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Iraq is highly likely to remain in a protracted political impasse in the medium term.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 6 September 2022.

The most powerful political actors are still far away from reaching a political agreement. In this context, armed clashes between rival groups are highly likely to recur, including in the north and south of Iraq, amid attempts to solve the deadlock. But we assess that ongoing levels of violence are highly unlikely to lead to a civil war, at least for now; those same political and security actors appear to be deliberately avoiding getting caught up in a prolonged armed confrontation.

Our headline assessments are:

  • Over the next three months, there is highly likely to be further fighting in Baghdad and Basra.
  • Over the next three months, a civil war is nonetheless highly unlikely, although a split in the Iraqi Security Forces will be a key negative indicator.
  • Over the coming year, the current political impasse is likely to continue despite periodic attempts to reach a negotiated solution.
  • Over the coming year, the potential for a governance crisis, including a repeat of widespread hardship and anti-regime unrest, will probably rise.

Protracted impasse

Despite a calmer security situation in the Green Zone in Baghdad, armed militias affiliated with the Sadrists and the popular mobilisation units have reportedly not left the capital. This follows violent clashes between them (in particular the Sadrist Saraya Al-Salam and their rivals Asaib Al-Haq)  in central Baghdad on 29 and 30 August. Both groups continue to use inflammatory rhetoric against each other on social media. There is highly likely to be further fighting in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities over the near term. And as was the case in Basra on 31 August, exchanges of fire between the two sides can occur with little warning.

A protracted political stalemate between members of the opposing political groups (the Sadrists and the Coordination Framework, which encompasses several Shia and pro-Iran political parties) is highly likely to continue over the medium term. They continue to fundamentally differ about how to move Iraq forward politically. For example, they dispute whether to dissolve the parliament and how to hold new elections. Moreover, personal animosity between Al-Sadr and former prime minister Al-Maliki means that the outlook for any resolution is quite bleak.

It is still likely that the political factions will seek to engage in attempts to resolve the political impasse. There will probably be particular impetus towards talks during the upcoming Arbaeen (a Shia pilgrimage), when we anticipate there will be a period of relative calm. But these would not preclude the recurrence of violent protests organised by rival groups after that, in particular by Al-Sadr.

Following the clashes on 29-30 August, several political groups have called for a new national dialogue to solve the crisis. But the Sadrists have said that they would boycott it, implying that they are ready to take the streets again should their demands not be met. Any political solution without Al-Sadr would heighten the risk of further protests – and violence.

Governance crisis

The longer the political stalemate continues, the more it will amplify the already high potential for a more generalised collapse in governance in Iraq. A protracted political crisis would mean that the current caretaker government will struggle to introduce key legislation or address important issues, such as employment, water and electricity shortages, and relations with the US, Iran, and the Gulf. In this context, anti-regime and hardship-related protests are likely to recur over the coming year. Signs of this are already visible as several thousand people protested against the ‘political elite’ in Baghdad on 2 September.

Potential for civil war

Despite the events of the last few weeks, we still assess that a civil war in Iraq is highly unlikely in the near term. Most political actors appear to be wary of civil conflict and have called for restraint, including the Sadrist camp. In another sign of moderation, during the armed clashes in Baghdad, the security forces reportedly decided to not directly respond. Still, some ingredients for a civil conflict are present.

Below we have put together a list of indicators that, in our analysis, will increase the likelihood of a civil war in Iraq:

  • Splits within the Iraqi Security Forces start to surface
  • Rival groups explicitly call for violence to solve the political crisis
  • Armed groups start deploying heavy weapons in the capital near the Green Zone
  • The prime minister resigns and the government collapses
  • The two rival groups stop communicating with each other
  • Either Sunni or Kurdish armed groups choose a side between the Sadrist and the Popular Mobilisation Units
  • Departure of non-essential personnel from foreign embassies in Baghdad

A civil war would probably start with armed clashes between rival groups – in Baghdad or in the south – followed by a violent repression by Iraq’s Security Forces (ISF). The government would then find itself open to public and factional criticism for the reaction, which will lead to its resignation and to the ISF splintering along to different sides of the conflict.

Image: A supporter of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in the capital Baghdad, on 29 August 2022. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images