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ISIS: Implications for Iraq’s Security and Stability

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  • June 12, 2016

    On May 11, 2016 Baghdad was jolted with a series of bombings by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targeting Shiite dominated areas. These bombings come at a time when Iraq is facing continued deadlock in the Parliament and protests by supporters of Shia cleric turned politician Muqtada al-Sadr, thereby exacerbating the precarious sectarian balance in Iraq. These developments raise three challenges to the security and stability of Iraq – first, the questionable re-emergence and role of Sadr in Iraqi politics; second, a new found window of opportunity for ISIS forces to display their strength that otherwise appeared to be waning after coalition forces’ bombings began; third, changed tactical moves by the ISIS forces to cause maximum harm – in terms of casualties and sectarian instability in light of the strategic attack on Shiite dominated areas.

    Sadr’s role in Iraqi politics

    Sadr’s rise to prominence can be traced to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the US invasion of Iraq. He belonged to a family of religious prominence, well revered by Iraqi Shiite tribes, mostly concentrated in central and southern parts of Iraq. After the assassination of his father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, Muqtada became the legitimate and symbolic figure of Sadr religious and political legacy for the Iraqi Shiite population. Muqtada’s political ideology was anchored in a staunchly anti-West outlook.

    Sadr’s role in Iraq was not without opposition. His initial challenges, in post Saddam Iraq, came from Najaf’s clerical establishment, Hojjat ul-Islam Abdel Majid al-Khoei, son of Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim Musawi al-Khoei. The assassination of Khoei soon eliminated it. However, his charisma, family lineage and his ability to galvanise youth made him popular among the young and economically disadvantages Shiites in Iraq. His denouncement of the Interim Governing Council (IGC) – calling it a puppet institution of the West – struck a chord with the populist and nationalist sections of the Iraqi Shiite population. With the mysterious assassination of Khoei, Sadr invited the wrath of the Iraqi Governing Council (ICG) in 2003, who accused Sadr and his supporters of responsibility for the assassinations. His omission from the IGC led him to establish his own militia group – Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM) – that arguably developed close ties with Hezbollah. The internal split in the JAM undermined Sadr’s financial and physical support, posing as yet another challenge for Sadr and his movement. Ayatollah Kazem al- Haeri broke away from Sadr arguably with the help of Iran. Later, Qais Khazali, Sadr’s deputy and spokesperson, separated as well.

    Yet another challenge came when Sadr began to lose cohesive control over his army, particularly after the 2006 bombing of al- Askari mosque. This period coincided with high sectarian violence in Iraq between 2004 and 2006. Local commanders surpassed Sadr’s commands, or those of the clerics in Najaf, leading to militias engaging in violent campaigns into Sunni dominated areas. In 2006 clashes took place between his Mahdi Army, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Badr Organisation, thereby escalating sectarian tensions. This also led to the destabilisation of the coalition in the Parliament in Baghdad. Sadr controlled the largest number of parties1 in the Shiite bloc in the coalition which was shared by al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Following these confrontations, in 2008, the Iraqi government disbanded the Mahdi army.

    Again, Sadr faced conflict and co-operation with both Nouri al Maliki, Dawa Party, and Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani. For instance, Sadr’s supporters protested against Sistani, asking him to leave, after the assassination of Khoei. They believed Sistani had close ties with Iran and that he was involved in violent activities inside Iraq. As opposed to Sistani, Sadr was an Iraqi born Shiite which gave him a support base.

    He was also seen as an irritant in the eyes of the US. His staunch and vocal anti- Western agenda provoked the US forces engaged in post Saddam reconstruction. Sadr’s newspaper, al Hawza, was ordered to be shut down under the pretext of inciting violence. This led to an intense conflict between US forces and Sadr’s army, between 2006 and 2008, in Basra, Najaf and Sadr cities after which he had to withdraw his army from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

    Over time, however, he softened his approach from being a ‘firebrand’ to adopting a pro-Iraq approach while remaining anti-West. His political block – al Ahrar – held 39 out of 325 seats in Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government. Sadrist remained critical of Maliki because of his pro western agenda and of Iran backed Shiites in Iraq for adopting a terrorising approach. In 2014, Sadr announced his withdrawal from Iraqi politics.

    The deadlock and the security situation

    In 2015 protests broke out in the southern cities of Iraq – Nasriyah, Basra and Karbala – over a severe water shortage and an electricity crisis. Central Baghdad also witnessed severe protests. Protestors urged Prime Minister Abadi to carry out reforms in the Parliament to check corruption. Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged Abadi to take a tougher stand on reforms and penalize those impeding reforms.

    On August 10, 2015, Abadi introduced a list of administrative, financial, economic, service related and other reforms to specifically combat corruption. The object of these reforms was to ensure that political appointments were not made on the basis of party or sect rather on qualification, and technocrats would be given preference. It also proposed to dilute the post of three Vice Presidents and deputy Prime Ministers. Even though the House of Representatives voted largely in favor of reforms without much debate, he faced opposition from various sides. First, the vice Presidents – Iyad Allawi, Osama al- Nujaifi, and Nouri al Maliki – whose posts have been removed called Abadi’s move ‘unconstitutional.’ Second, a few Ministers of Parliament also started to voice their concerns and called for more debate on the issue. They were weary of Abadi forwarding his own agenda. Third, Iran was irked with the reforms since some of those downsized by the Iraqi government were important Iranian advisers.

    This opposition caused a delay in implementation of reforms leading to growing frustration by the proponents of reform like the Shiite Cleric Sadr. On 24 August 2015, Sadr called his followers of Sadrist Movement in Baghdad to stage a protest demonstrations urging reforms. Faced with increased pressure, on September 9, 2015, Abadi met with the head of blocs in the Parliament stressing the need for a speedy implementation of reforms but in vain.

    On 2 November 2015 the parliament in Iraq voted to revoke Abadi’s reform proposal thereby stalling the process yet again. This resolution called for a restrain on the absolute powers of the Prime Minister. Over 60 members of Parliament, especially the supporter of Nouri al Maliki, threatened to pull support from the coalition of the State of Law. Meanwhile, protests by supporters of the Sadrist Movement continued their demonstrations in Baghdad.

    Due to increased pressure from Shiite leaders and his supporters, Prime Minister Abadi presented a second list of nominees to Parliament on 12 April 2016. This list included merely four names of the 14 names that Abadi had previously submitted. This time the list outraged both Shiite and Sunni blocs who then protested in the parliament. This led to a deadlock in the Iraqi parliament.

    Sadr and his supporters who were closely eying the developments and awaiting reforms, on May 1, 2016, marched into the Parliament as it failed to approve reforms thereby causing a deterioration of the security situation in Iraq. The Iraqi armed forces, otherwise engaged in fighting ISIS forces, had to be called to secure the Green Zone as protestors marched into the Parliament. While Iraq was distracted with domestic concerns, on May 11, 2016 the ISIS forces bombed various parts of Baghdad. The bombing in Sadr city alone claimed the lives of 94 people.


    These developments point to three primary causes of concerns relating to the security and stability of Iraq. First, Sadr’s role in mobilization of his supporters to protest peacefully, at first, and then marching into the Green Zone displays his ability to garner support and launch counter movements against the ruling establishment. His re-emergence on the Iraqi political scene after his announcement to withdraw in 2014 can now be seen as the move to recalibrate his political position. Again, given his previous role in Iraqi politics as a ‘firebrand,’ one cannot entirely dispute his ability to create rifts, particularly in light of the intra Shiite rivalries in Iraq, for his own political gains. Thus, one needs to look at his role more cautiously.

    Second, the parliamentary deadlock gave the ISIS forces a window of opportunity to launch attacks to demonstrate its strength that otherwise appeared to be waning after the international coalition forces’ efforts to recapture areas under ISIS control and the killing of its high and mid ranking leaders. The alarm of a similar impending situation had already been raised. For instance, the demonstrations provoked concerns in both Tehran and Washington who are allies in Abadi government’s fight against the ISIS. On April 8, 2016, the US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Iraq and urged the Iraqis to resolve the political crisis and form a unity government which he indicated as an imperative step to roll back ISIS forces from Iraq. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman of Iran, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, also called for a resolution of the crisis through ‘dialogue and political understanding.’ Similarly, on May 6, 2016, the UN Secretary General Special Representative to Iraq, Jan Kubis, stated that the current political crisis in Iraq might dampen the US-led war against the ISIS. Kubis mentioned that despite consistent efforts made to dismantle ISIS forces, they have managed to expand and cause heavy civilian casualties. Thus, domestic political entanglements have provided ISIS forces an opportune moment to strike. This again implies that the non-resolution of the deadlock might further impede the fight against the ISIS.

    Third, the bombing of Shiite dominated areas can be explained as part of the ISIS’ renewed tactics which lead to two primary conclusions. First, these bombings could potentially destabilize Sadr and his supporters who were engaged in protesting for reforms leading to further sectarian instability. Second, since the beginning of protests, these areas have witnessed large numbers of people in the streets and elsewhere. Hence, attacks on these areas lead to heavy civilian casualties. The above two concerns are, yet again, consistent with a statement made by a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official, who agrees that the changed tactic is part of ISIS’ effort to gain and draw media attention from its respective gains and losses on the battlefield. It was therefore able to achieve its objectives with the recent attacks.

    The article was originally published in International Policy Digest