Iraq Oil Report's Daily Brief compiles the most important news and analysis about Iraq from around the web.

The Kurdish Awakening

Henri J. Barkey writes for Foreign Affairs:

Details about the U.S. withdrawal from Syria remain sketchy. But whatever Washington ultimately decides to do, Trump’s announcement marked a cruel turn for Kurds across the Middle East. Back in mid-2017, the Kurds had been enjoying a renaissance. Syrian Kurds, allied with the world’s only superpower, had played the central role in largely defeating ISIS on the battlefield and had seized the group’s capital, Raqqa. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia, controlled large swaths of Syrian territory and looked set to become a significant actor in negotiations to end the country’s civil war. Turkish Kurds, although besieged at home, were basking in the glow of the accomplishments of their Syrian counterparts, with whom they are closely aligned. And in Iraq, the body that rules the country’s Kurdish region—the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG—was at the height of its powers, preparing for a September 2017 referendum on independence.

By the end of 2018, many of the Kurds’ dreams appeared to be in tatters. After the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in the KRG’s referendum, the Iraqi government, backed by Iran and Turkey, invaded Iraqi Kurdistan and conquered some 40 percent of its territory. Overnight, the KRG lost not only nearly half of its land but much of its international influence, too. The Turkish Kurds, despite gaining seats in parliament in the June 2018 elections, had endured relentless assaults from Erdogan and his government throughout the year, including a renewed military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a left-wing separatist group. In Syria, Turkey invaded the Kurdish-controlled town of Afrin in March 2018, displacing the YPG and some 200,000 local Kurds. Then, in December, the Syrian Kurds learned that their American protectors might soon abandon them altogether.

These setbacks, however, belie a larger trend—one that will shape the Middle East in the years ahead. Across the region, Kurds are gaining self-confidence, pushing for long-denied rights, and, most important, collaborating with one another across national boundaries and throughout the diaspora. To a greater extent than at any previous point in history, Kurds in the four traditionally distinct parts of Kurdistan—in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—are starting down the road of becoming a single Kurdish nation. Significant barriers to unity remain, including linguistic divisions and the presence of at least two strong states, Iran and Turkey, with an overriding interest in thwarting any form of pan-Kurdism. Yet recent events have initiated a process of Kurdish nation building that will, in the long run, prove difficult to contain. Even if there is never a single, unified, independent Kurdistan, the Kurdish national awakening has begun. The Middle East’s states may fear the Kurdish awakening, but it is beyond their power to stop it.

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Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

Alissa J. Rubin reports for The New York Times:

The acting United States defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, arrived in Baghdad early Tuesday for an unannounced visit with Iraqi leaders to discuss the American troop presence in the country and the fight against the remains of the Islamic State.

Mr. Shanahan’s trip coincides with plans for an American troop withdrawal from Syria and questions about whether some of those troops could instead be based in Iraq, which would be used as a base for operations in Syria.

His quest was complicated — or, perhaps, made necessary — by an interview President Trump gave this month suggesting American troops could be sent to Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, a fellow Shiite state.

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Iraq Rebuffs U.S. Demands to Stop Buying Energy From Iran

Edward Wong writes for The New York Times:

The Trump administration is pressuring Iraq to stop buying energy from its neighbor and sole foreign supplier, Iran, in what has become a major point of conflict between Washington and Baghdad.

Iraqi leaders, fearing that a further shortfall in power would lead to mass protests and political instability in their electricity-starved country, are pushing back on the demand, which is rooted in President Trump’s sanctions against Iran.

The dispute has frayed American diplomacy with Baghdad as Iraq tries to steady itself after the United States military withdrawal in 2011 and the campaign against the Islamic State.

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Accounting for Civilian Victims in Iraq

Belkis Wille writes for Human Rights Watch:

It is well known that civilians have been killed during the US-led coalition’s military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014, but almost two years on from some of the heaviest bombing in the cities of Mosul and Raqqa, the coalition’s own estimates of civilian deaths are far below public estimates.

One coalition member deserves praise for choosing transparency over the normal wall of silence. As it has done in previous incidents, on February 1, 2019, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) acknowledged it might have caused between 6 and 18 civilian casualties in a strike on a Mosul neighborhood on June 13, 2017.

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Caught in Syria, foreign jihadist suspects may face trial in Iraq

Ali Choukeir and Sarah Benhaida report for AFP:

Their home countries don't want them and holding trials in Syria isn't an option: now suspected foreign jihadists could end up facing tough justice over the border in Iraq.

Both countries have suffered for years at the hands of the Islamic State group and Iraqi courts have already meted out hefty sentences to hundreds of foreigners detained on its soil, often after lighting-quick trials.

The American military -- which spearheads an international coalition fighting IS -- has in the past shown itself willing to hand those captured in Syria to the authorities in Iraq.

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UN: Clearing Iraq’s Mosul From Explosives to Take Decades

Lisa Schlein writes for Voice of America:

The U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) estimates it could take 10 years to clear Mosul, Iraq, of landmines and decades longer to free this former Islamic State stronghold of thousands of tons of other explosive hazards.

The nearly year-long battle by Iraqi forces to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants has left the city with a legacy of death and destruction. An estimated 800,000 people fled Mosul during the conflict.

Most would like to return to their homes. But officials with the U.N. Mine Action Service say the old city of Mosul has been flattened and they cannot return. They say no buildings are left standing and the city is heavily contaminated with landmines and explosive hazards.

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Iraq’s Dying Rivers

Omayma Naklah and Mohammad Rahahleh report for Al Jazeera:

For thousands of years, two famous rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, made Iraq one of the most fertile regions in the Middle East.

Often called "the cradle of civilisation", the first urban settlers grew up on the lands between the two ancient waterways. But today, things are dramatically different, - for the rivers and the people who depend on them.

Iraq's ancient rivers and water resources have been seriously damaged by wars, economic sanctions, the construction of upstream dams, pollution and a fall in water levels.

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Will Iraq’s Old Divisions Undermine Its New Prime Minister?

Simona Foltyn writes for Foreign Policy:

When he was sworn in as Iraq’s new prime minister in late October 2018, Adel Abdul Mahdi vowed to fight corruption, address electricity and water shortages, create private sector jobs, and curb an entrenched system of political patronage that has long hamstrung Iraq’s ability to serve its people.

Abdul Mahdi’s agenda was as ambitious as it was necessary. It sought to calm public anger following the worst anti-government protests the country has seen in years, fueled by a severe water and sanitation crisis in Iraq’s south that had resulted from years of neglect and mismanagement of public resources. The prime minister’s pledge to choose his own ministers, rather than let political parties pick candidates, aimed to restore trust in a political process that many Iraqis had come to dismiss as corrupt and undemocratic.

But with the 100-day mark of his administration gone, Abdul Mahdi and his reform agenda appear to be faltering. He has been able to freely choose only a handful of ministers, while four ministerial positions remain vacant amid haggling among political parties insisting on their candidates. His budget has drawn widespread criticism for failing to shift resources away from salaries and the security sector toward services, agriculture, industrial development, and the reconstruction of war-torn areas in the country’s north.

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The role of Iraq’s influential Shiite clerics is changing. Here’s how.

Marsin Alshamary writes for The Washington Post:

In a recent interview, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and militia leader warned the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The leader, Qais al-Khazali, represents a class of politician preachers who have come to dominate the political scene in post-2003 Iraq. The ascendancy of these clerics raises questions about the role of the Shiite religious establishment in contemporary Iraqi politics.

Shiites are Iraq’s largest ethno-sectarian group — and these Iraqis have a history of appealing to their religious leaders, known collectively as the marjayya, during political crises. Many observers mistakenly think Iraqi clerics are divorced from political involvement — which they see in stark contrast to Iran.

But since 2003, elite clerics have played a prominent public and political role in shaping the Iraqi state. They have been members of the constitutional writing committee and have held public office. When Iraq started holding elections in 2005, there were rumors of a marjayya-approved Shiite list. Most famously perhaps, the Shiite establishment is known for issuing a religiously binding call to arms in 2014 to fight the Islamic State.

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US-Led Coalition Denies Confrontation With Iran-Backed Militia in Iraq

Rikar Hussein writes for Voice of America:

The U.S.-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq Monday denied it faced a head-to-head encounter with the Iran-backed militia known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the Nineveh province of Iraq.

The Shiite militia in Iraq alleged its fighters Friday prevented the American troops within the anti-IS coalition from conducting a field operation inside the city of Mosul.

"The patrol referenced was routine and there was no confrontation," Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, told VOA in an email.

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