Iraq y el desafío de la seguridad

Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change

Part 3: State security, Human security

Por Elbay Alibayov, analista invitado a La mirada a Oriente, colaborador de un servidor entre 2002 y 2004 en la Misión de la OSCE en Sarajevo (Bosnia y Herzegovina) y experto en Iraq donde trabajó como asesor internacional del gobierno central de 2011 a 2014.

La desintegración de Iraq no solo afecta a los iraquíes, un Estado fallido del tamaño de Iraq es un potente factor de desestabilización de Oriente Medio. En este artículo, el tercero de una serie sobre la crisis política de Iraq, Elbay Alibayov analiza la situación y la política de seguridad del gobierno iraquí.

State security

As I was finalising this paper, the news came out that the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi had announced the military campaign to retake Fallujah, on 23 May. In spite of the town being under siege by the government forces for months, the news came as a surprise: it was known that the U.S. and other allied military advisers were recommending focusing all the efforts on retaking Mosul, and it looked like the plan for some time. However, the decision by Prime Minister was not dictated by military strategy but by political necessity. The deadlock in the Parliament, which does not allow the Government to pursue the reforms, and the pressure of popular protests led by Muqtada al-Sadr—all indicate of the Government rapidly losing its credibility. There is an urgent need for a victorious campaign, to boost the image of the Prime Minister and his aides. Mosul may take long months to liberate; hence, the decision to go first after Fallujah.

Politics and security are intertwined in the Middle East; numerous coups, military backed regimes, and infamous mukharabat are evidence to that. Iraq is no exception. This mutually reinforcing relationship has created many problems in the past, and today the politicisation of security sector remains the Iraqi state’s ‘the enemy from within’.

Present situation

For more than two years already, large parts of Iraq are controlled by the ISIL militants in a territory of self-proclaimed caliphate which, combined with the land seized from Syria, has about 10 million of population. The ISIL’s emergence as al-Qaeda outfit initially, and then quick expansion and seizure of territories back in 2014 became possible in many ways due to mistrust and political tensions in Iraq, between the Sunni tribes and the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad. As a result, both the central Government and the Shi’a dominated Iraq Security Forces (ISF) had little credibility in Sunni populated provinces. In turn, former Ba’athist high ranked army officers (expelled from ISF) joined the Islamist militant organisation, thus strengthening its operational capacity to successfully combat the government and allied forces.

Today, due to continued, sustained campaign by the ISF, backed by tribal fighters and Coalition airstrikes, ISIL has lost approximately 40 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), over the past two months alone the allied forces have made significant gains in the Euphrates River Valley, recapturing almost the entirety of the southern bank (including the area between Hit district and Baghdadi Sub-district). Neither do the militants have a unanimous support they once enjoyed in the controlled lands, because of harsh rules imposed and atrocities committed against domicile Sunni population—it is right to say that they hold the ground by force now. According to nationwide survey held earlier this year, about 95 percent of Iraqi Sunnis oppose ISIL.


Security forces

Since the coalition forces have stepped-up in full, through the increased presence of their military personnel (instructors, advisers), supply of arms and intensified airstrikes at the militant-held targets, the situation on the ground started to change gradually. However, despite losing much of the support and both financial and human resources ISIL continues to hold territories (among them the highly valued by all sides to political contestation, the city of Mosul) and fiercely battles off the offense by the Government’s security forces along with various Kurdish, Shi’a, and Sunni integrated and not-so-much-integrated paramilitary groups. The truth is that, in part, the military success of ISIL from the outset in 2014 offense and up to this day owes to the inherent weaknesses of the Iraqi security sector.




One of the problems comes from the legacy of building Iraq’s security forces after fully dismantling the previous regime in 2003. Experienced security cadre were gone, and instead a large-scale recruitment took place to staff the army, police and intelligence agencies. It was a massive (and by its parameters, an insurmountable) undertaking to build the national security forces under the pressing circumstances of time, spiralling insurgency, terrorist attacks, and sectarian in-fighting all across the country. As a result, it was done hastily, without proper procedures and consideration given to professional qualifications and fitness for service, let alone screening the recruits’ social and political background. By the end of 2010, the Iraqi army and police personnel were estimated between 660 thousand and 800 thousand members. The formation shortcomings notwithstanding, the ISF led operations since 2008 were assessed as mostly successful.


The major problem however is not technical; it is political, since Iraq’s security sector mirrors and is under constant influence of the country’s political set-up, its ethno-sectarian divides and related rivalry. Politicisation has immediate effects on security sector performance—this hold true for any country. This is how the unexpected and quite dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army under the ISIL offense in 2014 was described at the time by the security firm, Soufan Group: ‘Four out the ISF’s 13 divisions melted as the Islamic State seized Mosul and other Sunni-inhabited cities along the Tigris River, leaving U.S.-supplied weapons to fall into the Islamic State’s hands. The ISF was not only poorly led—a product of an appointment process that favored allies of the Shi’a Muslim-dominated government—but also was viewed as a Shi’a “occupier” of Sunni areas. Lacking local support and the political will to risk their lives to maintain control of Sunni areas, the mostly Shi’a ISF commanders simply fled, and their units collapsed.’ [1] This account offers quite a telling story of how politicisation of the country’s security forces weakens its capabilities and allows for strategic surprises.

This problem has two dimensions. One is internal to security forces (ISF which comprises army and police, but the problem is the same with the National Intelligence Service, INIS), which have been filled with people from various backgrounds—from former paramilitaries and insurgents, to sectarians and the remnants of previous regime (whether army officers or former members of Saddam’s secret service, Jihaz alMukharabat al-Amma). They mistrust each other and are believed to keep their loyalties to those political forces which promoted them rather than to a single national chain of command. This immediately results in fragmentation and lack of accountability of the system as a whole, while transferring the political divides into the army, police and intelligence. The task of fully integrating both Sunni and Shi’a Arabs in security forces sill remains a major task, in spite of efforts (like the integration of several thousand Sons of Iraq) undertaken after the 2014 failures.

Second dimension originates from the multiplicity of actors involved—there are multiple (and quite numerous) militia formations of all sorts fighting alongside government forces. This creates a lot of coordination problems and eventual failures and at times results in open confrontation and the use of force, among these parallel forces, who while joining efforts at tactical level live to their own (and their backers’) agendas. Recent clashes in Tuz Khormato in the north of Iraq, between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Government-sponsored (mostly Shi’a) Popular Mobilization Units serves as yet another evidence to that: the town populated by about 60 thousand Kurds, and Shi’a and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen is a disputed zone claimed by both the Kurdish Regional Government and the Government in Baghdad.


As an outcome, the Iraq’s security forces remain less capable than could have been expected of them, after years of intensive training and tens of billions spent on their maintenance and modern military equipment. Moreover, leaving the security system in its present shape, under the excuse of being preoccupied with the host of other urgent tasks, will turn into much bigger trouble in hands of the Government, over time. The war with Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria will take years, but one day the land will be liberated from their occupation. At this point, if not well prepared in advance, the Iraqi state will face even bigger challenge—the demobilization will release into society tens of thousands of young men with no other qualifications and limited opportunities for employment or entrepreneurial activity; many of whom also happen to belong to various competing tribes, fractions, sectarian groups.

It is a dangerous myth to believe that with too much weapons and ammunition in hands of too many battle-hardened and too diverse groups, Iraq will automatically become safe and secure place once the ISIL, al-Qaeda and other militants are defeated. A profound security sector reform, creating an apolitical, professional, and democratically accountable army, police and intelligence matched with a well-though-out strategy and resources for reintegration of demobilised soldiers into economy and society—must be high on the Government agenda already today.

Economic dimension

There is another dimension to the damage caused by the years of insurgency and fighting—that is the damage to the country’s image as an attractive place for foreign investment. As such, it represents the threat to the country’s future economic security.

The war with ISIL takes tens of billions of public resources, disrupts the regular government and commercial operations, and brings large-scale destruction to the country’s physical infrastructure. Significant number of assets has been destroyed and as of recent, ISIL started targeting oil and gas facilities. The war also puts the investors on high alert due to the escalated political risks (which anyways were among the highest in the world since 2003), and thus minimizes the much needed foreign direct investment flows. Violent conflicts coupled with high unpredictability of government (and thus high possibility of unilateral, predatory move against foreign investors’ assets) are among key factors considered when assessing a country’s political risks. It is enough to say that mostly due to the war in Syria and Iraq, some risk consultancy firms have not included the Middle East in their investor confidence indexes for this and the following year.

Iraq will need those investors, once the war with ISIL is finished, whenever it happens. The future-oriented damage to the country’s image by the terrorists is undisputed, but the government will have to do much more than it has done to date, to offer guarantees and business-friendly environment for the foreign companies to come—not only on words and through the lavishly organised conferences abroad (which are all important and necessary investment promotion activities—like the conference and exhibition on Iraq’s financial and banking sector held recently in Lebanon, March 2016)—but, and above all, by real action.


Human security

It is right to say that the Iraqis haven’t lived in quiet, stable, and well-ordered situations for over three-and-half decades already. Since 1980, when Saddam Hussein launched his war campaign against the neighbouring Iran, the country has transitioned from one conflict to another, then lived through the misery and restrictions of sanctions, only to be replaced by disorder, insurgency, civil war, and now fighting with terrorists and all sort of militants on its own soil. It is a depressing fact that a generation of already mid-aged Iraqis have not lived a normal decent life in their otherwise resource rich, perfectly located, beautiful country.

Terrorism casualties

Along with conventional combat, terrorist attacks by various militant groups are being conducted at broad scale, almost uninterrupted since 2003—tearing apart communities, taking thousands of lives, and striving to achieve their primary goal of intimidating the population and the government, coercing and taking off their will to resist. Since 2003, the Iraqis have been subjected to more than 16 thousand terrorist attacks. According to UN, only in the course of the last three-and-half years (from November 2012 through April 2016) over 95 thousand casualties have been reported (31,729 killed and 63,608 injured). Although the intensity of attacks and the number of civilian casualties have drastically decreased compared to 2014, still they remain shockingly high.

To appreciate the scale of the terrorist damage on Iraq, let’s compare the attacks and human loss with the European countries. In 15 years, from September 2001 through March 2016, there have been 71 terrorist attacks (from all kind of perpetrators) conducted at the territory of 14 west European countries (of them 45 were attacks which caused one death, like the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby in London in 2013). Altogether, those attacks have claimed the lives of 606 individuals (most casualties were in Spain—212; followed by France 162; and Britain 74). Each of those attacks, whatever small or large in scale and whatever the number of casualties, has triggered an emotionally-charged wave of rightful public anger that followed by a long lasting anxiety bordering with panic.

Now, looking at Iraq, only in the last month of April alone, as the result of terrorist attacks there were 410 civilians killed and 973 injured, while the casualties among the security forces amounted to 331 and 401 individuals, respectively. The attacks were conducted all across the country eventually leaving no safe place around, with most of targets being in Baghdad but also in the troubled Ninewa, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Anbar provinces. Combined, this means hundreds of killed and hundreds or thousands injured every single month in a span of thirteen years, with average casualties about 90 individuals per day—an enormous human loss, but also unbelievable psychological pressure of continuous brutal intimidation, on the Iraqi people.

Refugees and internally displaced persons

The effects on human security since 2003 have been unprecedented by the Iraqi prior experience, and have been acknowledged as immense by the regional and global standards. In a decade after 2003, an estimated one million Iraqis have fled violence turning in people without permanent residence within their own country (a category known as internally displaced people, or IDPs). In 2014 alone, since the ISIL offense, another estimated 2.6 million IDPs were reported, bringing the situation to the level declared a humanitarian crisis. Today their numbers are approaching four million individuals, comprising as much as 12 percent of the country’s population—with their established life disrupted, and all of them living in shelter, deprived of jobs and property. In addition to its own IDPs, Iraq also hosts over 246 thousand refugees from Syria (by data as of end-March 2016). The Government is struggling to settle and serve all these people with shelter and minimum living conditions, even though international organisations and specialised refugee agencies have stepped in to offer their expertise and assistance on the ground.


All this only adds to their misery, and many Iraqis have taken their chances to seek refuge in other countries. Already by the end of 2014, there were 369 thousand Iraqi refugees registered in neighbouring countries (mostly Iran, Syria, and Jordan) and Europe (predominantly in Germany). Further, in 2015-2016, approximately another 168 thousand Iraqi refugees have arrived in Europe’s Mediterranean ports, by sea. Today, Iraq is among the world’s top ten refugee origin countries contributing to a million-strong stream of desperate people fleeing their homes for a safe place in Europe.

Human capital

The most devastating result of the years of insurgency, terrorism, combat and lack (if not absence at times) of law and order in vast parts of the country is the depletion of Iraq’s human capital. On the one hand, poverty has reached its record highs: in 2014 the poor comprised over 22 percent of population nationwide. In the ISIL directly controlled and surrounding governorates the impact of economic and social disruptions resulted in poverty rates going above 41 percent. According to the World Bank, about half of million people leaving below the poverty line were IDPs.

On the other hand, the population’s health condition has further deteriorated, prompting key health indicators for Iraq at the bottom of rankings for the entire region. In 2015, life expectancy here was the lowest (next to Yemen) at 69.2—compared to 72.7 years average for west Asia. Meanwhile, another critical indicator, infant mortality rate, has reached 32 per 1,000 live births in 2010-2015—again, next highest to Yemen and Azerbaijan in west Asia (with the region’s otherwise unacceptably high rate of 24 on average). To compare, the World Health Organisation’s European Region estimate for 2015 is 10 per 1,000 live births.

Of particular concern is the situation with the young people. The youth aged between 15 and 24 comprise about 20 percent of Iraq’s population (about 6.8 million). Part of them live in the ISIL controlled areas of militancy and medieval backwardness. Another part, estimated at over one million persons live in shelter, as IDPs. Additionally, there are over one million children of school age from the internally displaced families. One more disadvantaged and highly vulnerable group are orphans. According to UNICEF survey of 2011, there were estimated 800,000 to 1 million children without one or both parents, in Iraq. Today, the Iraqi Orphan Foundation claims that their number has risen to over 3 million (children aged under 18), and is ‘growing exponentially every week’. Majority of them are homeless, and various criminals take advantage of them, including the ISIL and other militant and terrorist groups. Earlier this year, there were reports on child soldiers being used by ISIL in Iraq and Syria (most of them recruited locally): the authors estimated their numbers about one and half thousand.

In another critical development area, the education system (both primary and higher) has consistently and miserably failed over these years (despite of huge amounts spent from the budget and international technical assistance offered and provided) to reform, modernise and offer their young generation the knowledge and skills they need. Unfortunately, formal indicators based on the catchment area and similar statistics do not give a real picture in this sector. Although Iraq fairs well, compared to other countries, in terms of literacy rates, the coverage by primary schools per population numbers, or teacher/student ratio—all this does not reflect the quality of education being provided. For example, the inflated teacher/student ratio is merely a result of the government’s employment policy (as all across the public sector) and therefore may be misleading. The truth is that even the leading Baghdad universities do not have a qualified staff to teach modern science; their libraries are not computerised and are thus not linked to global academic exchange system. Many haven’t received new books published in America or Europe for over two decades, while students are taught on and referred to textbooks and literature written only in Arabic and published sometime in the 1970s.

In strategic perspective, all these years since 2003 (and perhaps even since the Gulf war) have created a ‘lost generation’ of Iraqis. Part of them have left with their families abroad (and some keep leaving the country for good), another part were killed, and of those who stay in the country many are demoralised, radicalised and exploited in various ways. These young people living in Iraq have very limited opportunities for licit and decent employment or entrepreneurial activity, and altogether they lack modern knowledge and skills to drive their homeland from trouble, civil war and poverty towards prosperity, rule of law and the respect for fundamental human rights. Without meaningful investment in health and education of its young population for a prolonged period of time, Iraq has put its future under a big question mark.


The awakening call

Many Middle East commentators agree that the Iraqi state as it stands today (and for quite a time for over a decade now) is falling apart as it cannot fulfil its main function—to keep the law and order within its borders, to protect its fellow citizens, and offer them an acceptable quality of life. In turn, the Iraqi society (the other part of political equation) is divided, threatened, increasingly frustrated, and incapable of keeping the state accountable while desperately seeking ways of escaping the downfall into total chaos.

Increasingly, Iraq resembles the features of a failed nation: ‘Nations fail today because their extractive institutions do not create incentives needed for people to save, invest, and innovate. Extractive political institutions support these economic institutions by cementing the power of those who benefit from the extraction. … The result is economic stagnation and civil wars, mass displacements, famines, and epidemics, making many of these countries poorer today than they were in the 1960s.’ [2]

The commentators, as well as many development practitioners who have worked in Iraq also agree that Iraq has made tangible progress in terms of revitalising its oil industry, expanding the electrification and other critical infrastructure, communication and service delivery networks in an effort to rebuild the country from the ashes of the 1990s sanctions, 2003 invasion and its immediate insurgent aftermath. But that is not enough; there is an urgent need for fundamental changes in political institutions, to achieve improvements and sustainable growth in many other vital economic and social areas. The Iraqi state cannot hold on in the same fashion anymore, under the mounting pressure of domestic political tensions and centrifugal forces, foreign interference (of powerful neighbours who have turned the country into a battleground for their proxy wars), public administration plagued with systemic corruption, and disenfranchisement and deep suffering of its people.

On a positive note, we have witnessed a desire for change, among the ordinary Iraqis. And there is energy to translate it into practice, as recent protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone have demonstrated. What is missing is a democratic process of dialogue, as between politicians and their backers and influencers, so between political establishment and the people they claim to represent—all in all to channel this energy into constructive direction.


[1] The Soufan Group, TSG IntelBrief: Iraqi Forces Central to Fight Against Islamic State,
November 13, 2014

[2] Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why the Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 372-373


About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.

Por La mirada a Oriente

Me interesa entender qué ocurre fuera de nuestras fronteras, analizar por qué ocurre y proyectar escenarios sobre qué puede pasar. Mi formación es multidisciplinar. Tengo un Grado en Ciencias Políticas y Relaciones Internacionales por la Universidad de Londres - London School of Economics and Political Science. También soy licenciado en Derecho y Master en Estudios Europeos por el Colegio de Europa. Desde 2008 pertenezco al Cuerpo Superior de Administradores Civiles del Estado y trabajo para la Administración General del Estado. Anteriormente trabajé más de ocho años en la OSCE, la Asamblea de la OTAN y varias misiones de Naciones Unidas, principalmente en los Balcanes y alguna en África.

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