- Escalation Between U.S. And Militias Strains U.S.-Iraq Relations; President Salih Names New PM-Designate Amid Strong Objections From Fatah Coalition; New PM-Designate Promises Elections Within A Year – On March 16, Baghdad sent letters to the UN Security Council and UN Secretary General condemning the “misguided American aggression” after retaliatory U.S. airstrikes against militias believed responsible for rocket attacks that killed Americans resulted in casualties among Iraqi civilians and government forces. On March 16, the Saeroun coalition led by Moqtada al-Sadr said that negotiations among the political blocs to agree on a new candidate to form a new government had collapsed, and Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that President Salih had the “exclusive choice” to designate a new PM in accordance with article 76 of the constitution. On March 17, President Salih tasked former Najaf governor and member of the Nas coalition, Adnan al-Zurfi, with forming a new government. A joint statement by four blocs (Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah coalition, Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law block, Falih al-Fayadh’s group and the Fadheela party bloc) said the president’s actions “violated the constitution.” On March 17, protesters in several provinces expressed their rejection for the selection of Adnan al-Zurfi as the prime minister-designate. On March 18, Iraq’s new PM-designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, issued a 12-point statement outlining the priorities of his future government, starting with a pledge to work with the UN to make the necessary preparations to hold free and fair elections within one year. more…
- U.S. Airstrikes On Militia Targets Kill Iraqi Soldiers; New Rocket Attacks Strike Camp Taji; Several Militant Attacks Hit Tuzkhormatu – On March 12, an IED killed one member of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) in Diyala. On March 13, several U.S. airstrikes targeted weapons depots connected with Kataib Hezbollah, which the U.S. accuses of conducting a March 11 rocket attack that killed two Americans. The airstrikes also struck a civilian airport in Karbala and killed and injured five members of the ISF and one civilian. On March 14, 33 rockets struck Camp Taji, injuring two Iraqi soldiers and three servicemembers from the international coalition. On March 15, an IED injured one ISF member in Kirkuk. On March 16, an IED attached to a motorcycle wounded seven civilians in Tuzkhormatu district in Salah ad-Din province. The following day, four mortar rounds struck the same district, wounding five civilians. Eight more mortar rounds struck Tuzkhormatu on March 19, injuring two civilians. On March 16, unidentified attackers fired a rocket propelled grenade at the residence of the governor of Basra, injuring one policeman. On March 16, the U.S.-led international coalition said it plans to remove part of its forces that are deployed at small, remote Iraqi bases as part of a plan to “relocate and consolidate” forces in Iraq. On March 17, two rockets struck Basmaya, an ISF training base that also hosts colaition personnel. On March 17, two IEDs killed two ISF members and injured two civilians in Diyala. On March 17, an IED injured one soldier southeast of Mosul. On March 18, two rockets struck near the Green Zone in Baghdad, injuring two civilians. more…
- Iraq Expands Travel Restrictions, Struggles To Enforce Curfews To Contain COVID-19; Amnesty Finds New Evidence Of Deliberate Killing Of Protesters; Floods Threaten Many In Northern Iraq – On March 13, Iraq added Germany and Qatar to a list of eleven countries from which travelers are not permitted entry to the country to guard against further spreading of COVID-19. Iraq also decided to suspend all flights for one week starting March 17. On March 15, the government ordered a nighttime nation-wide curfew for one week starting on March 17. The Minister of Health urged security authorities to be strict in enforcing the curfew, noting that many vehicles and pedestrians were still on the streets, and many shops remained open in defiance of government orders. On March 18, the KRG decided to extend a two-day total curfew that was imposed on March 13 for an additional five days. On March 19, the Ministry of Health said there were 177 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 12 deaths. On March 17, Amnesty International shared the results of a new investigation based on 3D analysis of footage that it said proves that Iraqi government forces “intended to kill or severely maim” protesters using military grade teargas canisters. On March 19, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said recent flooding has caused serious damages and displaced “a large number of people” in central and northern Iraq, including a number of IDP camps, urging the federal government and the KRG to provide emergency assistance. more…
- Foreign Workers Evacuated, Production Halted At Gharraf Oilfield; Iraq Seeks Emergency OPEC+ Talks To Stop Oil Price Decline – On March 17, Iraq’s Oil Ministry decided to halt production at the 95,000 bpd Gharraf oilfield in Dhi-Qar after the field’s operator, Malaysian oil company Petronas removed its staff as a precaution against COVID-19. On March 16, the governor of Iraq’s central bank said the country’s total debt, excluding money owed to creditors before the regime change 2003, stood at approximately $64 billion. On March 17, Reuters said Iraq’s Oil Minister sent a letter to OPEC’s secretary requesting an “emergency meeting” that brings together OPEC members and major non-OPEC producers to “discuss all possible ways” to support flagging oil prices. The head of the International Energy Agency warned that at current prices, government revenue could drop to as little as $2.5 billion a month, compared with $6.2 billion in January.
For more background on most of the institutions, key actors, political parties, and locations mentioned in our takeaways or in the stories that follow, see the ISHM Reference Guide.
On March 15, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told care-taker prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi that the U.S. was prepared to act in defense of its personnel in Iraq against attacks by Iran-backed militias. The conversation took place after two rocket attacks on Camp Taji killed and injured several members of the U.S.-led international coalition, including American citizens. A statement by the State Department said the secretary “underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable.” Retaliatory airstrikes by the U.S. on March 13 targeted five weapons storage sites used by the militias believed to be responsible for the rocket attacks (more details below) resulted in casualties among Iraqi civilians and government forces, causing new strains in relations between Baghdad and Washington. In response, the Baghdad government sent letters to the UN Security Council and UN Secretary General condemning the “misguided American aggression” and asking the international organization to condemn the American airstrikes and prevent similar future action. The letters also labeled the rocket attacks on Camp Taji as “acts of aggression” and pledged to find and prosecute the perpetrators.
On March 16, the Saeroun coalition led by Moqtada al-Sadr said that negotiations among the political blocs to agree on a new candidate to form a new government had collapsed. Saeroun asked President Barham Salih to “use his constitutional authority” to appoint a new prime minister-designate. On March 10, the main Shia political parties had set up a committee of seven members to select a new candidate to be the next prime minister after an earlier candidate, Mohammed Allawi withdrew his nomination on March 1. The collapse of negotiations reportedly resulted in new calls by some political parties to allow resigned Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to stay in office. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (part of the Fatah coalition) blamed the deadlock on the “whims” of political blocs he did not name. Khazali argued that since an agreement on a new candidate was unlikely, the right solution was to have Parliament declare a state of emergency to “grant the current government [of Adil Abdul-Mahdi] exceptional powers to do its job.”
On March 16, Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that President Barham Salih had the “exclusive choice” to designate a new prime minister in accordance with article 76 of the constitution. The court said it issued the ruling in response to a query from the president asking whether he had the power to nominate a new prime minister after the political blocs had failed to agree on a new candidate.
On March 17, Iraqi President Barham Salih tasked former Najaf governor and member of the Nas coalition, Adnan al-Zurfi, with forming a new government. The appointment of the new prime minister-designate, who now has 30 days to assemble a cabinet, met with immediate objections form powerful political blocs. A joint statement by four blocs (Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah coalition, Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law block, Falih al-Fayadh’s group and the Fadheela party bloc) said the president “violated the constitution” and selected Zurfi without first securing consensus among the political blocs. The blocs threatened to take “legal, political and popular measures” to block this “deterioration that threatens domestic peace.” A senior figure in Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a militia affiliated with Fatah, went as far as denouncing Zurfi, who has U.S. citizenship, as a “loyal soldier” of America. Another member of Fatah stressed that only three blocs (Moqtada al-Sadr’s Saeroun coalition, Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma bloc, and Zurfi’s Nasr coalition) backed Zurfi’s nomination. Photographs taken from inside the president’s office showed a crowd of parliamentarians from several major blocs, including the four that issued the statement, leading to speculations about internal divisions within these political groupings. The Hikma bloc was publicly slightly critical of Zurfi’s appointment, saying in a statement that it didn’t question the president’s “good intentions” but had reservations about the selection process, which it said “reflected disregard for important political powers.” The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) appeared to hedge its judgment, saying in a statement that the party has no preconceptions about Zurfi and would consult with other parties in the Kurdistan region (KRI) and the rest of Iraq before making any decisions. The Iraqi Forces coalition, a group led by Speaker Halbousi, issued one of the few endorsements to date for Zurfi’s appointment, saying he was a “professional and nationalist” figure who believes in partnership and can help the country “reach safe shores.” In his first public comment on Zurfi’s appointment, Saeroun leader Moqtada al-Sadr sought to discourage Iran and the U.S.from interference in government formation. Sadr said that disagreements and infighting among Shia parties necessitated the selection of “someone not close to us or to you,” and that it was up to Iraqis to deal with the selection method “whether it was right or wrong.”
On March 17, the head of the UN assistance mission in Iraq (UNAMI) welcomed the selection of Adnan al-Zurfi as the new prime minister-designate in Iraq. The envoy, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert cautioned, however, that the country was dealing with “unprecedented” crises on multiple fronts, emphasizing that securing the support of “all political forces” was essential. The United States, for its part, issued a more qualified statement of support. Secretary of State Mike pompeo said Zurfi could count on Washington’s support if he was ready to “uphold Iraq’s sovereignty, be corruption-free and [be] protective of human rights among others.”
On March 16, conflict erupted between the acting governor of Dhi-Qar and the province’s former governor, who had resigned in November, after the latter attempted to reclaim his position. According to acting governor Aba-Dhar al-Omar, the resigned governor, Adil al-Dakhili forced his way into the government building seeking to retake his position as governor. Dakhili had resigned in late November of last year in the aftermath of excessive violence against protesters that killed at least 29 people, but sources close to him claim that the central government in Baghdad never accepted that resignation. The dispute between the acting and resigned governor is reportedly fueled by Dakhili’s decision to switch allegiance from the Hikma bloc of Ammar al-Hakim to the Saeroun coalition of Moqtada al-Sadr and by Saeroun’s power ambitions in Dhi-Qar.
On March 17, protesters in several provinces expressed their rejection for the selection of Adnan al-Zurfi as the prime minister-designate. Protesters in Najaf argued that Zurfi was disqualified because he has long been part of the political class. In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, protesters held portraits of Zurfi marked with a large red “X” as a mark for rejection. Similar protests were reported in Diwaniyah and in Nasiriyah.
On March 18, Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, issued a statement outlining the priorities of his future government. The statement included twelve points dealing with various pressing issues, starting with a pledge to work with the UN to make the necessary preparations to hold free and fair elections within one year. The other eleven points dealt with the COVID-19 threat, approving the 2020 budget, establishing state monopoly over arms, protecting protesters, fighting corruption, restoring Iraq’s sovereignty and balancing its foreign relations, returning the displaced to their home district, attracting foreign investment, resolving disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region, and finally developing Iraq’s security forces, including the Peshmerga and popular mobilization forces.
On March 12, an activist in Maysan province survived an assassination attempt in Amara, the provincial capital. Activist Ridh al-Ogaili, who is a coordinator of student protests, was unharmed after unidentified assailants fired seven bullets into his vehicle.
On March 12, an under-vehicle improvised explosive device (UVIED) explosion killed one member of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) in the outskirts of Khalis, in Diyala province.
On March 13, the United States directed several airstrikes against targets thought to be connected with the Kataib Hezbollah militia, which the U.S. accuses of conducting a March 11 rocket attack that killed two Americans at Camp Taji north of Baghdad. A Pentagon statement said the raids, which hit “weapons storage facilities” were “defensive precision strikes” meant to degrade the militia’s ability to inflict more harm on U.S. personnel in Iraq. The airstrikes, however, have also struck the site of a civilian airport under construction in Karbala and positions occupied by the Iraqi army and police in Babylon. A statement by Iraq’s joint operations command strongly condemned the “aggression,” which it said killed three Iraqi soldiers, two policemen and a civilian, while injuring twelve people, including a civilian, four soldiers, two policemen and five members of the popular mobilization forces (PMF). The statement said that retaliation for the Taji attack was a weak justification for the airstrikes, which “will lead to escalation…and exposes everyone to more dangers and threats.” The commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie dismissed criticism about Iraqi casualties, saying that the U.S. had alerted Iraqi authorities about the impending airstrikes. McKenzie added that the U.S. intends to keep two aircraft carriers in the Middle East to maintain the ability to respond to continuing threats. Harakat al-Nujaba, a militia group close to Kataib Hezbollah issued a statement after the airstrikes in which it warned that escalation would lead to a “change in the rules of engagement” and an expansion of “resistance” operations to force the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq.
On March 14, at least two dozen rockets struck Camp Taji, a major ISF base north of Baghdad that hosts U.S. and other foreign troops as part of the U.S.-led international coalition. The attack, the second in the span of three days, injured five people: two Iraqi soldiers and three personnel from the coalition. The Iraqi Joint Operations Command condemned the attack in which “33 rockets struck near Iraqi air defense units and the international coalition mission,” saying that any forces that seek to supplant the Iraqi state will end up “behind bars.” The statement also said the Iraqi military strongly opposed any unilateral retaliatory action by the U.S. “similar to the events of March 13,” in reference to U.S. airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah that resulted in deaths and injuries among the ISF and civilians. The Iraqi command also said that the ISF discovered the launchers used in the attack in a place called Abu Idham. At the site were also 24 additional rockets that did not launch. An investigation by Iraqi authorities resulted in the arrest of nine suspects, including the owner of the building where the launchers were found, and yielded other information the Iraqis shared with the U.S. side.
On March 14, the Turkish military said that operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq resulted in killing or capturing 11 members of the group. The operation, which was backed by air attacks, took place in the Metina area on the Iraq-Turkey border in Duhok province.
On March 14, the PMF said that three of its fighters were killed near Samarra in Salah ad-Din province. The PMF statement did not explain the circumstances of the incident but noted that the PMF conducted search operations looking for ISIS militants in the surrounding area.
On March 15, a UVIED explosion est of Kirkuk injured a member of the province’s intelligence and counter-terrorism force.
On March 16, an IED attached to a motorcycle exploded in a market area in the Tuzkhormatu district in Salah ad-Din province. Security sources said the explosion wounded seven civilians, including one child. The following day, unknown militants fired four mortar rounds that struck the Imam neighborhood in the same district, wounding five civilians, four of whom were children. Eight more mortar rounds struck the same district on March 19, injuring two civilians and damaging eight homes.
On March 16, unidentified attackers fired a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) at the residence of Basra governor As’ad al-Idani. The attack, reportedly the second of its kind, injured one policeman who was guarding the building.
On March 16, the U.S.-led international coalition said it plans to remove part of its forces that are deployed at small, remote Iraqi bases. The announcement came amid new escalation between the U.S. and Iran-backed militias in Iraq and followed two large rocket attacks on Camp Taji that killed and wounded several coalition servicemembers. American officials, however, said the redeployment plan predated the recent attacks. The following day, the coalition officially handed over a base at al-Qaim in Anbar province to the ISF. The coalition also plans to move hundreds of troops from several bases, including the K-1 and Qayyarah bases in Kirkuk and Ninewa to larger bases inside Iraq and regional bases used by the coalition in Syria and Kuwait.
On March 17, two rockets struck Basmaya, a training base for the ISF located southeast of Baghdad that also hosts foreign personnel from the U.S.-led international coalition. The attack, which came on the heels of larger, deadly attacks on Camp Taji, did not result in casualties.
On March 17, two IEDs killed two members of the ISF and injured two civilians in Diyala province. The first explosion struck a police patrol in the Waqf area northeast of Baquba, killing two policemen. A second bomb exploded in a farm in the Abbara subdistrict, northeast of Baquba, injuring two farmers.
On March 17, five mortar rounds struck a market area on the outskirts of Jalawla, in northeast Diyala province. The incident did not cause any casualties.
On March 17, two IEDs targeted civilians and the ISF in the Qaraj subdistrict southeast of Mosul. The first IED exploded against a civilian vehicle without causing casualties. When security forces arrived at the scene, a second IED exploded, injuring one soldier from the responding unit.
On March 18, two rockets struck near the Jadiriyah district, not far from the Green Zone in central Baghdad. One of the rockets hit a residential building and injured two civilians, while the other rocket landed in the Tigris river. Security sources said the rockets were launched from the Arab Jubour area south of the city.
On March 13, Iraqi authorities added Germany and Qatar to a list of eleven countries from which travelers are not permitted entry to the country to guard against further spreading of COVID-19. A travel ban has been in place since March 6 for Spain, France, Italy, Iran, China, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Kuwait and Bahrain. Iraq also decided to suspend all flights for one week starting March 17 as a measure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The order applies to all of the country’s airports and all domestic and international flights by the Iraqi Airways, but excludes international flights overflying Iraq’s airspace.
On March 15, the crisis cell set up by the Iraqi government to deal with the COVID-19 threat ordered a nation-wide curfew for one week starting on March 17. The curfew excludes the movement of goods across the country. The Minister of Health urged security authorities to be strict in enforcing the curfew, noting that many vehicles and pedestrians were still on the streets, and many shops remained open in defiance of government orders. On March 18, the KRG decided to extend a two-day total curfew that was imposed on March 13 for an additional five days. Meanwhile, the religious endowments, both Sunni and Shia, decided to shut down all mosques and suspend public prayers and other events until further notice. However, footage from Karbala showed large numbers of people were still flocking to the main shrines in the city. Meanwhile, activists launched a “Stay at Home” campaign to persuade people to avoid going out except for emergencies in order to prevent further spreading the virus. The activists sought to remind people that Iraq’s dilapidated health system is not prepared to handle a large volume of infections. On March 19, the government crisis cell said it might decide to extend the curfew beyond March 23.
On March 19, the Iraqi Ministry of Health reported that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country has risen to 177, more than double the total reported a week before. The ministry also said the number of deaths has increased to 12 across the country, while 49 patients have recovered from the disease.
On March 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had dispatched a “high-level technical mission” to Iraq and had several discussions with health authorities in Iraq regarding the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a WHO statement, the meetings focused on ways to “identify the disease detection dynamics and at-risk populations, in addition to providing guidance on strengthening response and control measures.” The discussions also underlined the need to set up an “Emergency Operations Center” designed to streamline the country’s response to the spreading disease. The WHO said it has provided the federal and KRG ministries of health with adequate amounts of protective gear and lab testing equipment, and was expediting the construction of three “negative-pressure rooms” in the Iraqi capital to handle difficult cases.
On March 15, the Central Bank of Iraq said it would provide ID 30 billion (~$25 million) to support the country’s effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Ali al-Allaq, the Bank’s governor urged all private and state-owned banks to follow suit. The state-owned Trade Bank of Iraq donated another $5 million for the same cause. The following day, Finance Minister Fouad Hussein said the government has set up a special account to receive foreign and domestic donations intended to support Iraq’s health sector. On March 17, a spokesman for Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that Kuwait decided to provide $10 million in aid to Iraq to help Baghdad’s measures against COVID-19.
On March 17, Amnesty International shared the results of a joint investigation with SITU Research, which the organization says proved that Iraqi government forces “intended to kill or severely maim” protesters using military grade teargas canisters. The investigation project utilized 3D analysis of footage from incidents involving deaths or severe injuries among protesters in Baghdad. The combination of deliberately firing at low angles into crowds, and the use of grenades much heavier than is usual for crowd-control, resulted in “at least two dozen” deaths among protesters since October 2019. Commenting on the finding, one of Amnesty International’s experts on military operations said that “overwhelming evidence points to a pattern of Iraq’s security forces deliberately using these heavy tear gas and smoke grenades to kill, rather than disperse, protesters, in direct violation of international human rights law.
On March 19, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) said that recent flooding has caused serious damages and displaced “a large number of people” in central and northern Iraq, including a number of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The IHCHR urged the federal government and the KRG to provide emergency assistance to the affected communities, noting that many parts of Ninewa, Salah ad-Din and Diyala have been dealing with “tragic” conditions. Meanwhile, security forces in Ninewa said they were evacuating families whose homes were flooded in districts north of Mosul and delivering food and other essentials to those affected by the flooding. The Sunni endowment, which manages mosques, siad it has opened all mosques in Mosul to provide shelter for those affected by the floods in the city. The Ministry of Water Resources said its engineers were working to divert floodwater, which it said has passed Mosul en route to Baiji, towards the Thar-Thar reservoir in Salah ad-Din province.
On March 17, Iraq’s Oil Ministry decided to halt production at the Gharraf oilfield in Dhi-Qar province. Reuters said the field’s operator, Malaysian oil company Petronas removed its staff from Gharraf as a precaution against COVID-19 without consulting with the Oil Ministry. An official working on the field said they “were forced to shut down production because Petronas didn’t inform us of the evacuation process.” The shutdown will impact 95,000 barrels per day (bpd), which the field produced on average. Fears of COVID-19 are impacting the oil industry in the KRI as well. Earlier in the week, Gulf Keystone Petroleum, a UK oil company that operates the Shaikan field, said it decided to suspend drilling operations in the field in order to ensure the safety of its workers. The company said the suspension would not affect production, which averages 38,000 bpd.
On March 16, the governor of Iraq’s central bank said the country’s total debt, excluding money owed to creditors before the regime change 2003, stood at approximately $64 billion. Governor Ali al-Allaq explained that the figure included $23 billion in external debt owed to foreign creditors and $40.9 billion owed domestically in the form of treasury bonds.
On March 17, Reuters reported that Iraqi Oil Minister Thamer al-Ghadban sent a letter to OPEC’s secretary general requesting an “emergency meeting” that brings together OPEC members and major non-OPEC producers to “discuss all possible ways” to support flagging oil prices. The request is responding to a continuing steep decline in oil prices amid shrinking global demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and after major producers failed to agree on supply cuts when they met earlier this month. Last week, Iraqi officials warned that a prolonged decline in oil prices would bring about a financial crisis in Iraq where oil exports comprise more than 90% of government revenue. Commenting on Iraq’s precarious position, the head of the International Energy Agency warned that at current prices, government revenue could drop to as little as $2.5 billion a month, compared with $6.2 billion in January. Meanwhile analysts think the low prices mean the KRG won’t be able to pay oil companies operating the region’s oilfields.
IED Incidents and Resulting Casualties
Casualties Due To IEDs from March 12 - March 19, 2020The following table includes both civilian and security forces who were either injured or killed due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), or suicide attacks.
|03/15/20||East of Kirkuk city, Kirkuk||0||1|
|03/16/20||Tuzkhormatu, Salah ad-Din||0||7|
|03/17/20||Waqf area, Diyala||2||0|
|03/17/20||Abbara subdistrict, Diyala||0||2|
|03/17/20||Qaraj subdistrict, Ninewa||0||1|
Please note: some geographic locations represented are approximations and this map may not represent all incidents.
Derived from firsthand accounts and Iraq-based Arabic and Kurdish news sources, the Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor is a free publication of the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center.