20th July 2010

The future trajectory of stabilisation in Iraq

SIGNIFICANCE: The number of security incidents in Iraq has stabilised at about 600 per month, indicating that further improvements in security may not be possible in the near future.

ANALYSIS: Though the US-led 'surge' of 2007-08 was successful in slashing the number of violent incidents in Iraq, there has been much slower progress in 2009-10. Furthermore, attention-grabbing mass-casualty attacks and local security breakdowns give the impression that stabilisation may have stalled or reversed slightly. To assess the nature of security in Iraq, it is important to review both the quantitative metrics of security incidents and also the qualitative details of everyday violence across Iraq. When these approaches are combined, the following trends are apparent:

1. National statistics. In May, 595 security incidents were reported to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). These incidents probably represent a two-thirds sample of the serious security incidents taking place in Iraq and include insurgent attacks, uncovered weapons caches and some serious criminal activities. The figure of 595 incidents compares to 637 in April, 810 in March, 576 in February, and 618 in January.
The 595 incidents are a major improvement on previous years: May 2009 saw 1,040 incidents; May 2008 saw 2,335; and May 2007, 3,930. The overarching trend is that stabilisation has reached a plateau, in statistical terms, with a slowly reducing rate of improvement since 2008.

2. Baghdad area. Baghdad continues to witness significant numbers of violent incidents (241 in May 2010), reflecting the large population of the city and its rural districts (the so-called 'Baghdad belts') rather than a higher per-capita incident rate than other cities. As the international media is mainly present in Baghdad, the city functions as a barometer of the levels of violence in Iraq and events in Baghdad have a disproportionate impact.

There has been a rise in the number of violent incidents in Baghdad in 2010, increasing from an average of 120 incidents per month in the last quarter of 2009 to an average of 204 incidents per month in the first quarter of 2010. Since then Baghdad has suffered 233 incidents in April and 241 in May. In statistical terms, Baghdad is back to the levels of violence seen a year ago (254 incidents in May 2009) but is still much more secure than it was in May 2008 (848 incidents) and May 2007 (1,174 incidents).

3. North-central Iraq. Outside of Baghdad, most of the violence in Iraq is concentrated in the predominately Sunni Arab parts of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah al-Din and Anbar provinces. These areas are stabilising at different rates: Nineveh is the most violent province in Iraq outside Baghdad, but it has seen violence levels drop from an average of 260 incidents per month in the last quarter of 2009 to 80 incidents per month in the first quarter of 2010, although the remaining incidents are often serious in nature. Other northern provinces (Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Diyala) and Anbar witness a combined total of around 250 incidents per month and have seen no real improvement in 2010.

4. Other areas. Other parts of Iraq remain quiet in terms of major security incidents, with most federally controlled provinces suffering between five and 15 insurgent-initiated attacks each month and with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) witnessing almost no publicly reported security incidents, although terrorist groups continue to probe the region's defences.

No major breakdown. A close review of the types of security incidents taking place in Iraq's provinces highlights the likely trajectory of security in Iraq. Certain eventualities are not likely, based on current security and security force activities across Iraq:

1. No sectarian conflict. A close review of violence in Baghdad, the 'belts' and other cross-sectarian melting pots like Diyala and Babil provinces shows that civilian-on-civilian sectarian fighting is not occurring, nor are sectarian militias attempting to mobilise. Moreover, it is likely that the eventual government will contain enough of a Sunni component to ward off widespread Sunni anger. However, there are other concerning developments, notably al-Qaida's continuing provocations against Shia citizens and government efforts to disarm Sunni 'Sons of Iraq' militias.

2. Ethnic tensions under control. Ethnic tensions across the federal-KRG line of control are currently being kept in check by US and Turkish mediation, with some encouraging indicators regarding confidence-building talks and joint security patrolling along the boundary.

3. ISF endurance. Though the US drawdown has slowed the rate of improvement in the ISF, they continue to function effectively and show no signs at present of disintegrating along communitarian or political lines (although a small US presence beyond 2011 may be necessary to ensure that this remains the case).

4. Militia and terrorist setbacks. The quality of attacks initiated by militant groups remains low (with al-Qaida, for example, suffering setbacks following the killing or capture of many leaders in recent months). A significant proportion of roadside bombs are discovered before they detonate or utilise small or otherwise ineffective explosive charges. Coordinated militant operations spanning multiple districts are very rare.

The nature of insecurity. The reality of violence in Iraq is complex, reflecting the messy end of an insurgency and the transition to an effort to restore the rule of law in a well-armed post-conflict society. Future violence in Iraq will be sustained by a number of factors:

1. Political inertia. Though the slowness of government formation is a contributing factor to the overall sense of political stagnation, violence is more closely associated with local political competition within sectarian and ethnic communities, plus frustration with government hiring policy and security force activities. These factors will continue to drive violence after the new government is ratified.

2. Overstrained security forces. The security forces have suffered a reduction in effectiveness as a result of US withdrawal from checkpoints as well as political limitations on US and ISF ability to arrest suspected militants.

3. Heavily armed society. The sheer availability of weapons and military explosives mean that Iraqi citizens can resolve even petty feuds with high levels of armed force; many militant groups have morphed into well-armed organised crime networks.

4. Surviving insurgent cadre. After deterring and demobilising many of the less committed elements of the insurgency, the ISF is now left with a 'hard core' of committed ideologues who continue to mount purposeful, directed insurgent operations at the local level. Iran continues to maintain its capacity to attack US bases and vehicle movements, matching US and Iraqi efforts to wear down its local proxy groups.

Investment. As there will likely not be either a breakthrough or a breakdown in security, the business community will have to accept that the current level of violence will persist for the term of the incoming Iraqi government, if not beyond. Iraq is moving towards the Algerian model of insecurity, whereby the country will face a long-term threat of urban terrorism and whereby some rural areas of the country will periodically face a severe insurgent threat for years to come. With the exception of the oil and gas industry in southern Iraq, many foreign investors may be easily deterred by the security and political risks of entering the Iraqi market.

CONCLUSION: Iraq will continue to stabilise but only at a very gradual pace, with the number of security incidents likely to be difficult to reduce significantly in the next five years or more. Outside of the KRG area, security risks will likely deter many investors from operating in the central and northern parts of the country.