ENHANCE UNDERSTANDING

ISHM: May 20 – May 27, 2021

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Key Takeaways:

  • New Crisis Looms Following The Arrest Of A Militia Commander; Protests Demanding Justice For Slain Activists Take A Deadly Turn; Iraqi President Says The Country Lost $150 Billion To Corruption – On May 26, the arrest of a PMF commander on terrorism charges sparked a tense armed standoff inside the fortified Green Zone. On May 25, violent clashes erupted between security forces and protestors who flocked to Baghdad to demand justice for slain activists, and to end impunity for the perpetrators. Two protestors died and 150 civilians and security personnels suffered injuries. On May 25, the Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers can’t use immunity to shield themselves from civil and criminal proceedings. On May 23, President Salih said that $150 billion had been smuggled out of Iraq due to corruption, and introduced a draft act to recover corruption assets. On May 23, dozens of angry protestors stormed the Dhi-Qar government building in Nasiriyah following an assassination attempt against a prominent activist. On May 22, Iranian-backed militias threatened to escalate attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq to force a withdrawal. Meanwhile, CENTCOM’s Gen. McKenzie said small drone attacks represented a rising threat in Iraq. more…
  • Armed Standoff Between ISF and PMF Fighters In The Green Zone; Attacks Target Tribal Leader, Two Activists; Seven IEDs Target International Coalition Convoys – On May 21, gunmen shot and killed Hisham al-Hijazi, a local activist and a member of the al-Azm political alliance in northern Baghdad. On May 21, local officials said that Turkish warplanes bombarded five villages in Duhok. On May 22, ISIS militants killed Majid al-Obeidi, a tribal leader in Salah ad-Din. Between May 23-27, seven IED attacks targeted International Coalition supply convoys in southern provinces and Anbar. On May 23, an IED explosion targeted activist Imad al-Ogaili Nasiriyah. On May 24, a rocket struck Ain al-Assad air base in Anbar. On May 25, a special force from Baghdad seized drones and arrested members of a “drone cell” in Dhi-Qar. On May 25, an IED attached to a pick-up truck exploded in Haditha, in northern Anbar province, injuring ten people.On May 26, a special security force detained Qassim Musleh, the PMF Operations Commander in Anbar, on terrorism charges. In response, armed PMF fighters surrounded vital government buildings inside the Green Zone, sparking a standoff with security forces. more…

  • Families With Perceived Ties To ISIS Return From Syrian IDP Camp; Iraq Records Significant Jump In Average Daily Virus Cases – On May 24, OCHA reported a sharp decrease in the number of access restrictions affecting the work of aid organizations in Iraq. In April, there were 14 reports of access restrictions, down from 28 reports in March. On May 26, Iraq repatriated 94 families, mainly women and children, from al-Hol IDP camp in Syria to the al-Jadaa IDP camp south of Mosul. On May 27, the Iraqi Ministry of Health said the total number of COVID-19 infections reached 1,186,309. The average number of new cases jumped to 4,310 per day during the last 7-day period, compared to an average of 3,435 per day during the 7-day period ending May 20. The total number of people who received the COVID-19 vaccine reached 573,659. more…

  • Iraq Rejects Sale Of Exxon’s Share Basra Oil Field To Chinese Companies; KRG Must Comply With Four Conditions To Receive Federal Budget Allocations – On May 20, the state-owned Basra Oil Company (BOC) rejected ExxonMobil’s proposal to sell its stake in the West Qurna 1 oil field to two Chinese companies. Iraq had formally offered to acquire Exxon’s share. On May 24, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources said that the Tigris and Euphrates’s water levels have returned back to normal after dropping significantly earlier this month. On May 24, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said that the poor transportation infrastructure and lack of traffic safety enforcement, killed 1,500 Iraqis and injured 10,000 more in 2020. On May 26, the Parliament Finance committee said that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) must comply with four conditions set by the 2021 budget law in order to receive its share of the budget. more…

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.


New Crisis Looms Following The Arrest Of A Militia Commander; Protests Demanding Justice For Slain Activists Take A Deadly Turn; Iraqi President Says The Country Lost $150 Billion To Corruption

On May 20, the Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Frank McKenzie, made an unannounced visit to Iraq and discussed the future of U.S. troops in the country with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Mckenzie acknowledged the threat posed by small drone attacks that targeted bases in the last two months, and said that the U.S. military was actively working to improve its detection and interception methods. He described the efforts to counter drone attacks as a “top priority.” McKenzie said Iranian-backed militias “believe they can carry out attacks at a fairly low level that won’t provoke a response, yet will create enough friction that will eventually induce us to leave,” and reiterated that the fight against ISIS was not over yet. 

On May 21, a Reuters report citing Iraqi officials, militia commanders, and Western diplomats said that Iran has formed new “elite and fiercely loyal” militia groups to carry out attacks on its foes in Iraq. The groups, the sources said, consist of select hundreds of fighters from powerful Iraqi militias, and answer directly to Iran’s Quds Force. The sources said that these covert groups are responsible for recent sophisticated attacks against the U.S. and allies, including drone attacks against Iraqi airfields, and in Saudi Arabia. Officials added that at least 250 fighters travelled to Lebanon in 2020 to receive training by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in explosives, drone warfare, cyber warfare, and surveillance. 

On May 21, sources said that the IRGC’s General in charge of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Haider al-Afghani, requested to transfer out of his position due to the “growing defiance” of Tehran’s Iraqi proxies. Militia commanders told Middle East Eye that they are angry at Iran’s instrumentalization of the Iraqi groups in light of recently attempted Iranian negotiations with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. According to the sources, this rift pushed Iraqi militias to ignore Iran’s commands, push for independence, and escalate attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Afghani told the head of Quds Force General Esmail Qaani that the Iraqi “militia commanders act on their own and do not listen to him.” 

On May 22, Iranian-backed militias Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Sayyid al- Shuhada, and al-Nujaba, said that they will escalate attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq to force a withdrawal. The militias rejected the outcome of the U.S.-Iraqi strategic dialogue talks, and said Kadhimi’s government was “not truthful nor capable of fulfilling the people’s will.” On the same day, spokesperson for the Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC) said that officials from Iraq and the United States will hold meetings next week to discuss a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops. Officials from both countries agreed in the last round of talks on April 7, to hold future talks regarding a timetable to redeploy remaining U.S. “combat troops” outside Iraq. 

On May 23, dozens of angry protestors stormed the Dhi-Qar government building in Nasiriyah, while others gathered in al-Haboubi Square in response to an assassination attempt against Imad al-Ogaili, a prominent activist in the province. Protesters chanted anti-Iran slogans and demanded resignation of the local government and security officials for failing to bring those responsible for targeting activists to justice.

On May 23, Iraqi President Barham Salih said that an estimated $150 billion had been smuggled out of Iraq in corrupt deals since 2003, and consequently introduced a draft act to hold corrupt officials, current and former, responsible for their financial crimes. The “Corrupt Funds Recovery” act, also aims to recover “the money and criminal proceeds from any corruption crime, or property equivalent to its value.” Excerpts from the draft bill include measures to curb corruption, such as requiring officials to submit their foreign assets, if any, for government review, and rewards corruption whistleblowers with 5% of total recovered assets value. Salih described corruption as “a root cause of terrorism and scourge of Iraq’s political economy,” and called to form an international coalition to combat corruption.

On May 24, Iraqi Deputy Parliament Speaker Hassan al-Kaabi urged member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to sever business and financial ties with countries that support Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinians. During his speech at an OIC meeting in Tehran to discuss the escalations between Israel and Hamas, al-Kaabi also called on the United Nations to issue a binding resolution condemning the “Israeli aggression on Jerusalem and Gaza.” 

On May 25, thousands of Iraqis gathered in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas in Baghdad, to demand an end to impunity for those responsible for murdering activists, and justice for their victims. Protestors who flocked from different parts of Iraq, particularly from the south, chanted “the people want to topple the regime” and other anti-Iran and anti-militia slogans. Protesters carried portraits of murdered activist Eُhab al-Wazni, and waved Iraqi flags. The protest turned violent when riot police moved in to contain and isolate the crowds. Security forces deployed tear gas, smoke and sound bombs, and even live ammunition to disperse the protestors who responded by throwing rocks, water bottles, and sharp objects. Security forces arrested dozens of protestors, only to release the majority of them later. The Human Rights Commission said that two protestors died during the clashes, while 20 others suffered injuries, many of them in critical condition. The clashes also injured 130 security personnel. The Commission added that 11 protesters remained in custody following an incident involving the destruction of two security vehicles. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi said he would launch an investigation into the deadly clashes, and added that he issued strict orders not to use live ammunition “for any reason.”

On May 25, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court (FSC) ruled that legislative immunity doesn’t preclude legal proceedings against Parliament members, reversing the previous court’s opinion in that regard. In the ruling, the court said that Parliament members cannot use immunity to shield themselves from criminal or civil legal matters, with the only exception being if authorities accuse a member of an “unwitnessed” crime, for which, immunity must be waived by an absolute majority vote in the Parliament. The ruling could hasten efforts to try several Parliament members in corruption cases.

On May 26, the arrest of Qassim Musleh, the PMF commander in Anbar, on terrorism charges created a new crisis between Prime Minister Kadhimi and PMF commnders. Qais al-Khazali, the head of the powerful Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), described the arrest as an attempt to muddy the waters and create chaos in order to “cancel the elections, declare an emergency government, and suspend the constitution.” Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada militia called Musleh’s arrest a “government violation,” and accused al-Kadhimi of orchestrating the arrest, and the May 25 protests in Baghdad, to justify postponing the elections and staying in power. Fatah Coalition leader Hadi al-Amiri, and PMF Committee chairman Falih al-Fayadh, rushed to negotiate a release for Musleh as a military standoff was taking place between PMF fighters and Iraqi security forces inside the Green Zone. Later that day, al-Kadhimi defended the arrest, and said that PMF military movements inside the Green Zone were a “dangerous violation.” He added that a joint committee from various Iraqi military and national security agencies, as well as the PMF, will investigate the charges against Musleh. Several PMF groups celebrated Musleh’s “release,” while Iraqi security officials insisted that he remained under arrest and in the custody of the Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC). Kadhum al-Fartousi, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada spokesperson, claimed that Musleh was at the PMF headquarters in the Green Zone, and that he was there “as a commander and not as a detainee.” 

On May 26, the head of the National List, Ayad Allawi, suggested that his group could boycott the October elections. He said “postpone or boycott, are the two choices available today,” unless the climate becomes suitable to ensure elections integrity. Allawi added that the daily assassinations, repression campaigns, and intimidations confirm his long standing opinion that holding early elections would be difficult. There are now at least 17 political parties and movements that have declared boycott.  

On May 27, a source told al-Mada that political parties  were secretly discussing postponing October’s early elections to April 2022, despite assurances by Prime Minister al-Kadhimi that his government will hold the elections on time. According to the source, roughly 70% of the political blocs support delaying the elections.


Armed Standoff Between ISF and PMF Fighters In The Green Zone; Attacks Target Tribal Leader, Two Activists; Seven IEDs Target International Coalition Convoys

On May 21, Turkish warplanes bombarded the villages of Atoush, Bibadi, Harur, Kista and Jalki in Duhok province. Another airstrike severely damaged the main water pipe in the area, cutting off drinking water supply to the village of Bazif. Local officials and eyewitnesses said the strikes didn’t cause casualties, but set ablaze several farms. On May 25, a local official said residents of the village of Adni had to leave their homes due to the intensity of the Turkish shelling. According to local officials, residents of at least six villages had to abandon their homes since Turkey launched a large-scale military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq in late April. 

On May 21, a security source said that an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded near the home of a local Imam in al-Fao district, south of Basra. The blast caused material damages but didn’t cause casualties. 

On May 21, gunmen shot and killed Hisham al-Hijazi, a local activist and a member of the al-Azm political alliance, in the Tarmiyah district in northern Baghdad. A security source said that al-Hijazi was delivering aid to families in need when the gunmen attacked him. 

On May 21, ISIS militants attacked the village of al-Majidiya in the Riyadh subdistrict, southwest of Kirkuk, using mortars and gunfire. There were no reports of casualties. On May 24, ISIS militants targeted a Federal Police checkpoint in the village of al-Aalia in the Riyadh subdistrict. A security source said the attack injured three policemen. 

On May 22, a security source said that an airstrike of unknown origin targeted an Iraqi militia vehicle traveling near the borders with Syria. The source didn’t provide information on casualties or damage.   

On May 22, ISIS militants killed Majid al-Obeidi, a tribal leader in Salah ad-Din province. According to Salad ad-Din Governor, Ammar Jubr, the attackers stormed al-Obeidi’s home in al-Aith area, and shot him during a brief exchange of fire that also killed one of the assailants. 

On May 22, a security source said that mortar rounds hit an Iraqi army checkpoint in the Kanaan subdistrict, in eastern Diyala. The attack didn’t cause casualties. A day later, a security source said that an IED exploded in the same area, injuring two civilians.  

On May 23, an IED attached to a car belonging to Imad al-Ogaili, an activist in Dhi-Qar province, exploded in central Nasiriyah city. Al-Ogaili sustained serious injuries.  

On May 23, security sources said that five IEDs targeted International Coalition supply convoys in Basra, Dhi-Qar, Muthanna, Babylon, Diwaniya provinces. None of these attacks caused casualties or damages. A sixth attack of similar nature injured an Iraqi contractor and damaged two convoy vehicles in Anbar province. On May 25, a security source said that an IED exploded near an International Coalition supply convoy traveling on a major highway through Diwaniya, without causing casualties or damage. On the same day, security forces launched an operation to sweep for  IEDs along the international highway in Dhi-Qar, uncovering five IEDs. On May 27, a security source said that an IED exploded near an International Coalition supply convoy in Muthanna, without causing casualties or damage. 

On May 24, a Katyusha rocket struck Ain al-Assad air base in western Anbar province. Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Col. Wayne Maruto said that the attack caused no injuries, and that military officials were assessing the damage. 

On May 25, a security source said that a special force from Baghdad raided targets in al-Fadhli subdistrict in Dhi-Qar province, seizing drones and arresting three members of a “drone cell” that security officials think is linked to IED attacks that target International Coalition supply convoys in Dhi-Qar. A Syrian individual who authorities suspect of being the fourth member of the cell, escaped arrest. 

On May 25, an IED attached to a pick-up truck exploded in the Haditha district of Anbar province. The blast injured ten people. Initially, the Iraqi Security Media Cell described the explosion as a car bomb. 

On May 26, a special security force detained the PMF Operations Commander in Anbar province, Qassim Musleh, in al-Doura neighborhood in southern Baghdad. A warrant issued by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) indicates terrorism as the cause of arrest. Sources said that security officials suspect Musleh’s involvement in recent attacks that targeted the International Coalition, and in the assassionation of Ehab al-Wazni in Karbala on May 8. PMF sources said security forces arrested Musleh based on fabricated charges because he refused to grant entry to a U.S. force coming from neighboring Syria. Hours later, security sources said that PMF military vehicles entered the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, and surrounded “important” buildings, including the Council of Ministers and al-Kadhimi’s residence. The move created an intense military standoff between the armed PMF fighters and security forces inside the Green Zone. Following this development, Iraqi forces closed all access points to the Green Zone, deployed tanks and armoured vehicles, and restricted the movement of military and security convoys into and within Baghdad. PMF fighters began withdrawing from the Green Zone as political figures attempted to ease the tension. On May 27, security forces reopened the Green Zone and resumed normal operations at its gates.  

On May 27, a security source said that an IED explosion targeted an Iraqi army convoy near the village of Beer Ahmed, east of Tuzkhormatu district in Salah ad-Din province. The blast injured two soldiers.


Families With Perceived Ties To ISIS Return From Syrian IDP Camp; Iraq Records Significant Jump In Average Daily Virus Cases

On May 24, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported a sharp decrease in the number of access restrictions affecting the work of aid organizations in Iraq. In April, there were 14 reports of access restrictions, down from 28 reports in March. OCHA reported that 74% of April’s access incidents constituted administrative restrictions. The report points out that the access issues last month impacted the timely delivery of aid to 18,000 recipients in Kirkuk, Ninewa, Diyala, and Anbar. 

On May 26, the Iraqi government said it repatriated 94 families, mainly women and children, from al-Hol IDP camp in Syria to the al-Jadaa IDP camp south of Mosul. Migration and Displacement Minister Evan Faeq Jabro cited security checks, ‘financial allocations’ and COVID-19 as reasons for delaying the first phase of repatriation that Iraqi officials expected to start in early May. Jabro said that the government, in partnership with international organizations, will provide the returnees with support, “mental health therapy” and rehabilitation programs. The plan to resettle Iraqis with perceived ties to ISIS has been met with push-back from local officials and Ninewa residents over security concerns.

On May 27, the Iraqi Ministry of Health said the total number of COVID-19 infections reached  1,186,309. This is an increase of 30,172 cases from the 1,156,137 reported on May 20. Of these cases, 71,821 are currently in hospitals, including 444 being treated in ICUs. These numbers represent a decrease of  827 in hospitalizations and 20 in ICU admissions since May 20. Ministry data indicated that there were 187 new COVID-19 deaths since May 20, bringing the total from 16,102 to 16,289. The total number of recoveries increased from 1,067,387 to  1,098,199. The average number of new cases was 4,310 per day during the last 7-day period, compared to an average of 3,435 per day during the 7-day period ending May 20. In the past 24 hours, the areas with the highest case counts were Baghdad with 1,301 cases, Basra with  856 cases, Sulaymaniyah with 309 cases, Maysan with 209 cases, and Ninewa with 200 cases. To date, Iraq has tested a total of 10,295,303 samples for COVID 19. The total number of people who received the COVID-19 vaccine reached 573,659, including 22,972 who received their shots on May 27.


Iraq Rejects Sale Of Exxon’s Share Basra Oil Field To Chinese Companies; KRG Must Comply With Four Conditions To Receive Federal Budget Allocations

On May 20, Iraq Oil Report said that the state-owned Basra Oil Company (BOC) rejected ExxonMobil’s proposal to sell its stake in the West Qurna 1 oil field to two chinese companies. Iraq had formally offered to acquire ExxonMobil’s shares in the oilfield earlier this month. Exxon is seeking $350 million for its 32.7% share. 

On May 23, the European Union (EU), in partnership with United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the Iraqi government institutions, funded and launched a €15 million ($18.3 million) anti-corruption initiative that will run for four years. The project aims to strengthen Iraq’s compliance with the UN convention against corruption, initiate a revision of national anti-corruption laws, and offer specialized training and mentorship opportunities for corruption investigators and integrity judges. According to the UNDP, the project will help attract investments, and will lead to improved transparency and increased engagement by the civil society and the general public in confronting corruption.  

On May 24, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources said that the Tigris and Euphrates’s water levels have returned back to normal after dropping significantly earlier this month. The ministry added that water levels will continue to rise in the upcoming days to accommodate summer agricultural needs. Last week, The Ministry said the drop was an intentional operational measure to prepare for the summer months ahead.

On May 24, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said that the lack of proper road maintenance, safety requirements, routine inspections, and driving over the speed limit were major factors in accidents that killed 1,522 people and injured 10,670 others in 2020. Commision member Fadhel al-Gharrawi said authorities recorded 4,666 vehicle accidents, and called on the federal and local governments to launch a comprehensive effort to repair the crumbling transportation infrastructure.

On May 26, the Parliament Finance committee said that Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) must comply with four prerequisites to the federal government enforced by the 2021 budget law, in order to receive its share of the budget which is estimated at $7.84 billion. 

Committee member Jamal Kojar said that the KRG is required to deliver oil revenue of at least   250,000 barrels per day, 50% of its non-oil revenue, provide KRG’s employment data, and allow an audit of the region’s accounts since 2003. Kojar said representatives from Baghdad and Erbil should meet to discuss implementation of these conditions. The KRG said that a delegation will head to Baghdad next week to discuss the budget.


IED Incidents and Resulting Casualties

Casualties Due To IEDs from May 20, 2021 - May 27, 2021

The 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.
DateLocationDeathsInjuries
05/21/21al-Fao, Basra province00
05/23/21Nasiriyah, Dhi-Qar province01
05/23/21Basra province00
05/23/21Dhi-Qar province00
05/23/21Muthanna province00
05/23/21Diwaniya province00
05/23/21Babylon province00
05/23/21Anbar province 01
05/25/21Haditha district, Anbar province010
05/27/21Muthanna province00
05/27/21Tuzkhormatu district, Salah ad-Din province02

 

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.


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