmed protestors,
new political leadership, but fiscal pressures, political
while expressing broad U.S. goals for continued partnership
rivalries, and the limited capacity of some state institutions
with “a free and independent and sovereign Iraq.”
may present lasting hurdles to reform. Whether or not
leaders implement reforms in response to protestors’
“Iraqis want a government that upholds Iraq’s
demands, the Islamic State threat, security force
sovereignty, provides basic needs, is free of
management, reconstruction needs, demographic pressures,
corruption, and protects their human rights. If Iraq's
COVID-19, and lower oil prices will present continuing
newly selected Prime Minister-designate, Adnan Zurfi
challenges. Security has improved since 2017, but
puts these interests first, he will have U.S. and
thousands of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are still active.
Nearly 1.4 million Iraqis remain internally displaced and
many more are in need of various forms of assistance.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo - March 2020
Views from the Kurdistan Region
Leaders of Iraq’s federal Kurdistan Regional Government
The United States provides foreign aid and security
(KRG) have recognized protestors’ concerns and criticized
assistance to Iraq in support of Iraqi counter-IS operations,
security force development, de-mining, public financial
repressive violence, while convening to unify positions on
proposed reforms that some Kurds fear could undermine the
management reform, U.N.-coordinated stabilization, and
Kurdistan region’s rights under Iraq’s constitution. The two
other objectives. More than $365 million in U.S.
stabilization aid has flowed to liberated areas of Iraq since
largest Kurdish parties, the Erbil-based Kurdistan
Democratic Party (KDP) and the Suleimaniyah-based
2016, including funds to aid religious and ethnic minority
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), hold significant
communities. The United States is the top humanitarian
funding donor for Iraq and has provided more than $2.7
numbers of COR seats and won the most seats in the
KRG’s September 2018 election. KDP leader Masrour
billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq programs since 2014.
Barzani serves as KRG Prime Minister. His cousin
U.S. military personnel are present in Iraq pursuant to a
Nechirvan Barzani is KRG President. The KRG has
2014 exchange of diplomatic notes under the 2008 U.S.-
instituted curfews and closures to mitigate COVID-19 risks.
Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement. Congress has
KRG leaders have discussed several oil export and budget
authorized U.S. train and equip programs for Iraq through
issues with Baghdad but differences remain to be resolved.
December 2020, including aid to KRG forces, and has
appropriated defense funds for these purposes through
COVID-19 and Fiscal Pressure
September 2021. Since 2014, Congress has appropriated
With neighboring Iran hard-hit by COVID-19 and links
more than $6.5 billion for U.S. military train and equip
between the two countries diverse and deep, Iraq has faced
programs for Iraqis. The FY2020 National Defense
a multifaceted challenge in containing the spread of the
Authorization Act (P.L. 116-92) limits the availability of
virus. Iraq’s public and private health systems have
50% of FY2020 train and equip funding until the
significant shortcomings and limited capacity, amplifying
Administration submits assessments and plans, including
risks. Iraq has approximately .8 physicians and 1.3 hospital
for “a plan for normalizing assistance ... beginning in fiscal
beds per 1,000 people (below the global average of 1.5 and
year 2020.” The act states training programs may “only be
2.7, respectively), according to World Bank statistics.
exercised in consultation with” Iraq’s government.
In parallel, oil prices have dropped precipitously as global
Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern
economic demand has contracted and as the Organization of
Iraq and U.S. Policy
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