Joost Hiltermann is the Chief Operating Officer of the International Crisis Group and the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja. (July, 2014)

Iraq: The Clerics and the Militias

Members of an Iraqi Shiite militia joining Iraqi forces trying to retake Baiji from ISIS, June 9, 2015

In June 2014, after the fall of Mosul to ISIS and the collapse of the Iraqi army, Iraq’s most senior Shia religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a general call-up to the Shia masses to step in. Now, the country is increasingly run by an amalgam of Shia armed militias, many of them equipped and supervised by Iran.

Kurdish Independence: Harder Than It Looks

Street vendors on a bridge over the Khasa River, Kirkuk, Iraq, March 5, 2013

For Iraqi Kurds, the jihadist blitz through northwestern Iraq has offered an opportunity to take possession of areas they’ve long claimed as theirs and push for independence. At the heart of these “disputed areas” is the strategic city of Kirkuk, which the highly motivated Kurdish Peshmerga took over in mid-June. But the Kurds’ sudden gains may not be a panacea.

Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?

Bahraini youths run for cover as police fire teargas during Labor Day protests in the Manama suburb of Sanabis, May 1, 2012

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But as I witnessed during a recent five day visit, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.

Barricaded in Bahrain

A Bahraini girl spraying slogans calling for the ouster of King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, after the funeral for Abdelnabi Kadhim, Manama, November 24, 2011

On November 23, the government of Bahrain was in an uncharacteristically welcoming mood. The occasion was the release of a report about its handling of last spring’s popular uprising. Since the report had been requested—and paid for—by the government itself, officials were expecting a few minor criticisms. Then, they reasoned, the country would move on. Things didn’t go according to plan. The room fell quiet as Cherif Bassiouni, the report’s chief author, said words like “rape” and “torture” to King Hamad, the ruler of Bahrain. He was clear that these abuses weren’t just random acts by a few bad apples. “A number of detainees were tortured,” he said, “which proved there was a deliberate practice by some.” For the first time—perhaps ever—an independent jurist standing before a Persian Gulf monarch publicly accused that monarch’s government of systematic abuse.

Bahrain Burning

Hassan Mushayma, leader of the banned opposition group al-Haq, at a protest in the Pearl Roundabout, Manama, Bahrain, after his return from exile in London, February 26, 2011
In mid-March, a violent government campaign to put down a month-long popular revolt turned Bahrain into an island of terror. Images of security forces firing on unarmed protesters chanting “peaceful, peaceful” went around the world via YouTube and other media. Today Bahrain has largely receded from the news, emerging only …

Waiting for Baghdad

The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr giving a speech in Najaf during his first public appearance in Iraq after four years in exile in the Iranian city of Qom, January 8, 2011. Pictured on the banner behind him are his father-in-law, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, founder of the Islamic Dawa Party, and his father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. These two men are seen as the spiritual forebears of the Sadrist movement that Moqtada al-Sadr heads.
As the flames of protest leap from North Africa to the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, many Iraqis are feeling that history may have dealt them a poor hand. Having failed to bring down a weakened Saddam Hussein in a mass uprising in 1991, they now see that regimes …

Iraq: The Impasse

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with Iyad Allawi, the head of the al-Iraqiya alliance, Baghdad, June 29, 2010
It is easy to underestimate how much fear can obstruct a society’s recovery from horrific violence or repression, or both; and fear now dominates Iraq as its leaders try to make a new start after decades of a ruthless tyranny, its violent removal, and the chaotic aftermath.

Iraq’s Summer of Uncertainty

A scorching summer heat is settling on Baghdad. The streets are calm and traffic flows, slowed only by the multiple checkpoints, especially near bridges and government buildings. Given that the policemen on duty cast only a cursory glance at vehicles and their passengers, it is perhaps surprising there haven’t been more frequent bombings in recent weeks. (The last series of bomb attacks across Iraq, on May 10, left at least a hundred dead.) To security officials, the relative quiet suggests that many former insurgents and their supporters—including some Sunnis who in the past rejected the political process—have been biding their time. Having decided to participate in the March 7 parliamentary elections, they have been inclined to let the political uncertainty that has followed run its course in the hope that it might produce the change they desired.

Iraq on the Edge

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sulaimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan, August 2, 2009
For the occasional visitor such as myself, various methods exist to measure America’s standing in Iraq, Iraqi suspicions and aspirations, and progress in the transfer of power, but none prove as illuminating as the checkpoints into and throughout Baghdad’s Green Zone, that diminishing symbol of the Bush administration’s ambitions. Armed …

Iraq: A Bigger Threat Than Bombs

The horrific twin bombings in Baghdad on October 25 that killed over 150 people, including children in two daycare centers, and injured many more, could easily be seen as supporting the increasingly common contention that Iraq remains profoundly unstable. That such an attack could take place in the center of the capital might demonstrate that security forces under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are incapable of providing security; and that the United States will leave chaos in its wake when combat troops depart ten months from now. But the attacks must be seen in the perspective of deeper problems, even if the claim about Iraq’s instability is valid.