This is September’s edition of my Iraq SIGACT monitoring and analysis report focused on the south (Basra, Muthanna, Dhi Qar, and Maysan). The data collection parameters for recorded incidents are as follows:
> Serious violent crime (e.g. armed car robbery)
> Tribal fighting
> Terrorism (this includes attacks by militia groups and intra-militia violence)
> Arms trafficking
> Drug trafficking
> Protest activity
> Maritime incidents
Each report contains three elements:
1. SIGACT map which allows users to filter by incident type and date and read an incident report by clicking on the map marker. Click “full map” for complete functionality.
2. Pivot table which allows users to easily filter incidents by date, incident type, and/or a named target. E.g to view a readout of the locations and number of all tribal fighting incidents and resultant number of casualties within a specified range of dates.
3. Analysis providing political context and examination of trends which emerge from cumulative data collection.
SIGACT Map: South Iraq August 2017
Pivot Table: South Iraq August 2017
The security environment across southern Iraq remains acutely challenging. However, the locus and nature of physical risk shifted during September. The 14 September mass casualty attack at the Fadak checkpoint and restaurant, located close to the Dhi Qar-Muthanna border, killing 84 and injuring 93, accounts for most casualties in September, obscuring downward trends in casualties from other types of violence, particularly tribal fighting, compared with August. September 2017 recorded 46 total incidents across the south (Basra: 29; Dhi Qar: 10; Maysan: 5; Muthanna: 2). These incidents resulted in 93 dead (Basra: 1; and Dhi Qar: 92), and 100 injured (Dhi Qar: 98; Maysan: 1; Muthanna: 1). These trends and the factors shaping the security landscape will be explored in detail below.
The double terrorist attack involving 4 suicide vehicles on the Fadak checkpoint and adjacent restaurant killed 84 and injured 93. IS claimed responsibility for the attack that targeted a restaurant popular with Iraqi and Iranian Shi’i pilgrims traveling from south Iraq to visit pilgrimage sites in Najaf and Karbala. The attack involved a double car bombing and attack by men armed with PKM light machine guns (a popular weapon of choice for all armed groups in Iraq). Gunmen exchanged fire with security forces at the checkpoint, leading to several deaths on both sides. Surviving attackers escaped into the desert region connecting Dhi Qar with Muthanna.
The Fadak attack represents the materialisation of IS’s tactical shift towards asymmetric mass casualty attacks on civilian targets as their territory in the north has been recaptured during recent operations in Mosul, Tela’far, and Hawijah. While the oil and energy infrastructure in southern Iraq would represent high value targets for IS, the high levels of security surrounding this infrastructure makes attacks on soft targets, such as the Fadak attack, the more likely approach. The Fadak attack demonstrated that IS retains the capacity and will to carry out mass casualty attacks targeting Iraq’s Shi’i population in the south.
Several interconnected factors affecting south Iraq including poor governance, corruption, the strength of Shi’i militias, and a chronic lack of resources, are acting to acerbate this type of threat. The Kurdish independence referendum, which went ahead on the 25 September and resulted in an escalation of tensions around disputed territories such as Kirkuk and Mandali, will also continue to draw political and military resources away from the south despite battlefield success against IS culminating in the recapture of Hawijah in early October.
While August’s report highlighted governance instability in Basra, this edition will focus on two further issues from the cluster of factors driving insecurity in south Iraq: the growing power of Shi’i militias; and the chronic lack of resources available to local security forces. The strength of Shi’i militias in the south presents an acute security dilemma for the authorities. On the one hand, the militias are increasingly looked on by local officials as a way of compensating for a chronic lack of resources. On the other hand, the empowerment of the militias allows them to further expand their involvement in various smuggling and racketeering activities, creates the possibility for greater conflict with rival militia factions and ISF, while impeding the overall operational effectiveness of security measures. Particularly significant is the fact that ISF and police feel unable to challenge militia convoys bearing various hashd insignia when they move through checkpoints across the south. This clearly erodes the capacity of security forces to prevent infiltration and the smuggling of weapons and explosives by IS and other insurgent groups. It is worth noting that while international media reported that the Fadak attackers had been wearing military uniforms, some local Arabic sources stated that the attackers had been wearing uniforms bearing hashd insignia.
The response of the Shi’i militias and local security officials to the Fadak attack suggests that these dynamics will be exacerbated going forward. Immediately following the Fadak attack, Sheikh Adnan al-Shahmani, an MP and leader of al-Tayar al-Risali hashd militia (closely allied with Maliki and Iran), announced his preparedness to have his forces man checkpoints in the south “in cooperation with ISF”. It should not be expected that militia in control of checkpoints will prove more effective at curtailing other militia factions than the ISF, since they too will be unwilling to provoke potential confrontations with rival militias. Indeed, an expanded role for militias in checkpoint control will simply turn checkpoints into sites of competition amongst militia for control of racketeering and smuggling revenues.
Despite these risks, a chronic lack of resources available to local security officials has made resorting to militia and other non-state actors a more likely proposition. On 27 September, the head of Dhi Qar’s Security Council, Jabar al-Musawi, called for hashd units to participate directly in controlling the province’s borders and external checkpoints. In a sign of just how acutely stretched resources are, the local administration in al-Islah, a small town east of Nasiriyah that is situated on a key transit route between Dhi Qar and Maysan, announced that it was resorting to employing tribal forces to compensate for the lack of policeman (only 140 are deployed there), measures described as “unprecedented” in local media. The geography of these locales, surrounded by vast desert expanses, makes securing borders and preventing infiltration extremely taxing on resources. In an effort to cope with this problem, the local administration in Suq al-Shuyukh, a large town south of Nasiriyah and close to the province’s border with Muthanna, announced plans to dig a three mile ditch to protect the town from the desert areas to the west. Overall, the threat from IS and insurgent groups, coupled with the lack of resources available to local security forces, will help consolidate the power of militia and tribal actors increasing risk across multiple dimensions of physical and political security.
The high casualty Fadak attack obscured the dramatic fall in casualties from tribal fighting incidents in September (6 killed; 4 injured) compared with the previous month (17 killed; 30 injured). This fall in casualties seems to be related to both a small drop off in the number of overall incidents of tribal fighting with 13 in August and 9 in September; as well as to more aggressive interventions by local security forces, perhaps following the significant coverage the matter was receiving in the Iraqi media (local and national). September also saw the start of Muharam, the sacred month marking the start of the Islamic New Year and, for the Shi’is, Ashura on the tenth day of Muharam. During this period local security forces intensify their operations and implement local security plans to protect the Mawakeb al-Husseini and Shi’i processions. This is likely to have played a role in the dampening down the rate and scale of tribal fighting. This is not likely to consolidate into a long-term trend given the increased pressures on local resources described above and the time-limited nature of the Muharam effect.
Finally, there was a significant increase in kidnapping incidents in September (8) compared with August (1). Most of these incidents were not terrorist related, they did not target foreigners or security or local government officials, but were an aspect of general criminality, again reflecting poor governance and a lack of security rather than a dimension of the evolving terrorist threat.