Updated May 14, 2020
Iraq and U.S. Policy
New Government Takes Office, As Iraq’s a controversial census amid intermittent unrest, security
Challenges Deepen and Multiply
disruptions, and unprecedented public health threats.
In May 2020, the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR),
Figure 1. Iraq
confirmed Iraqi National Intelligence Service director
Mustafa al Kadhimi as Prime Minister and approved 15 of
his 22 cabinet nominees, bringing months of political
deadlock over government leadership to a close. Upon
taking office, Al Kadhimi declared that his government
would serve in a transitional capacity and would work to
improve security and fight corruption while preparing for
early elections. Iraqi authorities have instituted curfews and
travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,
which poses serious public health, economic, and fiscal
risks to the country.
Prime Minister Al Kadhimi has identified several priorities
mobilizing resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic;
“restricting weapons to state and military institutions”;
submitting a draft budget law “to address the economic
“protecting the sovereignty and security of Iraq,
continuing to fight terrorism, and providing a national
Sources: CRS, using ESRI and U.S. State Department data.
vision on the future of foreign forces in Iraq.”
Prime Minister Al Kadhimi may implement some changes
Early elections under a revamped system could introduce
in response to protestors’ demands, but militias, Islamic
new political leadership, but fiscal pressures, political
State insurgents, security sector reform, reconstruction
rivalries, and limited institutional capacity may present
needs, demographic pressures, and oil dependence are
serious hurdles to reform. Observers expect the new Iraqi
likely to challenge his administration and his successors.
administration to focus immediately on COVID-19 risks
and related economic and fiscal fallout as it prepares for a
Iran-U.S. Tensions Grip Iraq
planned strategic dialogue with the United States.
U.S.-Iran confrontation also has continued to amplify
Demands of Protest Movement Unmet
underlying disputes among Iraqis over government
leadership and Iraq’s international orientation and security
Al Kadhimi’s predecessor, Adel Abd Al Mahdi, resigned in
partnerships. Following escalating Iran-linked threats to
November 2019, after just over a year in office. Abd Al
U.S. and Iraqi personnel in 2018 and 2019, a January 2020
Mahdi served in a caretaker role while political blocs
U.S. air strike in Iraq killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary
grappled over identifying his replacement. His resignation
Guard Corps-Qods Force Commander General Qasem
came as deadly attacks by some security forces and militias
Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)
killed hundreds of protestors and wounded thousands across
leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. In response, the COR voted
central and southern Iraq. A spirited protest movement, of
to direct then-acting prime minister Abd Al Mahdi to
unprecedented scope in Iraq’s post-2003 history, had
remove foreign forces from Iraq, but he deferred pending
erupted in October 2019 and mobilized hundreds of
the formation of a new government. Iran launched missiles
thousands seeking systemic change. While protestors have
at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces in retaliation for the U.S.
dispersed due to reported public fatigue and COVID-19
strike, injuring U.S. personnel.
mitigation measures, their demands for reform and an end
to corruption and foreign interference remain unsatisfied.
The U.S. operation eliminated key figures in Iran’s efforts
to shape Iraqi security and politics, but also led to the
As protests intensified in late 2019, the COR adopted a new
temporary suspension of security cooperation and training.
election law that would replace Iraq’s list-based system
Iraqi militias since have conducted more rocket attacks,
with an individual candidate- and district-based system. As
killing and injuring U.S., U.K., and Iraqi personnel. U.S.
of May, the law has yet to be finalized and published, with
forces have retaliated, and further escalation is possible.
plans for district and seat allocation pending. Authorities
U.S. officials remain concerned about threats posed by Iran-
are likely to avoid electoral arrangements that could require
backed militias in Iraq, including some PMF units.
Iraq and U.S. Policy
Pandemic Hits the Budget and Economy U.S. officials note the ability of Islamic State insurgents to
With neighboring Iran hard-hit by COVID-19 and links
exploit weak security and governance in territory disputed
between the two countries diverse and deep, Iraq faced
between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq.
immediate, multifaceted challenges in containing the initial
spread of the coronavirus. In March, Iraq’s government
Partnership with the United States
moved to institute travel restrictions and strict internal
Since 2017, the Trump Administration has sought to
curfews while mobilizing health resources to meet expected
promote Iraqi unity and stability, prevent an IS resurgence,
needs. Officials in the federally recognized Kurdistan
and limit Iranian influence in Iraq. Iraqi protestors’ calls for
region of northern Iraq also instituted local containment and
improved governance, reliable local services, more
curfew measures. Iraq’s public and private health systems
trustworthy and capable security forces, and greater
have significant shortcomings and limited capacity.
economic opportunity broadly correspond to stated U.S.
According to the World Bank, Iraq has approximately 0.8
goals. During the unrest from October 2019 to March 2020,
physicians and 1.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people (below
U.S. officials advocated for Iraqi protestors’ rights to
the global averages of 1.5 and 2.7, respectively). As of May
demonstrate and express themselves freely, while urging
14, the spread of the virus in Iraq has remained relatively
Iraqi leaders to respond seriously to protestors’ demands
limited with 3,100 cases reported, but data limitations may
and to avoid attacks against unarmed demonstrators.
be masking the full incidence of the disease.
Iraqi and U.S. leaders plan to engage in a high-level
Negative economic effects are more apparent, as COVID-
strategic dialogue in the coming months to renew a shared
19 mitigation measures have deepened an economic
understanding about bilateral security cooperation and U.S.
contraction that had already begun in urban areas paralyzed
assistance. Observers expect Iraq’s relationship with Iran to
by protests in late 2019 and early 2020. In parallel, a
feature in the U.S.-Iraq talks. In late April, the Trump
precipitous drop in global oil prices threatens state finances.
Administration notified Congress it would waive the
Iraq remains dependent on oil exports for more than 90% of
imposition of Iran-related sanctions on specific Iraqi energy
its budget revenue, much of which pays salaries and
sector purchases from Iran for an additional 120 days.
benefits to state employees and retirees. The draft 2020
U.S. military officials judge that Iraq’s security forces
budget assumed an oil export price of $56 per barrel, but
appear to be approaching a level of capability that could
Iraq has since been forced both to accept lower prices and
allow U.S. and other coalition forces to transition from
reduce production volumes in accordance with decisions
providing tactical support to focusing on leadership and
reached by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting
institutional development. This could allow for further
Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC countries (OPEC+),
reductions of the U.S. and coalition military presence.
including Russia. International financial institutions expect
As of May 2020, U.S. military personnel had consolidated
that Iraq will need to draw on official reserves, cut salaries,
their basing in Iraq and deployed new missile defenses in
limit benefits, and/or borrow to meet its needs. Already-low
consultation with the Iraqi government. They remain in Iraq
levels of state investment will likely decline, including in
pursuant to a 2014 exchange of diplomatic notes under the
sectors where past failures have fueled protests.
2008 bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement. Congress
Views from the Kurdistan Region
has authorized U.S. train and equip programs for Iraq
Leaders of Iraq’s federal Kurdistan Regional Government
through December 2020, including aid to KRG forces, and
has appropriated defense funding for the train and equip
(KRG) recognized Arab protestors’ concerns and criticized
programs through September 2021. Since 2014, Congress
repressive violence during the 2019-2020 protests, while
has appropriated more than $6.5 billion for train and equip
convening to unify positions on proposed reforms that some
Kurds fear could undermine the Kurdistan region’s rights
programs for Iraqis. The Administration seeks an additional
under Iraq’s constitution. The two largest Kurdish parties,
$645 million for these programs for FY2021.
the Erbil-based Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the
The United States provides foreign aid in Iraq in support of
Suleimaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK),
de-mining programs, public sector financial management
hold significant numbers of COR seats and won the most
reform, U.N.-coordinated stabilization, and other goals.
seats in the KRG’s September 2018 election. KDP leader
More than $365 million in U.S. stabilization aid has flowed
Masrour Barzani serves as KRG Prime Minister. His cousin
to liberated areas of Iraq since 2016, including funds to aid
Nechirvan Barzani is KRG President. KRG leaders are
religious and ethnic minority communities. Congress
consulting with Baghdad on several oil export, budget, and
allocated $451.6 million for U.S. foreign aid programs in
security issues. The national government suspended budget
Iraq in FY2020. The Trump Administration has requested
payments to the KRG in April 2020, citing the fiscal effects
an additional $124.5 million for FY2021. The United States
of lower oil prices and overdue KRG oil transfers.
is the top humanitarian funding donor for Iraq and has
Islamic State Threats and Security Issues provided more than $2.7 billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq
U.S. officials report that Islamic State fighters continue to
programs since 2014. Nearly 1.4 million Iraqis remain
wage “a low-level insurgency” across some areas of Iraq,
internally displaced and many more remain in need of aid.
but credit Iraqi security forces with conducting increasingly
Congress may seek to clarify the Trump Administration’s
independent counterterrorism and counterinsurgency
goals for strategic dialogue with Iraq and offer its own
operations. Press reports and IS claims suggest that attack
perspectives during consideration of FY2021 aid requests
volumes have increased relative to early 2019, with most
and the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
attacks and security force operations occurring in Kirkuk,
Diyala, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, and Anbar governorates.
Iraq and U.S. Policy
Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern
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