Iraq: How COVID-19 is impacting peace and conflict

Iraq has been one of the hardest hit countries in the MENA region by the coronavirus. With 213 deaths per million people as of the end of August 2020, Iraq’s death rate is about twice that of the global average. The weakened healthcare system and vulnerable populations created by its conflict against ISIS from 2014-2017 has complicated the Iraqi government’s response to the pandemic. Although ISIS was mostly forced out of its territories in Iraq by the end of 2017, it remains active. The humanitarian, governance, and economic impacts of coronavirus have complicated the ability the Global Coalition against ISIS to respond to the continued attacks by the militant group.

On December 9, 2017, Iraq’s Commander-in-Chief Haider al-Abadi announced the defeat of ISIS within Iraq’s borders. Although ISIS lost 95% of its territory in Iraq, it has remained active and continues to carry out guerilla attacks across Iraq and Syria. During COVID, these small attacks have increased, reflecting a surge that began before the pandemic and a strategy intended to take advantage of the weak COVID response. Belkis Wille, a senior researcher for the Conflict and Crisis Division at Human Rights Watch stated, “While the country has been focused on battling COVID-19, we’ve seen a worrying trend (which was already the case before the pandemic hit), of small scale ISIS attacks.”

Iraqi military officials claim ISIS has doubled down during this crisis and has escalated its attacks from local intimidation to more complex tactics such as IED attacks and ambushes. Wille explains that one factor in the increasing violence is “the government has had less of an ability to address these kinds of attacks since the pandemic.” The most recent quarterly report by the Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S. operation against ISIS, notes how the security environment has changed with COVID-19. The report claims the militant group is taking advantage of the pandemic by filling in the vacuums left by reductions in military forces due to COVID-19, as military personnel on duty have decreased by 50%.

The Iraqi government struggled to handle the pandemic after its first case in the end of February. COVID spread while the government was already responding to mass protests, US-Iran tensions, and declining oil prices. Although the government attempted to impose strict restrictions to slow the spread, enforcement was very difficult. Congregations of religious pilgrims defied these measures, including on March 20 when hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims traveled to a shrine in Baghdad. Emergency funds that were necessary to bolster the weak healthcare infrastructure were already depleted due to plummeting oil prices, requiring the health ministry to seek charitable donations for its COVID response.

The combined threat of COVID and shocks in the oil market are likely to stress food supply chains in Iraq. Food production is already behind the 66% growth in population in the past 20 years and the $40 billion deficit from dropping oil prices complicate the heavily-government-funded agriculture system. Additionally, the UN estimates that there are already 1.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, a population that would likely feel the brunt of the diminishing oil revenues and fiscal deficit.

Iraq’s dependence on oil revenues and weakened healthcare structure has prevented a strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, these weaknesses have encouraged ISIS to increase attacks. Although the U.S. report determines that there has not been a “resurgence,” ISIS is attempting to take advantage of vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic to regain some influence in the region. As Iraq continues to struggle in managing the multiple crises of the pandemic, ISIS will continue exploiting the situation and further complicate the Iraqi government’s response.

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