Iraq’s 2016 outlook: More ISIS and sectarian violence, low oil prices
Baghdad - The New Year promises to be decisive for Iraq.
The battle with the Islamic State (ISIS) picked up in the northern and western parts of the country. Low oil prices caused a squeeze nationwide and threatened a crucial revenue sharing deal with the secessionist Kurds. They also undermined state efforts to tend for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by ISIS and sectarian violence.
The power of Shia militias, rumoured to have been responsible for scores of killings and kidnappings among Sunnis, is worrisome. Little is being done to win back the piqued Sunnis. And, sectarian attacks continue to inflict a huge toll on both sects, threatening to plunge the country into further chaos.
The government is faced with the tough task of making good on its promise to fight corruption among officials, press ahead with reforms and improve services and infrastructure for its disgruntled subjects.
Neighbours Iran and Turkey continue to exhibit ambitions in Iraq, where provinces — or even neighbourhoods — are split along sectarian and ethnic lines. A Baghdad resident must have a visa to visit the northern Kurdish autonomous areas.
Those are the main issues that made 2015 a very challenging year in Iraq and observers predict the worst is yet to come.
“As ISIS loses more and more ground in Iraq and Syria, with foreign involvement rising — whether by the Russians or Americans — the jihadist group will increase its violence,” said Salem al-Saadoun, a political science lecturer at Baghdad University.
“ISIS’s attacks will be more painful and invasive, with much more innovative tactics to be used,” Saadoun said, pointing out that militants’ techniques were fast evolving and now include hiding explosives in streets and buildings.
“It’s not going to be easy and winning over ISIS will be the make-or-break factor in 2016.”
In the north, the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, backed by Iran and a US-led coalition, have been gradually pushing ISIS back. One major victory was the recapture of two-thirds of Sinjar, where ISIS had committed massacres against the Yazidi minority.
Retaking Sinjar in November 2015 after a 15-month ISIS rule cut a major supply route for the militants, who remain isolated in Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, further to the north-east.
However, government advances towards Mosul stalled because the army was overstretched, having been fighting another crucial battle that allowed it on December 8th to recapture a large part of Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni Muslim heartland of Anbar province to the west.
Underlining the significance of the battle over Ramadi, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offered to deploy attack helicopters to assist with the advance into the city centre, where the government says ISIS has up to 1,000 jihadists among some 10,000 trapped civilians.
Perhaps, establishing security and rebuilding Ramadi will be a “much harder task than retrieving the area”, Anbar province council member Rajeh Barakat said.
“Mosul and other areas could see a replica of the operation in Ramadi, where support by some Sunni tribal residents made it a success,” Barakat said.
An agreement concluded late in 2014 allowed Russia to set a toehold in Baghdad, launching a centre for sharing and analysing intelligence data on ISIS with Iraq, Syria and Iran. The office has been active since October but Russia has not yet launched air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, as it did in Syria.
Winning back the Sunnis took a back seat amid a popular outcry over poor health care and education services, lack of security, spread of cholera and persisting power cuts in a country of 35 million people. Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets, demanding improved conditions and punishment for corrupt officials seen as having squandered the country’s oil wealth.
Many projects were put on hold because of low oil prices. The price drop forced a crunch on Iraq, which sits atop the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves. As a result, Baghdad hiked output by 13%, an unprecedented 500,000 barrels per day (bpd), to 3.8 million bpd.
The increased production intensified a battle for market share between members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC rivals. Under such moves, Baghdad sold some crude grades for as little as $30 a barrel, about 57% less the average Brent crude oil price of $53 per barrel.
Meanwhile, in Iraq’s north, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) retreated in June from the deal that gave Iraq’s central government access to revenue from Kurdish oil, which accounts for 15% of the country’s total daily output.
In exchange, the Kurds were to get 17% of federal expenditure, an amount the KRG said hasn’t materialised. Therefore, KRG broke off the deal and opted to sell oil on its own.