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Iraq Country Report

Country Risk Level

Critical

Overview

Executive Summary

Demands for an immediate withdrawal of all US forces by the main Shia blocs mean weekly rocket attacks targeting US military and diplomatic assets are likely to continue. IED attacks targeting convoys carrying equipment to US bases occur on a near daily basis between Basra and Baghdad and there is a heightened risk of attacks targeting Western security companies, energy assets and of kidnap to Western individuals. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to bring Iran-aligned militias under greater state control increase the risk of fighting between the militias and security forces.Violent protests are likely in Basra in the year ahead as a result of poor services, unemployment, and the government's increasing probable inability to pay public-sector wages given a sharp drop in revenues due to a fall in oil prices.The rate of confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections is increasing rapidly and on 17 September cases exceeded 300,000. Iraq's dilapidated health system has limited capacity to contain the virus' spread or to treat those affected. Reduced revenues also limit the government's capacity to deal with the outbreak. The Islamic State cells are concentrated in Kirkuk, Ninewa, Salaheddin, and Diyala provinces; tactics include IED attacks on security personnel, arson of agricultural land, and kidnap and extortion of locals.IHS Markit projects that Iraq’s GDP will contract by 19% in 2020 owing to the collapse of global oil prices and the recent intensification of the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Trade represents 79.9% of Iraq's GDP, with oil exports amounting to 94.6% of total exports and on average 90% of overall government revenue. The government is currently experiencing a USD4 billion per month deficit. Non-oil economic activity is expected to recover more gradually amid ongoing fiscal austerity. Iraq’s annual inflation will likely accelerate from nearly 0% to 4.6% in 2020 and then to 14.0% in 2021.

Operational Outlook

Several commentators have likened Iraq's current situation to a 'perfect storm' of unprecedented proportions. At present, Iraq faces a multitude of issues, such as; continued political division, and widespread civil unrest and protest (albeit currently at reduced levels), US/Iranian tension and its overspill into Iraq and the sustained security risk present by the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS). All of which are encompassed by the current COVID-19 pandemic and the global decline in oil price, which sets a backdrop of economic crisis, magnifying Iraq's problems.

The anti-government protests which began back in early October 2019 forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in late November. The outcome compelled Iraq into political stagnation as Abdul Mahdi's caretaker government were powerless to affect change, and numerous PM candidates failed to achieve their quota, forcing them to step down. In May, Iraq finally gained a new Prime Minister under former National Intelligence Service (INIS) chief and prior journalist, Mustafa al- Kadhimi. On June 07, the new PM's cabinet was ratified with all ministerial positions filed, allowing the government to exit the political 'deadlock' it had experienced since November 2019. Al-Kadhimi went on to announce the date of early elections as June 06 2021, an announcement which was largely well received.

One of the many challenges for Kadhimi is acting as a mediator, balancing between Washington and Tehran. The first of many hurdles was the first "Strategic Dialogue", referring to bilateral discussions between the GoI and the United States over their future presence within Iraq. On June 11, the first round was held virtually amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The second round of talks were held on August 20 in Washington and in September, the US CENTCOM announced that troops would be drawn down from 5200 to 3000 during that month. However the indication that US military presence would remain until IS are cleared from Iraq was met with anger from militia forces. Additionally, new economic agreements regarding oil and electricity were reported as a result of the meeting indicating deepening ties between the two countries.

This result angered many Shia political blocs and Iranian affiliated elements of the PMF. After the US killed senior Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike in Baghdad on January 03, 2020; the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution that asked the government to expel foreign forces from the country. However, due to the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the caretaker government at the time did not have the remit to make the motion binding. After the ratification of Kadhimi's cabinet, some Shia political blocs and pro-Iranian militia expected the newly formed cabinet to act swiftly and expel US forces from Iraq. When the conclusion of the strategic dialogue, was seen converse to this, an uptick in attacks against US facilities ensued.

IDF attacks against the US Embassy in the International Zone, and the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Centre (BDSC) within the perimeter of the Baghdad International Airport continued throughout September almost daily. In addition, multiple IED attacks on US and coalition logistics convoys in Baghdad and the southern provinces increased at an alarming rate. On September 15, a British Embassy Baghdad (BED) security detail was hit by and IED on the Airport Road (Route Irish) although there were no casualties. On September 30, an EUAM security detail was also hit by an IED on the same stretch of road. Both incidents were the first IED attacks on the road since 2014 indicating that Rogue Shia Militias (RMGs) are becoming more and more emboldened and brazen in their TTPs.

Responding to the increased threat from the RMGs and continued targeting of its presence in Iraq, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the GoI the US is to close its Embassy in Baghdad unless attacks stop with the process of closing the Embassy taking between 60-90 days. It was stated in diplomatic channels that the decision could be reversed should the US deem actions by the GoI to contain the threat be adequate and that RMGs desist in their activities. Shortly after the announcement, there was a statement from spokesman for Kataeb Hezbollah, Mohammed Mohi regarding a conditional pledge to stop attacks on US affiliated locations and convoys. The following day, it another announcement was made stating that the pledge would be voided in the event that any PMF member is injured or indeed killed as a result of Iraq, US or Israeli activity that the attacks would return and increase in severity. On October 15, Pompeo stated that US was "happy" that Iraq was doing more to protect US interests in the country- however, the threat of withdrawal is reportedly still being considered by the US. Should the closure take place, however, it could pose questions over the tenability of the wider international community presence in Iraq, including that of the Coalition with Counter-IS operations likely to suffer in the event that the Coalition withdraws from Iraq / Syria.

In parallel to this, the overarching situation within Iraq has allowed Islamic State (IS), who were militarily defeated in 2017 to remerge. Since March 2020, IS have gained strength by effectively using the security vacuum within the northern provinces and the current situation within Iraq to reinvent itself, using adept asymmetrical tactics, similar to their predecessor AQI. Despite no longer being a ground holding force, IS are widely assessed as being at a similar strength to 2012, before their awakening in 2014. They have a new command and control structure, with efficient logistical networks, which allows them to effectively apply their guerrilla-style tactics against ISF elements within the northern provinces, engaging in a structured attrition campaign. If left unchecked, many analysts assess the group with continue to grow, another worrying narrative for the nation.

In addition to these security issues, Iraq's economy is crippled due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the global crash in oil prices. Approximately 90% of Iraq's fiscal revenue comes from oil sales, with a minimal private sector and the lack of efficient saving for budgetary needs, Iraq is struggling as many public sector workers go without pay or live under severe austerity measures. Combined with the strain that COVID-19 is placing on Iraq's substandard medical infrastructure, the country is in dire need of reform and diversification.

Terrorism

Shia militias aligned to Iran in the Popular Mobilisation Units intend to expel US forces from Iraq; near-weekly rocket attacks are likely to focus on military bases and US diplomatic assets. There is an increased risk of attacks and kidnap targeting Western individuals. The Islamic State is consolidating its presence primarily in Diyala province using hideouts in connecting mountain ranges. Improvised explosive device attacks in these areas target security forces vehicles. The Islamic State will likely exploit the partial withdrawal of US forces, with more complex attacks against security forces and energy assets in central and northern Iraq.

War Risks

Conventional interstate war is highly unlikely. A proxy conflict between the US and Iran, with inconclusive escalation, on Iraqi soil is likely to intensify. Iran-aligned militias in the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) will likely continue to conduct near-weekly rocket and explosive attacks targeting US military and diplomatic assets in Iraq as well as attacks on convoys and private security contractors; there is a risk of rogue attacks against US oil companies and workers. Fighting between Iran-aligned militias and state security is possible, but not broader civil war risks. Meanwhile, Shia fragmentation amid reduced Iraq financial resources heightens the risk of violence between PMU groups.

Social Stability

The conditions underlying the mass, violent protests that broke out in Baghdad and the South in October 2019 are unlikely to change in the one-year outlook. Reduced oil prices will require the implementation of austerity measures, likely resulting in renewed mass demonstrations. The government is unable to enact the structural changes required to deliver enough jobs for the fast-growing population or to reduce corruption given the vested interests of powerful political networks. Political infighting is also inhibiting an effective response to the increasing spread of COVID-19. Further protests entailing damage to government-owned assets are probable over the course of 2020.

Health Risk

Vaccinations required to enter the country

Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is required if traveling from a country with risk of yellow fever (YFV) transmission and over one year of age and for travelers who have been in transit >12 hours in an airport located in a country with risk of YFV transmission. Certificate of yellow fever vaccination is valid for 10 years.

Routine Vaccinations

Hepatitis A: A vaccine is available for anyone over one year of age. The vaccine may not be effective for certain people, e.g. those born before 1945 and who lived as a child in a developing country and/or have a past history of jaundice (icterus). These people can instead get a shot of immune globulin (IG) to boost their immunity against the disease.

Hepatitis B: A vaccine is available for children at least two months old.

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Polio: A booster shot should be administered if necessary (once every ten years).

Other Vaccinations

Typhoid Fever: If your travels take you to regions with poor sanitary conditions (for children two years old and up).

Rabies: For prolonged stays in an isolated region (for children from when they can walk).

Malaria: Recommended preventive medication - chloroquine (sometimes marketed as Nivaquine).

For Children: All standard childhood immunizations should be up-to-date. In the case of a long stay, the BCG vaccine is recommended for children over one month and the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine for children over nine months.

Natural Risks

Several provinces have, in the past, been severely impacted by short periods of torrential rainfall that have led to landslides and flash floods in Baghdad and southern parts of the country. As infrastructure is ill-prepared for such events, material damages are often significant, including in the capital. Flooding also increases the risk of the spread of cholera.

Transportation

Iraqi Airways, Iraq's national carrier, has been added to the list of airlines banned from flying in European Union (EU) airspace, commonly referred to as the EU blacklist. The ban, implemented due to subpar security and safety standards, went into effect in December 2015.

Practical Information

Climate

Iraq's climate is principally arid. Summers last from May until September, during which time it is very hot and dry with temperatures reaching as high as 50°C. Winters last from December to February and are mild, sometimes rainy, with temperatures ranging from 5°C to 20°C. Conditions tend to be slightly hotter and more humid in the south of the country.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +964

There are no emergency services in Iraq.

Electricity

Voltage: 230 V ~ 50 Hz

Outlets:

Risk Level
Critical High Medium Low Minimal