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TALOS Iraq Weekly Analysis Report 21 September

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The grey areas depicted on the map indicate geographic areas Islamic State (IS) is assessed to maintain a significant operational and often administrative presence. Since the completed liberation of Iraq at the end of 2017, related zones are currently relegated to Syria. Not depicted are locations within Iraq subject to limitations in security control where IS often retains a significant insurgent presence, particularly in active areas of Nineveh, Salah ad Din, Kirkuk, Diyala, Baghdad, and Anbar Provinces. The integrated heat map depicts concentrations of activity during the reporting period.

Key developments:

  1. Abadi and Amiri announce withdrawing candidacy for premiership, and parliamentary speaker elected
  2. Grenade attack in Erbil, and NGO staff members arrested in northern Sulaymaniyah Province
  3. ISF conduct major operations along Tigris River Valley between Nineveh and northern Salah ad Din
  4. Abduction using fake checkpoint in southwestern Kirkuk and vehicle borne IED attack in Kirkuk City
  5. IS militants conduct complex attack affecting village in Khanaqin District
  6. Motorcycle-borne IED attack illustrates IS versatility in Anbar
  7. ISF secure Ashura commemorations, as IED activity continues in peripheral areas of Baghdad
  8. ISF declare the Ashura security plan a success
  9. Amidst Ashura commemorations, violent demonstrations decline in Basra Province

National developments:
On 16 September, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a directive to 
deploy Iraqi Border Guard forces along the Turkish border following a meeting with his National Security Council.  Abadi’s office announced this action was intended to “protect the border areas and prevent any violations,” adding that the Foreign Minister will report any Turkish violations of Iraqi airspace to the UN.  No timeline or other specific details were noted.  Turkey’s envoy to Baghdad, Fatih Yıldız, downplayed the 16 September statement by asserting it was another example of efforts to improve border security measures.

A dynamic relationship has been in effect between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Turkish government with regards to Turkish military operations in Iraq.  The 16 September statement highlights the priority Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is placing on improving Iraq’s ability to defend its national sovereignty from international interventionist policies.  In addition to regular Turkish strikes, additional motivating factors likely centered on the 8 September Iranian ballistic missile strike near Erbil.  Associated developments will be closely monitored following this initially limited statement of intent.

On 18 September, a Coalition press briefing was conducted by Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.  Colonel Ryan commented on the third phase of Operation Roundup in eastern Syria, which intensified this week.  As anticipated, Colonel Ryan confirmed that IS resistance has been stiff, and Syrian Democratic Forces advances during this final phase has been “slow and methodical” despite substantial CF strikes.  Concerning how many IS fighters remain active in this isolated pocket of territory, Colonel Ryan cited approximately 1,500 to 2,000 fighters.  This is a marked increased from 1,000 IS militants previously noted amongst enduring challenges generating accurate figures.

On 20 September, millions of Shi’a pilgrims commemorated Ashura throughout Iraq amongst heightened security measures.  Ashura marks the start of a 40-day mourning period for Shi’a Muslims commemorating the death of Imam Hussein.  The final day of this mourning period is known as Arba’een and will tentatively take place on 30/31 October.  Amongst substantial security precautions, a moderately effective vehicle borne IED detonation in Kirkuk City formed the only significant IS attack during the climax of Ashura. The bulk of high-impact attacks were noted in the weeks preceding Ashura, while increases in activity are anticipated as security measures reduce following the mainstay of Ashura observances.

Abadi and Amiri announce withdrawing candidacy for premiership, and parliamentary speaker elected:
During a press conference on 13 September, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that he will not seek a second term in office. “We respect and obey the instructions of the religious authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. I did not and will not request the post of prime minister for a second term,” said Abadi.  This significant announcement follows a growing lack of confidence in Abadi’s capabilities demonstrated by his relatively poor performance during the 12 May parliamentary elections, a wave of unrest in Basra and other southern provinces since July, and a growing feud between Abadi and Iranian-aligned power bases.  These events were also surrounded by growing cooperation between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Coalition and Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, which included calls for Abadi’s resignation.

On 18 September, Shi’a PMF leader and Fatah Alliance head Hadi al-Amiri also announced that he has withdrawn his candidacy for the prime minister. “I would like to announce to the dear Iraqi people the withdrawal of my candidacy for prime minister, to open the way for serious dialogue to elect a prime minister and his government according to the vision of the Supreme religious authority,” he said. Meanwhile, Sadr has repeatedly called for an independent technocrat to fill key ministerial positions including the premiership.  As rumors continue to circulate, it remains to be seen who will ultimately be promoted for the premiership during this dynamic period.

During a session on 15 September, Iraqi MPs elected Sunni MP Mohammed al-Halbousi as the parliamentary speaker.  Halbousi was previously the governor of Anbar, and later ran as a candidate on the Anbar Our Identity list. The new speaker was backed by the Fatah Alliance, with many officials viewing this development as a victory for Iranian interests.  The first step of a 90-day government formation period outlined in the constitution was completed through this event, with competing parties now focused on the selection of a president, prime minister, and other key positions.  In conjunction with countless delays thus far, government formation efforts are expected to continue through much of the remainder of the year despite continued international calls to expedite the process.

The Iraqi parliament announced 2 October would form the deadline for the submission of nominees for the president, a position traditionally held by Kurds.  Significant friction has been noted between the PUK and KDP during association negotiations.  On 19 September, Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) head Barham Salih accepted a deal with the PUK to become their nominee for the presidency.  The official resigned his position with the increasingly marginalized CDJ in the process.  Salih was previously the PUK’s Deputy Secretary General, but resigned in 2017 prior to forming the CDJ.   KDP officials repeated intent to secure the presidency from a member of their party, but have not officially promoted a nominee.  It remains to be seen how these events will play out as negotiations continue.

Grenade attack in Erbil, and NGO staff members arrested in northern Sulaymaniyah Province:
On 17 September, Raparin Police announced the detainment of 15 NGO staff members at Qaladize Hospital, northern Sulaymaniyah Province.  The staff members included eight Egyptian, one Finish, and six Swedish nationals, including eight women, as well as at least one Kurdish citizen.  The individuals were accused of distributing expired medicines and baby formula purchased at medical stores in Erbil and Qaladize.  The individuals were later released on bail.  On a national basis, it is not uncommon for individuals to be arrested for the distribution of expired food and medicine.  This incident illustrates the potential for such issues to extend to NGO operations as a noteworthy consideration.

At around 20:30 on 17 September, unidentified male individuals threw a hand grenade against a vehicle on the Erbil-Kasnazan Road, located along the eastern outskirts of Erbil City.  The vehicle was damaged, and one civilian was wounded.  The motivations behind this incident were not specified, but a personal dispute is likely based on established patterns.  Attacks involving hand grenades and hand thrown IEDs are commonly seen on a national basis.  Most instances target residences, with fatalities rarely noted in accordance with intimidation objectives.  The location of the 17 September attack in a public area represents a deviation from these norms, but is consistent with other forms of activity in Erbil.

This incident notably forms the first grenade attack in Erbil City reported thus far in 2018.  Different forms of small arms fire attacks, including close-quarters shootings in public areas, tend to be more common than attacks using explosives.  Two shootings were reported in Erbil City thus far in September, resulting in the deaths of two individuals and one other wounded.  The 17 September incident illustrates the enduring potential for the employment of explosive assets on a sporadic basis, and the importance of being prepared to respond to such incidents in addition to small arms fire.

On 19 September, Human Rights Watch released a report calling for investigations into potential war crimes concerning Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire in northern Iraq over the past year, which killed at least seven civilians.  As regularly noted, a significant proportion of strikes affect rural agricultural areas as oppose to specific PKK positions in an approach to disrupt patterns of life and displace civilians from alleged PKK support zones. “As Turkey steps up operations in Iraq, it should be taking all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians there,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey should investigate possible unlawful strikes that killed civilians, punish those responsible for wrongdoing, and compensate victims’ families.”

Civil unrest in the KR-I remains moderate in the ongoing campaign period leading up to the 30 September parliamentary elections.  No significant politically motivated violence has been noted up to this point in a positive sign.  Early voting for security personnel is scheduled for 28 September.  Associated developments including planned security precautions and effects on mobility will be discussed closer to the event.

ISF conduct major operations along Tigris River Valley between Nineveh and northern Salah ad Din:
IS conducted several small-scale attacks along the Tigris River Valley between Nineveh and northern Salah ad Din, as the organization attempted to maintain pressure in the days leading up to Ashura on 20 September.  In one notable attack on the night of 15 September, IS gunmen ambushed two ISF vehicles travelling near the Shirqat Intersection.  One ISF member was killed, and one other was wounded.  An IS claim notably reported the use of a fake checkpoint.  This attack was significant for its proximity to Highway 1 along a well-travelled route extending from Shirqat City.  Additional attacks cannot be discounted in this sector over the near-term, particularly during evening hours.

IS-affiliated media claimed responsibility for several additional attacks, only a portion of which were confirmed.  One IS statement pertaining to an unconfirmed suicide vest attack interestingly lamented that the incident occurred “without the slightest news from the satanic media,” which was said to have become silent about 60% of IS operations.  IS frustrations with media reporting is not entirely baseless given enduring media reporting shortfalls. However, it remains difficult to confidently judge the proportion of IS activity that may go unreported in the media compared to potential false and regularly embellished IS claims.

ISF supported by CF initiated significant security operations in rural areas of the Tigris River Valley between Qayyarah and Shirqat in response.  These events occurred one week after another significant set of operations discussed during the previous reporting period.  On 17 September, Salah ad Din Operations Command units supported by CF artillery assets based at Qayyarah Airfield West launched a security operation against IS elements in the Jazirat Uwaybid area of northeastern Shirqat District.  Clashes were reported, with at least six IS casualties reportedly wounded along with two ISF casualties.

Operations supported by CF artillery continued in the area the following day.  One insurgent armed with an explosive vest detonated against ISF, killing two ISF members.  As with previous operations, the insurgent likely detonated an explosive vest as a weapon of last resort.  The Ministry of Interior later announced that Jazirat Uwaybid was now “completely cleared” of IS militants following operations conducted by Salah ad Din Police forces. IS sustained heavy casualties and material losses during these operations, which reportedly killed seven IS members, destroyed four hideouts, seven shelters, three tunnels, and two boats amongst other effects.

Each of these operations highlight ISF intent to deny IS freedom of movement along key infiltration routes located along the seams between the Nineveh and Salah ad Din operational commands in this sector of the Tigris River Valley.  Pending further confirmation from CF reporting, the increasing use of CF artillery support reflects a notable but efficient resource commitment at a time when CF strike levels across Iraq remain low.  As with previous operations, cautious optimism is in play that these events will at least temporarily degrade IS activity at a key juncture between the northern reaches of the historic Hawija pocket, southern approaches to Mosul, and the Jazira Desert to the west.

Abduction using fake checkpoint in southwestern Kirkuk and vehicle borne IED attack in Kirkuk City:
The bulk of IS activity during the final lead-up to Ashura was predictably located in hotspots of Kirkuk Province, particularly in rural areas along the Tigris River.  On the night of 15 September, IS fighters raided Gharib Village, killing a policeman at his home.  PMF members and armed citizens responded and clashed with the insurgents, with two individuals killed, and two others wounded.  The bodies of two insurgents were later recovered.  This incident formed the most lethal attack conducted by IS militants in the restive Hawija District since an ambush on 30 June that killed five Hashd al-Ashairi fighters.  Despite the losses sustained, these events importantly illustrate the capability of local security forces to effectively respond to IS activity.

At 20:20 on 17 September, IS gunmen wearing Federal Police uniforms set up a fake checkpoint on the Baiji – Kirkuk Road in southwestern Kirkuk Province.  The gunmen attacked a civilian vehicle transporting two GoI employees, abducting the individuals, and transported them towards Hamrin Mountains.  During transit, one abductee reportedly shot and wounded an IS member, possibly using a concealed weapon, and successfully escaped. The body of the remaining abductee was found the following day.

These events serve as prominent reminders of the potential for significant IS activity along the Baiji – Kirkuk Road and other major routes in the Hawija and Daquq districts.  Attacks involving fake checkpoints form a commonly used tactic in active environments of the Northern Region, particularly in Diyala.  Such tactics were commonly seen in Kirkuk Province earlier in 2018, including the extremely effective 18 February attack that resulted in the deaths of at least 27 PMF fighters.  Significant security responses reduced the prevalence of this form of attack in the province. Although ambushes affecting vehicles remain common, with the next most recent confirmed attack involving a fake checkpoint reported in April.

The 17 September attack also formed the latest in a spike in abductions in the province.  On 12 September, two individuals were abducted during a raid against a health clinic an area of the Daquq District.  On the night of 16 September, two other civilians were abducted during a raid against another village in the Daquq District.  The fate of many of the affected individuals is unclear, with IS not propagating routine execution claims.  It remains to be seen if the individuals will be ransomed as part of established threat finance efforts, or instead executed later for a deeper intimidation impact on the affected populace.

At 22:00 on 19 September, a vehicle borne IED detonated in an area between the Tisin and Khadhra neighborhoods of Kirkuk City.  The device reportedly detonated near a gathering of Shi’a Turkmen individuals commemorating Ashura near a Dawa Party headquarters and a religious shrine located in the vicinity of the Khadhra Fuel Station. Six civilians were wounded according to later updates from security sources.  The moderate effectiveness was likely due to a combination of factors involving trade-offs IS made to infiltrate the device into the city.

The 19 September attack was certainly bold for occurring in a major population center during the height of Ashura-related security measures.  Since July, five confirmed vehicle borne IED detonations and two finds were reported in Iraq, with all but one incident in the Northern Region.  Three detonations occurred in Kirkuk Province including two in Kirkuk City, forming an important consideration for the future.  It will remain important to monitor the frequency of vehicle borne IED incidents through the remainder of the Muharram holy month as IS continuously seeks to revitalize this form of attack.

IS militants conduct complex attack affecting village in Khanaqin District:
At around 21:45 on 17 September, IS gunmen armed with light weapons and RPGs attacked Qaya Village, located west of Khanaqin in a rural area north of Jalawla.  Reporting indicates the home of the local Mukhtar, who is also a local PMF leader, was the focus of the attack.  The attack was repelled by armed citizens and responding security forces after approximately 40 minutes.  Two civilians were wounded during these initial clashes.

As part of likely efforts to cover their withdrawal, IS subsequently targeted the village with five mortar rounds.  At least four additional civilians were wounded.  IS also burned three houses and three vehicles.  The village affected was said to be Shi’a Arab, promoting its attractiveness as a target during the lead-up to Ashura.

The 17 September attack stands out as the first significant complex attack in the Khanaqin District since June 2018. Complex attacks involving gunmen supported by mortar fire form an established tactic used by IS militants in Diyala Province, and will undoubtedly continue to be seen on an intermittent basis.  At around 23:00 on 12 August, suspected IS militants conducted a complex attack against a local police mobile checkpoint in an area southeast of Baqubah in the Buhruz Sub-District.  The attack was initiated with three mortar shells, while gunmen armed with light weapons subsequently engaged the checkpoint.  The attack was repelled, with one child wounded as the only reported casualty.

The effectiveness of complex attacks along these lines varies, with neither the 12 August or 17 September attacks resulting in fatalities.  The moderate effectiveness of the latest attack, which primarily affected armed local residents as opposed to more capable ISF, served as a positive measure of performance for local security forces.  Part of this preparedness understandably stemmed from frequent nature of IS activity in the Khanaqin District.  This includes the abduction and execution of four Kurdish individuals including two off-duty Peshmerga members in an outskirt of Khanaqin City on 9 September.

Motorcycle-borne IED attack illustrates IS versatility in Anbar:
In Anbar, IS continues to demonstrate its versatility as a terrorist-centric organization.  On the night of 14 September, a motorcycle-borne IED detonated outside a café and barbershop in the Karabla area of Al Qaim.  Three individuals were wounded.  The lack of fatalities in this incident is more consistent with a motorcycle rigged with an IED as opposed to a suicide vest bomber riding a motorcycle given historic patterns.  IS claimed that an IS security detachment parked a motorcycle-borne IED near an assembly of Iraqi Army and PMF members in Al Qaim.  As a result, 17 security personnel were killed, and eight others were wounded.

The 14 September attack follows another attack involving a motorcycle-borne IED in Fallujah City on 13 August. Although not particularly effective in terms of casualties inflicted, this incident forms the latest in a series of significant attacks along the Euphrates River Valley since late August.  On 29 August, a suicide vehicle borne IED detonated at a checkpoint located east of Al Qaim.  On 5 September, a complex suicide attack was reported near the Karbala provincial border.  On 10 September, an IS suicide operative armed with an explosive vest detonated outside a hospital in Haditha,  killing one ISF member and wounding five others.  The above incidents prominently illustrate the diversity of IS tactics for high-impact attacks in Anbar.

The 13 August and 14 September incidents further entrench the potential for additional motorcycle-borne IED attacks in diverse areas of the province on an intermittent basis.  The uptick in attacks since late August is likely influenced by elevated IS attack intent during the Muharram holy month, and likely IS responses to operations conducted by Syrian Democratic Forces along the Middle Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria.  In related considerations, IS also undoubtedly understands that the impending loss of Hajin will have a degrading effect on the organization’s ability to support operations in Iraq from eastern Syria.  This aspect further promotes IS attack intent over the near-term, particularly in western Anbar.  The specific nature of targeting further reduces the threat posed to client operations, though inadvertent exposure remains possible.

In a rare publication, on 18 September, IS claimed that IS fighters repelled an U.S.-led air assault raid in an unspecified area of the Anbar desert.  As a result, three U.S. Army personnel were killed or wounded.  It is very likely that this claim is linked to a joint ISF and CF operation reported by the Security Media Center on 19 September.  Historically, CF provide a myriad of capabilities in support of ISF operations.  Coalition Special Forces will intermittently support raids led by partnered ISF, such as that preceding a lethal CF helicopter crash in northwestern Nineveh on 20 August.  Taking this into account, it is plausible that ISF casualties were sustained and IS disingenuously cited these as CF soldiers, in a dignified attempt to maintain credibility following a significant security setback.

In Fallujah City, on 14 September, an explosive remnant of war detonated on a roadside located north of the city.  No casualties were reported.  The same source stated that an unidentified gunman threw a low-yield improvised hand grenade against the home of the Julan neighborhood Mukhtar in Fallujah.  On 16 September, ISF conducted search operations in various neighborhoods in Fallujah City.  Seven individuals were arrested after their houses were cordoned.  The targeting of Mukhtars is an established IS tactic and forms an integral component of a murder and intimidation campaign.  Operations in the aftermath highlight the proactive nature of security forces as part of enduring efforts to prevent residual IS cells from regaining momentum in the city.

ISF secure Ashura commemorations, as IED activity continues in peripheral areas of Baghdad:
Although Ashura commemorations are concentrated in Karbala City and other areas of the Southern Region, associated events are also witnessed in Shi’a dominated districts in Baghdad.  The majority of associated events were witnessed at the Imam Kadhim Shrine in Kadhimiyah District, located in north Baghdad.  In order to secure this religiously important site, elevated security measures and additional ISF assets were deployed near vibrant commercial areas and key religious sites.  Over the coming days, these measures are likely to reduce, and normal security measures are expected to resume.

In a positive development, no significant IS attack event was reported in Baghdad.  However, as with similar religious holidays, the aftermath of Ashura may form a more dangerous period.  In an illustration of the sensitivities surrounding this elevated attack intent, on 15 September, EOD units searched a suspicious vehicle in al-Kara’at area of Adhamiyah.  No explosives were discovered.  ISF are expected to remain wary of any suspicious vehicles following an uptick in vehicle borne IED activity in Anbar and more recently in Kirkuk.

During this period following Ashura, low-level attacks centered around IED activity is likely to form the mainstay of IS operations in Baghdad.  At least 16 IED detonations, including under vehicle IEDs, have been reported in the capital thus far in September.  As regularly discussed, IS will undoubtedly continue to promote such forms of attack surrounding Ashura and the Muharram holy month.  Whilst vibrant commercial areas and Shi’a dominated districts will form the primary target sets, clients should remain aware that unintended exposure remains a consideration.

Unrelated to these events, on the afternoon of 18 September, EOD units cleared three IEDs emplaced inside the compound of the Department of Sanitation in the Jamila area of Sadr City, located in east Baghdad.  No casualties were reported.  The Director of the Municipal Council of Sadr City, Kamel Khanjar, later denied such reporting.  It is not uncommon for government officials to deny such security setbacks, in a dignified effort to maintain credibility.  Although no motivation was specified, municipality buildings and employees associated with the removal of unlicensed structures are often subject to retribution attacks.  That said, the clearance of multiple IEDs in this instance highlights a significant escalation and a clear warning directed at the department.

ISF declare the Ashura security plan a success:
On 20 September, millions of Shi’a pilgrims commemorated Ashura throughout the Southern Region, with related events focused at the tomb of Imam Hussein in Karbala City.  Ashura is also observed in other countries with sizable Shi’a communities, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Ashura marks the start of a 40-day mourning period for Shi’a Muslims commemorating the death of Imam Hussein. The final day of this mourning period is known as Arba’een and will tentatively take place on 30/31 October.

In order to secure and accommodate this significant influx of pilgrims, Karbala security personnel imposed restrictions on travelling in certain vehicles, vehicles with tinted windows and motorcycles, whilst additional security assets were deployed near commercial areas and holy shrines.  In addition, several routes leading into Karbala City were closed to vehicles in order to facilitate the flow of foot traffic.  Security forces continue to enforce elevated security measures, which are expected to ease following the conclusion of Ashura.  Normal traffic patterns can be expected to return throughout the Southern Region, though increased road traffic volume will remain a consideration, particularly along arterial routes as religious pilgrims return home over the coming days.

As is often reported following the conclusion of a national event, al-Rafidain Operations Commander Major General Ali Ibrahim Dabaaun, announced the success of the Ashura security plan.  Despite the vehicle borne IED detonation in Kirkuk City on 19 September, no significant attack thread was reported in the Southern Region during the climax of Ashura.  This notable security success reflects positively on the enduring ability of the Southern Region’s security apparatus in preventing IS attacks during significant religious events.  However, operations should remain aware of this period as one of continued elevated threat, with IS historically often capitalizing on vulnerabilities as security forces return to normal operations.

As anticipated, demonstration events notably reduced as residents across the Southern Region commemorated Ashura.  Excluding Basra Province, two demonstrations tied to poor government services, lack of employment and the indiscriminate arrests reported in Basra Province were recorded during this period.  This forms a decrease from 12 noted during the preceding week.  In the most significant event, on the evening of 17 September, as many as 100 individuals demonstrated along Mawakib Street in Diwaniyah City.  In response, security personnel reportedly used batons to disperse the protest and a limited scuffle ensued.  As a result, an unspecified number of civilian casualties were reported.

The frequency of demonstrations tied to government shortfalls and other recurring issues have significantly declined in areas outside of Basra Province.  Although a minor escalation was reported in Diwaniyah City, this event highlights the enduring and underlying tensions in areas across the Southern Region, as well as the potential for violent escalations.  It remains to be seen whether demonstrations tied recurring government shortfalls will experience a sudden uptick following the conclusion of Ashura.

Amidst Ashura commemorations, violent demonstrations decline in Basra Province:
Similar to other areas of the Southern Region, the frequency of demonstrations and associated violence significantly declined in Basra Province.  Throughout this period eight demonstrations tied to government shortfalls and the indiscriminate detainment of protesters were recorded.  This forms a marked decline from 46 recorded the previous week.  In a positive development, no significant escalation was reported.  However, as many as 30 individuals were arrested whilst demonstrating at Abdul Kareem Qasim Square in Basra City on 13 September.  Security sources denied any detainments, though later reports confirmed the arrest of at least three personnel charged with sabotage in connection with the burning of the Basra Governorate Building.

Multiple reports drew attention to the continued detainment of protesters during demonstrations in Basra on 13 September.  On 15 September, according to Basra MP and Sairun Coalition member Rami al-Sakini, random arrests were said to be continuing against protesters and activists in the province.  Multiple reports circulated on social media cited the arrests of additional demonstrators through 16 September.  In response, on 16 September, dozens of individuals launched a demonstration in Basra City, demanding the release of protesters.  Controversial arrests amongst a lack of transparency reflects poorly on the rule-of-law and such actions perpetuate frustrations amongst residents, forming a motivating factor for additional unrest.  Additional detainments can be expected, with protest organizers and vocal activists most likely to be targeted for detainment.

In an expression of solidarity with PMF, on 14 September, dozens of students demonstrated in front of the Popular Mobilization Committee Building in Basra City.  The following day, hundreds resumed the demonstration and denounced the recent attacks against PMF sites and the Iranian Consulate.  Protesters held banners reading “Death to America, death to Israel”.  In a related response, the Popular Mobilization Committee announced the formation of 10 volunteer reserve PMF brigades.  The reserve nature of these units is indicative of PMF intent to field additional assets in the event of an emergency as opposed to the costly long-term fielding of a significant number of personnel. Enduring concerns surround the conduct of PMF forces due to limited accountability, with such forces regularly accused of using heavy-handed measures to suppress unrest.

Meanwhile, protests resumed outside oilfields and related infrastructure.  On 16 September, dozens of individuals conducted a demonstration near the main checkpoint at DGS 8 in the West Qurna 1 Oilfield.  Demonstrators closed the road leading to the site.  This incident forms the first demonstration at this regularly affected oilfield since 7 September.  The following day, local council officials blamed oil companies for delays in implementing the demands of the protesters.  Council member Jabar al-Bahli stated that oil companies have promised to employ additional personnel, but made no mention of additional demands for basic services which were also called for.  Such statements generally serve to divert protest backlash away from local officials, but can create additional pressures for oil company operations as demonstrators step up pressure in order to meet demands.

In a less significant event that morning, several oil institute graduates from Maysan, Dhi Qar and Basra demonstrated in front of the South Gas Company gate in Zubayr, to demand job positions.  The frequency of demonstrations and other forms of unrest have significantly reduced during the latter period of this month.  Similar to the Eid al-Adha period, it is possible that Ashura and the overarching holy month of Muharram have decelerated widescale protest.  However, an uptick following the conclusion of this religious holiday remains an enduring consideration as a comprehensive government response is yet to concretize.  Any escalation which does take place is likely to be met with a significant security response given recent events.

Nascent improvements to government services in Basra Province:
In the wake of Prime Minister Abadi’s visit to Basra earlier this week, officials debated the long-term effectiveness of the visit and Abadi’s orders for improvements to combat water quality and high salinity levels.  However, indications suggest a nascent concretization of several directives.  On 14 September, tens of trucks loaded with a reported one million bottles of fresh drinking water arrived in Basra province for distribution to local residents.

On the same day, efforts got underway to connect water supplies used for Basra’s Sports City with residential areas of Quibla which have been without adequate drinking water.  To further support these initiatives, 229 billion IQD accrued from the revenue generated at the border crossings in Basra Province will be allocated to improve water supply and other government services.

Meanwhile, during a weekly Council of Ministers meeting, discussions centered upon improving public services in Basra Province.  In a likely reflection of this discussion, on the morning of 19 September, elements of al-Rafidain Operations Command and Dhi Qar Police launched a campaign to remove illegal water connections and dams along the Bad’a River in south Dhi Qar Province.  Although outside the Basra operating environment, illegal damming and the siphoning of rivers is an inherent issue across the Southern Region and significantly reduces the supply of water to Basra Province.  Although positive, the long-term success is often nugatory and illegal connections are reestablished following the redeployment of security assets.

Despite the above-mentioned initiatives, the demands issued by protesters remain largely unresolved and there is little indication to suggest a swift resolution.  Further restricting the government’s ability to deliver essential services, the convoluted government formation process continues and political figures are exploiting events in Basra Province to serve their own political agenda, rather than addressing the issues. Pending the formation of a formal government, comprehensive and effective resolutions remain a distant prospect.

 

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