Will Iraq Relapse Into a New Insurgency?

October 26, 2017
Will Iraq Relapse Into a New Insurgency?
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

Daesh’s cruel regime in its attempt to establish itself as a caliphate burnt very hotly and thankfully, its geographic domain has almost all but burnt out.  As Sara Zieger has pointed out in a recent TRENDS Insight, now is the time to develop solid plans for what to do after Daesh is defeated on the battlefield.  Even after physical defeat, Daesh will continue to cause harm in Iraq and Syria, and its virulent ideology will continue to inspire violence abroad.  Considering what to do next must include a sober examination of the conditions upon which Daesh was able to so adroitly capitalize.  Focusing on Iraq for the moment, it will be prudent to consider what may lead them to relapse into another violent insurgency.  There are three indicators that a renewed insurgency is likely:

  • First, reprisals occur in areas liberated from Daesh by para-military forces or by Iraqi regular security forces, and these reprisals are not seriously investigated or the perpetrators punished.
  • Second, displaced Sunnis and other Iraqis currently living in refugee camps do not return to their homes or cannot reclaim property abandoned under duress.
  • Third, long-term expat Sunni professionals and political leaders do not, or they are not allowed to, return to Iraq.

All of this depends on how effective the Iraqi government is at reconstruction and reconciliation, and whether or not the influence of Iran in Iraqi government and politics is checked.  If the underlying political and social conditions that gave rise to Daesh are not addressed, Iraq risks relapse.


As towns and villages are liberated from Daesh, how the liberated community is treated, and how the liberating forces behave is critically important.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International have both noted that as Daesh has been displaced, regular Iraqi forces and its para-military forces have conducted acts of reprisal against families suspected of aiding Daesh during its occupation.  Acts of reprisal are unquestionably violations of international humanitarian law, so the question will be how seriously will the Iraqi government in Baghdad take these charges?  Will individual commanders be held accountable for limiting that kind of behavior?  Will investigations be undertaken to both punish perpetrators and make their victims whole through legal action?  How will the Iraqi government manage and restrain the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), trained and equipped by Iran?  The building clouds on the horizon that portend a potential conflict between Iraqi regulars, the Iranian controlled PMFs, and Kurdish Regional Government over the latter’s moves toward official independence may be an indicator that both Baghdad and Tehran have more pressing priorities than chasing down the perpetrators of reprisals that violate international humanitarian law.

If reprisals are not contained, and past injustices not seriously investigated, then victimized communities will legitimately fear that they have essentially been made out-laws, people for whom the privileges and immunities provided by citizenship do not apply.  The resulting social stratification will bear a sectarian taint: Sunnis in liberated areas will once again believe themselves to be the victims of a Baghdad government that is at best indifferent to their suffering, or at worst aggressively acting against their peace and security—a home government in league with a traditional enemy: Iran.  This will roughly recreate the socio-political environment dominant in the period immediately after the United States’ led invasion, de-Baathification order and dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces.  From the low point of sectarian civil war in 2006-2007 where hundreds, sometimes thousands of civilians died daily, it took an aggressive political campaign and the investment of millions of dollars to assuage the concerns of Sunni tribes in Western Iraq to end their support for the insurgency and participate in the political process.  Steps taken by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to consolidate power rekindled distrust of the government in Baghdad by the same Sunni tribal leaders who had just helped nearly destroy al-Qaida in Iraq.  A direct line can be drawn between the U.S. invasion, its occupation, the moves by al-Maliki to consolidate power, his close alignment with Tehran, and the rapid rise and success of Daesh.  Care must be taken to not remake past mistakes.

Coming Home

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015 there were 261,094 Iraqi refugees abroad and 4,403,287 internally displaced Iraqis, defined as people displaced from their homes, but not living abroad.  The problem of civilian displacement has been acute in Iraq since the U.S. led invasion of 2003. At the height of the violence during the coalition occupation of Iraq, there were more than 2 million Iraqi refugees abroad and nearly 2.4 million internally displaced Iraqis.   As sectarian violence worsened under the occupation, mixed neighborhoods where Sunni and Shia families had lived as neighbors for generations were homogenized, often by force.  Abandoned homes and business were occupied by newcomers without legal claims of ownership, and returning rightful owners faced many challenges.  Will the currently displaced Iraqis feel confident enough in the Iraqi security forces to return to homes and neighborhoods they left?

Figure 1:  Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) 2004-2015

Englund October Insight Graph

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Over a decade of violence, uncertainty and a new political system has left Iraq’s legal system debilitated.  Add to that the extremely serious problem of internally displaced persons in Iraq as a result of Daesh’s violent, short-lived administration.  Sorting out the property rights of almost 5 million displaced people will present a significant challenge for the Iraqi government.  Several steps will be required: First, there is the need to convince displaced persons that it is safe enough to return.  Part of this will rely on the government’s willingness to prevent reprisals, as discussed above; part will be to convincingly enforce law and order in an equitable manner.  Next, assist returning individuals in overcoming legal and logistical hurdles that will obviously hinder return.  The Iraqi government will need to deploy resources to process legal claims of title and then enforce those claims, negotiating compromises where possible.  That will mean maintaining a working, fair, and accessible justice system.  Finally, monitor the activity of extra-judicial groups that might seek to affect their own form of justice for, or against, returnees.  That will necessarily include controlling the activity of rouge elements of the regular security forces and para-military units seeking a new, profitable role for themselves after combat operations against Daesh draw to a close.  If Iraqi refugees abroad or living in camps do not begin to return home feeling secure, the future stability of Iraq will be questioned.

Future of Iraqi Sunni Leadership

In 2012, after the last U.S. combat forces left Iraq, then Prime Minister Maliki began to consolidate power.  In part this was done by purging the government of Sunni Iraqi politicians. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was arraigned on terrorism-related murder charges, tried in absentia, and sentenced to death.  The Minister of Finance and former Deputy Prime Minister, Rafi al-Issawi saw his security detail arrested on terrorism charges; he was subsequently the target of an improvised explosive device, and resigned his post to live in exile.  Both are examples of a perceived pattern of behavior by the previous Iraqi premier to marginalize political opponents, acts which carried with them a sectarian motive: both were Sunni politicians, popular with Sunni Iraqis who felt that they were themselves the victims of a government that systematically pushed them to the unprotected edges of Iraqi society.  These actions—and others, such as the removal of professional officers, trained by U.S. forces before their departure, and replacement by al-Maliki loyalists—generated simmering animosity toward Baghdad and gave rise to open protest.  In this poisonous environment, Daesh found fertile ground.

Eight years before al-Maliki began to consolidate power, and purge potential detractors, the United States, in the name of the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi armed forces and removed from office any Iraqi government employee who was of a certain rank in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.  The double blow of de-Ba’athification and liquidating the army disproportionately affected Sunni Iraqis, as they had generally (mostly through family and tribal connections) been favored in Saddam’s regime.  This had the effect of pushing hundreds of thousands of people into unemployment, many with automatic weapons, and many more with useful skills.  As Ba’ath party membership was required for a wide range of employment sectors in Saddam’s Iraq, from mid-ranking bureaucrats, to school teachers, university professors, and even some medical professionals, the de-Ba’athification order unnecessarily forced out many experienced professionals.  This political and cultural marginalization of a large segment of Iraqi society was arguably the single greatest factor that gave rise to the Iraqi Insurgency that began in earnest in 2004.  The summed effect was to drain Iraq of its professional class, including its professional soldiers, and either send them into exile, or create a potent, armed opposition.

The question is, what steps will the Iraqi government take to convince these people to return to active participation?  Is it possible that the politically charged conviction of the former vice president be vacated?  Will amnesty be offered to the former finance minister and his body-guards?  While the over-all data regarding returning refugees is encouraging (see figure 1), the re-integration of former professionals now living abroad—an exile tainted by sectarian grievances—is very important.  Concrete steps to decouple sect, politics, and justice are necessary to convince these long-term, talented expats to return.  This will also require effort by the government to convince the Iraqis who did not leave that returnees should be welcomed home.  Of course, there would need to be something to come home to—economic recovery, and the re-establishment of political order would need to precede such a homecoming.  These prerequisites seem very far off and difficult to achieve in the current climate of Iraq.

Old habits

As Daesh is evicted from the territories it seized in Iraq, attention rightly turns to what to do next.  Energies should be directed to monitoring indicators that Iraq is relapsing into the conditions that gave rise to insurgency.  Presently, there are three significant indicators of relapse: 1.) reprisals by Iraqi security forces and Iranian-controlled para-military Popular Mobilisation Forces that occur with impunity; 2.) Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people are either not allowed to return to their homes, or are not convinced that returning is possible or safe; 3.) long-term Iraqi expatriates with professional skills and former government status do not choose to, or are not allowed to return.  Presently, there is little cause for optimism on any of these.

Saddam Hussein’s regime cultivated mistrust to sufficiently cleave society so that it was powerless to overcome his abuses.  More than a decade of turbulence, violence, and displacement have created immense hurdles to establishing regular governance.  The invasion and occupation, with its errors, prepared the ground for the ensuing insurgency.  Power struggles in post-occupation Iraq re-kindled division and grievance.  Rebuilding Iraq after Saddam’s cruel malpractice, decades of war, sanctions, and division will present an almost insurmountable task; rebuilding a civil and legal society in which marginalized groups believe they have a decent chance at being served by the Baghdad government will be an even greater one.