Updated April 9, 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 Mustafa al Kadhimi has until May 9, 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
two nominees were unable to garner sufficient political
Leaders of Iraq’s Shia Muslim religious establishment have
support. In April 2020, Salih nominated Iraqi National
expressed solidarity with peaceful protestors, rejected
Intelligence Service (INIS) director Mustafa al Kadhimi as
foreign interference, and condemned killings of civilians.
prime minister-designate. Government formation talks have
On January 31, Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani
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
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC
withdrawal of foreign forces in January 2020. They have
countries (OPEC+), including Russia, have debated output
alternately extended and withdrawn support from other
levels. Iraq’s draft 2020 budget assumed an oil export price
protestors. Fatah includes individuals formerly associated
of $56 per barrel. Projections vary, but it appears likely that
with Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units and
Iraq will need to draw on reserves, cut salaries, limit
other militias with ties to Iran. A July 2019 prime
benefits, and/or borrow to meet salary and budget needs.
ministerial decree ordered the PMF to comply with a 2016
Already-low levels of state investment will likely decline,
law calling for PMF consolidation under state command
including in sectors where failures have fueled protests.
structures. Implementation remains incomplete.
Partnership with the United States
Iraq last held national elections in May 2018 for the 328-
Since 2017, the Trump Administration has sought to
seat COR. In October 2018, a pan-ethnic and pan-sectarian
promote Iraqi unity and stability, prevent an IS resurgence,
coalition of interest groups agreed to support the Abd al
and limit Iranian influence in Iraq. Iraqi protestors’ calls for
Mahdi government, though differences over policy and
improved governance, reliable local services, more
leadership extended cabinet approval into 2019 and delayed
trustworthy and capable security forces, and greater
progress on several key issues relevant to protestors. As
economic opportunity broadly correspond to stated U.S.
protests intensified in late 2019, the COR adopted a new
goals. U.S. officials have advocated for Iraqi protestors’
election law that would replace Iraq’s list-based system
rights to demonstrate and express themselves freely, while
with an individual candidate- and district-based system;
urging Iraqi leaders to respond seriously to protestors’
implementation could require authorities to administer a
demands and to avoid attacks against unarmed protestors.
controversial census amid continuing unrest, security
In April 2020, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo proposed
disruptions, and unprecedented public health challenges.
that U.S. and Iraqi officials engage in a high-level dialogue
in June 2020 to discuss “all strategic issues ... including the
Early elections under a revamped system could introduce
future presence of the United States forces ... and how best
new political leadership, but fiscal pressures, political
to support an independent and sovereign Iraq.”
rivalries, and the limited capacity of some state institutions
may present lasting hurdles to reform. Whether or not
“A leader who is put forward, who’s prepared to
leaders implement reforms in response to protestors’
engage in the reforms, that will build out a sovereign,
demands, the Islamic State threat, security force
independent Iraq on behalf of the Iraqi people and
management, reconstruction needs, demographic pressures,
move away from the old sectarian model that ended
COVID-19, and lower oil prices will present continuing
up with terror and corruption—any leader that’s put
challenges. Security has improved since 2017, but
forward that will do that, the United States is happy to
thousands of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are still active.
support. That’s the gold standard; it’s what we need.
Nearly 1.4 million Iraqis remain internally displaced and
It’s what, frankly, the Iraqi people need.”
many more are in need of various forms of assistance.
Views from the Kurdistan Region
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo – April 7, 2020
Leaders of Iraq’s federal Kurdistan Regional Government
(KRG) have recognized protestors’ concerns and criticized
The United States provides foreign aid and security
assistance to Iraq in support of Iraqi counter-IS operations,
repressive violence, while convening to unify positions on
proposed reforms that some Kurds fear could undermine the
security force development, de-mining, public financial
Kurdistan region’s rights under Iraq’s constitution. The two
management reform, U.N.-coordinated stabilization, and
other objectives. More than $365 million in U.S.
largest Kurdish parties, the Erbil-based Kurdistan
Democratic Party (KDP) and the Suleimaniyah-based
stabilization aid has flowed to liberated areas of Iraq since
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), hold significant
2016, including funds to aid religious and ethnic minority
communities. The United States is the top humanitarian
numbers of COR seats and won the most seats in the
KRG’s September 2018 election. KDP leader Masrour
funding donor for Iraq and has provided more than $2.7
Barzani serves as KRG Prime Minister. His cousin
billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq programs since 2014.
Nechirvan Barzani is KRG President. The KRG has
U.S. military personnel have consolidated their basing in
instituted curfews and closures to mitigate COVID-19 risks.
Iraq and have deployed new missile defenses. They remain
KRG leaders have discussed several oil export and budget
in Iraq pursuant to a 2014 exchange of diplomatic notes
issues with Baghdad but differences remain to be resolved.
under the 2008 bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement.
Congress has authorized U.S. train and equip programs for
COVID-19 and Fiscal Pressure
Iraq through December 2020, including aid to KRG forces,
With neighboring Iran hard-hit by COVID-19 and links
and has appropriated defense funds for the train and equip
between the two countries diverse and deep, Iraq has faced
programs through September 2021. Since 2014, Congress
a multifaceted challenge in containing the spread of the
has appropriated more than $6.5 billion for train and equip
virus. Iraq’s public and private health systems have
programs for Iraqis. The FY2020 National Defense
significant shortcomings and limited capacity, amplifying
Authorization Act (P.L. 116-92) limits the availability of
risks. Iraq has approximately .8 physicians and 1.3 hospital
50% of FY2020 train and equip funding until the
beds per 1,000 people (below the global average of 1.5 and
Administration submits assessments and plans, including
2.7, respectively), according to World Bank statistics.
for “a plan for normalizing assistance ... beginning in fiscal
In parallel, oil prices have dropped precipitously as global
year 2020.” The act states training programs may “only be
economic demand shrinks and as Organization of the
exercised in consultation with” Iraq’s government.
Iraq and U.S. Policy
Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern
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