ISIS isn’t Iraq’s only problem

ISIS isn’t Iraq’s only problem

In addition to the war against ISIS, the government of Iraq is currently facing a host of other impending issues that are threatening the country’s security and economic outlook. Corruption, deep-rooted sectarianism, and the collapse of the Mosul dam are among the challenges Iraqis must now face to ensure peace and stability and revive investment.

ISIS isn’t Iraq’s only problem. Recent political protests, rampant sectarianism, and reconstruction problems such as those posed by the Mosul dam are testing Iraq’s already mercurial security, political and economic climate.

If government leaders wish to restore stability and economic prosperity in the one of the Middle East’s largest economies, leaders must address the corruption and sectarian problem to ensure cooperation across all sectarian groups.

Leaders must also prioritize reconstruction and infrastructure challenges such as those posed by the Mosul dam in order avoid worsening the already dire humanitarian situation.

Political instability remains a key problem

Recent political protests, organized by the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq Muqtada al-Sadr, against government corruption is placing a strain on Iraq’s political environment and adding to instability in the capital city of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr has called upon the government to dismiss a number of lawmakers and dismantle the networks of political patronage that enables a culture of corruption and political deadlock in the country. He is especially is critical of the ways in which oil revenues have been distributed, arguing that oil revenues should be shared out to all Iraq’s citizens and not soaked up by government officials. His main goal is to replace a handful of current lawmakers with an administration of “technocrats” handpicked from a roster his movement selected.

The protests have so far remained peaceful, despite reports of thousands of people showing up to the demonstrations last weekend. However, security forces have had to delay operations to recapture areas held by ISIS, returning to Baghdad to help protect the Green Zone.

Some Iraqi officials warn that the protests threaten the stability of the state and inhibit its ability to effectively conduct its war against ISIS. According to Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a prominent parliament member and former national security adviser,

This is a huge diversion from our main fight against ISIS. We need to mobilize all our resources toward getting them out of the country. But now each and every one is holding their breath to see whether the demonstrators storm the Green Zone, which represents the sovereignty of the state.

As of April 3, Prime Minister Abadi submitted a list of new cabinet members to be ratified by parliament in the coming weeks. The government’s ability to curb corruption in this way will be a crucial step forward in persuading international investors that foreign aid and revenue that comes into Iraq will not be abused.

Overcoming sectarianism

Deep-rooted sectarianism is an underrated, yet critical element in understanding the current political and violent tensions playing out on the ground in Iraq. 

Tension between Iraq’s Shiite-led government and the Sunni population in Iraq has created a ripple of societal friction between Shiites and Sunnis in particular. The manifestation of ISIS, some argue, is the result of years of frustration, disillusion and feelings of resentment among a contingent of Iraq’s Sunni population towards Shiite lawmakers.

More recently, the issue of sectarianism and its impact on politics and security in Iraq has risen as a key issue for three reasons.

First, ongoing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Diyala province is heightening fears over a new waves of violence in areas recently liberated by ISIS.

Last January, the government of Iraq declared Diyala liberated from ISIS, but the province fell under the influence of Shiite militias (notably, Hashd Al Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces). Since then, militants from both the Shiite militias and Sunni groups have carried out suicide bombing attacks against each other.

The fresh attacks this year, in which scores have been killed, are a reminder of the divisions still driving violence in areas where ISIS has been ousted, further complicating the Iraqi government’s fight against terrorism and mission to preserve security.

Second, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Iraq Thamer al-Sabhan remarks in January that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are “exacerbating” sectarian tensions served to fuel further controversy among government leaders and the local population.

Leading Shiite leaders in Iraq quickly condemned the Ambassador’s remarks, while Sunni MPs and other local officials praised his comments in yet another example of strong disagreement among leaders on the role of Shiite militias in anti-ISIS operations.

Finally, preparations to liberate Mosul have been delayed for several reasons, but most notably because of disagreement amongst lawmakers on the role Shiite militias should play in the operation.

Though the Shiite militias have proven an effective fighting force against ISIS in the past, their role in fighting alongside Kurdish, Iraqi and US forces has been nothing short of controversial.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Iraqi Parliament speaker Salim Al Jubouri says Shiite militias should be excluded from operations and that Sunni militias and Iraqi military forces should lead the fight: “If we grant free rein to sectarian militias, there will be a humanitarian and refugee crisis of incomparable scale.”

If the government of Iraq expects to not only liberate Mosul, but to ensure peace and stability after ISIS is ousted, leaders must address the sectarian issue and make tough decisions on who should be leading the fight against terrorism.

Mosul Dam risks collapse

Adding to Iraq’s woes, Iraq’s largest dam is on the verge of collapsing.

The Mosul dam, located in the western governorate of Ninawa upstream of the city of Mosul, was built in January 1981 under Saddam Hussein and currently serves to generate hydroelectricity and provide water for downstream irrigation. At full capacity, the dam holds about 11.1 cubic kilometres (2.7 cu mi) of water and provides electricity to estimated 1.7 million residents of Mosul. It currently ranks as the fourth largest dam in the Middle East.

However, the foundation of the dam has had consistent structural flaws. Much of the karst foundation the dam relies upon consists of bedrock made of gypsum and anhydrite that is water-soluble. As a result,, the dam has required major remediation and rehabilitation efforts overtime as the bedrock in the foundation has become weaker and more porous.

Today, scientific engineers close to the dam say water pressure is building on the dam as melting spring water flows into the reservoir behind it. They say that the giant gates that typically serve to ease this pressure are stuck.

These experts, along with U.S. officials warn that if Iraq government officials do not address this issue and make emergency plans, millions of residents could be at risk of drowning if the dam were to burst.

Indeed, on the sidelines of Davos conference in January, media report U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave Abadi a letter from President Obama calling for urgent action to repair the dam and make emergency evacuation plans.

Despite warnings however, Iraqi officials continue to downplayed the threat. Muhsin al-Shammari, Iraq’s Water Minister, said the risk of the dam collapsing is “a thousand to one,” while Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has reassured that “all necessary measures” have been taken and that a collapse is “highly unlikely”.

On March 2, the government signed a $296 contract with Italy’s Trevi Group (TFI.MI) to reinforce the dam, but so far it has not announced any specific plans to try to rescue people in the event of a breach.

A second structure, the Badush dam, was started 20km downstream, to prevent a catastrophe in the event of the Mosul dam’s failure. But work on Badush halted in the 1990s because of the pressure of sanctions, leaving it only 40% complete.

Economic impact of political and security challenges

All of these underlying challenges are adding to Iraq’s economic troubles which are currently being exacerbating by plummeting oil prices and rising defense expenditures.

Oil accounts for 90% of Iraq’s revenues and falling oil prices have cut monthly cash flows to around $2.5bn.

Likewise, Iraq’s Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari announced in October that 20% of the annual budget, currently estimated at $95 billion with a nearly $21 billion deficit for 2016, will go towards defense.

The World Bank last year pledged $1.2bn to Iraq, fearing the collapse of one of the Middle East’s largest economies, but the figure was well short of the $9bn-10bn the country is seeking from foreign governments.

Moving forward, the government of Iraq must work especially to curb corruption among government leaders, particularly with respect to oil revenues. If foreign investors see the government as cleaning up its act, they will be more apt to provide aid to the government.

Prime Minister Abadi’s announcement that the government will launch an investigation into the oil-corruption scandal is a good step forward.

Additionally, leaders must also work to lessen sectarian tensions between the government, Kurdish and Sunni communities to ensure full cooperation and commitment.

Only through unity will Iraq be able to address these political, security and economic troubles and ensure enduring peace and economic prosperity.

About Author

Madeleine Moreau

Madeleine Moreau is the GRI Senior Commissioning Editor and a Senior Analyst currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. She specializes in investment risk and opportunity in the Middle East and has previously lived in Jordan and Morocco. Her work and insight have appeared in several leading publications, including Business Insider, TechCrunch,, The Atlantic Council, Yahoo News and OZY. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic from Middlebury College.