Iraq: The Unexpected Victim of the Arab Spring

Baghdad, Iraq
Baghdad, Iraq

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John Drake runs the AKE Intelligence department, based in the Lloyd’s of London building. Prior to taking up the role he was the AKE Iraq specialist working regularly from the company’s Baghdad office. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21. Follow him on twitter: @johnfdrake

Iraq is not normally viewed as being one of the victims of the Arab Spring. Yet this historically significant event, a key driver of which has been poor governance, has had a devastating impact on the country. The Arab Spring saw populations rise up and overthrow regimes deemed corrupt, illiberal and incumbent beyond their political welcome. As one by one different leaders fell, observers scanned the region to see which other states were vulnerable and which other regimes might fall next.

With endemic corruption, entrenched community grievances and huge levels of public discontent with the authorities, even democratic Iraq was not safe. However, a war-weary populace, relatively strong security forces and a sometimes begrudging tolerance of the democratically elected government meant that public disquiet was muted and sporadic, not loud, disruptive and widespread as in other states.

Analysts speculated as to what might have happened in the country had Saddam Hussein still been in power. Perhaps he too would have been swept away by popular unrest, although his pervasive grip on the security forces would mean that he would have been in a stronger position than other less fortunate leaders.

Irrespective of theoretical conjecture, the post-invasion Iraqi state was not overthrown by a popular movement, but it nonetheless came under severe threat in 2014 by forces which were only allowed to emerge as a result of the Arab Spring. The collapse of Syria into a state of civil war came about as a result of the Arab Spring, and it was this development that helped catalyse the current internal cataclysm that Iraq faces.

The radical Islamist militant group currently referred to as the Islamic State organisation is a descendant of the brutal al-Qaeda franchise. As a group, like so many other radical militants, it flourished and continues to flourish in areas of poor governance and insufficient security. Here militants can evade detection and capture by the authorities while also finding a potentially sympathetic, or at least pliable local population from whom the group can recruit new fighters. The cover of a local population can also provide a degree of protection and a source of revenue in terms of tax collection or extortion in the event that a group becomes particularly well established.

Today, the traditional hotbeds of these sorts of groups, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, are being eclipsed by new Islamist hot zones including the Iraq-Syria nexus and north-eastern Nigeria. Radical Islamists in these areas are increasingly carrying out state functions: centralising the distribution of food and medicine; levying taxes; administering law and order. It is quite a significant turnaround from the end of 2011 in Iraq and the wider Middle East. At the time it had already been a year of significant change. Seemingly stalwart leaders Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and Mu’ammar Gaddafi had all been dethroned. Meanwhile, US combat troops were preparing to leave Iraq, ostensibly having defeated the insurgency. Behind the scenes and on the ground, however, there was a strong sense of trepidation that conditions were only set to deteriorate. The government and security forces were weak and the situation fragile. Small ripples, of which there were many in the country and wider region, could quickly destabilise the post-US environment in Iraq.

US soldiers walking through a police station in Diyala province, Iraq, December 2010 (DoD)
US soldiers walking through a police station in Diyala province, Iraq, December 2010 (DoD)

In the end, though, it was domestic developments as much as external forces that triggered the crisis that Iraq faced in 2014. The government took action comparable in style to the divisive tactics of recently deposed leaders in the Arab world: it targeted a minority community and became increasingly authoritarian. Arrest warrants were issued for opposition political figures (some within days of the withdrawal of the last US combat troops) while hundreds of Sunni men were rounded up throughout the central provinces on grounds of alleged terrorism. The inefficient court system, subject to patronage and corruption, was excruciatingly slow to deal with these cases, detaining family breadwinners for months while their families grew both desperate and angry with the authorities. They began to demonstrate against the government on a regular basis from December 2012.

The seeds of discontent had been sown, but the security forces were both strong enough to contain most of the unrest and populated by Shi’ah soldiers and officers. This meant that some sort of internal uprising or mutiny against the government was much less likely than in other parts of the region. The sectarian nature of the country had provided it with a crude and temporary form of stability. However, it was not to last. Iraq does not exist in a vacuum and when neighbouring Syria became the next victim of an Arab Spring uprising it had a gradual but profound impact.

If Iraq had appeared outwardly stable in the months following the US withdrawal, it was from a comparative perspective only. The country still experienced terrorist attacks on a daily basis, albeit at a lower rate than during the more difficult years between 2003 and 2008.

Mosul in the north of the country saw regular incidents, accounting for a significant proportion of the country’s violence. Then, for two weeks in February 2012 something changed. The city fell eerily quiet for a short, almost imperceptible spell. It was speculated that the strong militant presence in the city was up to something. The suspicion was that the militants had spotted an opportunity in Syria as the situation escalated and that they had sent fighters across the border to build relationships. Their aim would be to foster support, recruit followers, create alliances and trade goods and weapons.

It was a very gradual process, often eclipsed by atrocities and fast-paced developments on both sides of the border. Nonetheless, through the volatility, what was then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and later the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham/Syria (ISIS) began to build its networks and entrench its position.

In the same month, Iraq experienced a profound and highly destabilising shift in the security environment. Sunni residents had been demonstrating and holding mass sit-ins protesting against perceived marginalisation by the Iraqi government on a regular basis since December 2012. The protests were most pronounced in urban parts of Anbar province, such as in Fallujah and Ramadi. However, in April 2013 wider unrest was triggered not in the central part of the country, but in the northern town of Hawijah. Personnel from the Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp in the town, sparking an exchange of small arms fire. Several of the demonstrators were shot dead, prompting a rapid and violent backlash from armed fighters across Sunni parts of the country.

What cannot be ascertained is the proportion of those fighters who were members of ISIL, rather than just angered local residents with access to firearms. What is clear, however, is that levels of violence escalated considerably from this point. The frequency of attacks went from an average of just under 60 per week prior to the Hawijah incident to almost 110 by the end of 2013. It is therefore very likely that Islamist militants were seeking to capitalise on the discontent and build on the momentum of the violence, escalating their attacks against the Iraqi state and military in the hope of earning the sympathy of disgruntled members of the Sunni population.

A campaign of assassinations also began singling out members of the security forces in places such as Mosul. Everyone from soldiers and policemen to senior officers and retired generals were killed, either in bombings targeting patrols and convoys, or surreptitious shootings targeting the victims whilst off-duty or at home. This gradually reduced both the capability and the morale of the Iraqi security forces, something which became a major defining point of the battleground in 2014.

Iraqi soldiers outside Kirkuk, Iraq, June 19 2014
Iraqi soldiers outside Kirkuk, Iraq, June 19 2014

On one night in early June, Islamists staged a brazen assault on the city of Samarra in Salah ad-Din province. Noteworthy for its revered Shi’ah mosque, the bombing of which catalysed a major escalation in sectarian killings in 2006, the city was supposed to have relatively high levels of security, not least to protect the site. However in the middle of the night residents awoke to streams of militants parading through the city’s streets. They withdrew again before dawn, but the move, both a publicity stunt and a testing of the security response, set the stage for the next militant operation.

On 10 June Islamist fighters streamed into the northern city of Mosul. The security forces, demoralised and ill-equipped, fled the city within hours. Key buildings fell, dozens were killed and the civilians who failed to flee in the darkness found themselves trapped, including dozens of Turkish nationals taken hostage at the country’s consulate in the city. Maintaining the momentum of the operation, the militants were able to drive out the security forces from numerous towns and villages, moving south through the provinces of Ninawa, Ta’mim (Kirkuk), Salah ad-Din, Anbar, Diyala and even on to Babil, at one stage threatening the Iraqi capital with strangulation.

The rapid, high-profile success of the move was a major PR coup for the militants, giving them instant worldwide credibility and thus making it easier for them to recruit more fighters. Within weeks the group had renamed itself the Islamic State and declared the territory under its control to be an Islamic caliphate. They were also able to raid local banks, seize significant oil and gas assets and have since raised finance through the smuggling of oil products. The group also centralised control over the distribution of food and medicine and generally began fashioning itself in the image of a more recognisable state entity, albeit an extreme, violent and repressive one. The fact that it has been able to confront the Iraqi state demonstrates both its power and the weakness of governance in Iraq, highlighting once again the inherent relationship between Arab Spring unrest and areas of poor governance.

At the time of writing the Iraqi security forces are only managing to counteract Islamic State militants with international support and the use of unaccountable Shi’ah militias, who on numerous occasions have been accused of criminal activities and extrajudicial violence. Iraq’s own institutions are not able to provide one of the most important responsibilities of a state: security.

As such, Iraq is not as much a victim of the Arab Spring, but rather a victim of the poor levels of governance which triggered the Arab Spring uprisings in other countries. The only way that things will improve in the country and the wider region will be the development of more efficient, accountable and resilient institutions, but that will likely take years. As such, the instability and turbulence witnessed in the wider region is likely to persist at least for the foreseeable future. Unless Iraq continues to strive for greater institutional proficiency, it will remain as vulnerable to the unrest as the other states shaken over the past five years.

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