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Non-international armed conflicts in Iraq

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Supported by the international coalition led by the United States, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and various militia groups, the Iraqi government is involved in a non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State group and associated groups. In addition, the non-international armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey extends into northern Iraq.

There are multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts in Iraq.

  • The Iraqi government, supported by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and various militia group is involved in a non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State group and associated groups.
  • Upon request of the Iraqi government, an international coalition led by the United States initiated airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group in August 2014. In addition to the United States, France and the United Kingdom are currently involved in the coalition airstrikes. Australia, Germany and Canada provide reconnaissance flights and air-to-air fuelling for the airstrikes.
  • The non-international armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey extends into Iraq: In July 2015, Turkey initiated military operations targeting the PKK in Iraq.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - intensity of violence' in our classification section.

Islamic State group

During 2013, the levels of armed violence in Iraq increased significantly and the death toll reached its highest level since 2008. First report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 6 of resolution 2110 (2013), UN doc S/2013/661, 13 November 2013, §26. Violent crackdowns of anti-government protests in Anbar Province led to new unrest and armed clashes, which were seized by the Islamic State group to expand their operations in Iraq and to assume control over parts of Ramadi and Fallujah by the beginning of January 2014. Y. Ghazi and T.Arango, ‘Qaeda-Aligned Militants Threaten Key Iraqi Cities’The New York Times, 2 January 2014; L. Sly, 'Al-Qaeda Force Captures Fallujah Amid Rise in Violence in Iraq', The Washington Post, 3 January 2014. In response, the Iraqi government resorted to air strikes against suspected positions of the Islamic State group and started shelling Fallujah. Q. Abdul-Zahra, ‘Iraqi Government: Airstrike Kills 25 Militants’, The Washington Post, 7 January 2014; S. al-Salhy, ‘Iraqi Army Bombards Falluja in Preparation for Ground Assault’, Reuters, 2 February 2014. The Security Council, which had remained largely silent on the situation in Iraq during 2013, issued a presidential statement addressing the worsening security situation on January 10. Statement by the President of the Security Council, UN Doc S/PRST/2014/1. According to the United Nations, the fighting in Anbar Province displaced up to 300,000 people by February 2014. 'UN: Clashes in Iraq’s Anbar Displaced 300,00', Al Jazeera, 12 February 2014.

In light of the use of heavy artillery by the Iraqi armed forces, the frequency of armed confrontations between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State group, the number of casualties, and the number of people forced to flee, the required degree of intensity was reached at the latest by January 2014. See also A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflict in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2014, p 141.

After taking control of Mosul, on 10 June 2014, Iraq’s second largest city, on 29 June 2014, the Islamic State group announced that they had established a caliphate in the territory they control across Iraq and Syria. Cameron Glenn, Mattisan Rowan, John Caves and Garrett Nada, ‘Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State’, Wilson Center, 28 October 2019.

In 2015, ISIS continued to expand the territory of its caliphate. This expansion was met with fierce fighting that resulted in many casualties. For instance, in the last two days before ISIS took control over Ramadi on 17 May 2015, 500 civilians and security personnel were killed. At its height, the territorial control comprised 40 per cent of Iraqi territory. Tim Arango, ‘Key Iraqi City Falls to ISIS as Last of Security Forces Flee’, The New York Times, 17 May 2015; Cameron Glenn, Mattisan Rowan, John Caves and Garrett Nada, ‘Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State’, Wilson Center, 28 October 2019. Fighting between the two sides continued and, by the end of 2015, the offensives by Iraqi forces to recapture territory from ISIS were successful: Ramadi was taken back from ISIS on 27 December 2015, Hit was seized on 11 April 2016, on 19 May 2016 Rutbah felt again in Iraqi hands and on 26 June 2016 Iraqi troops retook Fallujah. Mustafa Salim and Erin Cunningham, ‘Iraqi forces push Islamic State out of key city in Anbar province’, The Washington Post, 11 April 2016. Cameron Glenn, Mattisan Rowan, John Caves and Garrett Nada, ‘Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State’, Wilson Center, 28 October 2019. ISIS continued to resist mainly in Mosul. This is why the pro-government forces, backed by the international coalition, launched an offensive against Mosul on 16 October 2016. By the end of January 2017, over 2.,463 people have been killed and 1.661 injured, almost half of them being civilians. Moreover, this led to over 700.000 people fleeing the area, according to the Iraq Government. Babak Dehghanpisheh and Ahmed Rasheed, ‘Iraq launches Mosul offensive to drive out Islamic State’, Reuters, 17 October 2016; ‘Thousands Continue to Flee West Mosul: UN Migration Agency’, IOM, 26 May 2017; ‘How the battle for Mosul unfolded’, BBC News, 10 July 2017.

In the year 2017, the Islamic State group lost most of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria, ending its proto-caliphate. In July 2017, the Iraqi government announced the liberation of Mosul; in mid-October, the group withdrew from Hawijah, their last stronghold in Kirkuk. At the same time, in Syria, it lost its de facto capital, Raqqa. The Islamic State group's tactics in Iraq have evolved since thenA caliphate no more — all the land ISIS has lost in the last year’, Associated Press, 9 November 2017; 'With Loss of Its Caliphate, ISIS May Return to Guerrilla Roots', 18 October 2017; H. Hassan, ‘Insurgents Again: The Islamic State’s Caluclated Reversion to Attrition in the Syria-Iraq Border Region and Beyond’, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, December 2017. It now mainly employs remote violence in the form of improvised explosive device (IED) and isolated suicide attacks. In the first half of 2019, low intensity attacks have been reported in Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Ninawah, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Baghdad, Najaf provinces. Even though the group has been avoiding major battlefield engagements, it also undertakes combat engagements primarily with the Popular and Tribal Mobilization Forces, as well as their various constituent militias and tribes. Its militants target their attacks against civilians particularly Shias, Sunni tribesmen perceived to be close to government-aligned militias, those perceived to be collaborating with the Iraqi security forces and individuals representing local governance structures. Report of the UN Secretary General on UNAMI, S/2019/365, 23 May 2019; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch – Iraq, January to May 2019; HRW, World Report 2019, Iraq – Events of 2018; ‘Iraq: Series of deadly explosions hit Kirkuk’, Al-Jazeera, 31 May 2019. Anti-ISIS operations by Iraqi forces have reportedly been carried out in the Hamrin Moutains, in the Northeast of the country, where Islamic State fighters had regrouped. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch – Iraq, April 2019.

Since the regrouping of ISIS, violence between the two sides has continued with varying degrees of intensity. For instance, in November 2019, clashes between Iraqi government forces and ISIS killed at least 20 ISIS members and 7 members of the Iraqi armed forces, while in December 2019, ISIS attacks have cost the lives of at least 26 Iraqi security force members. Between 21 and 25 June 2020, security forces destroyed over 30 ISIS targets between Diyala and Salah al-Din in a military operation. On 21 January 2021, two suicide bombings took place in a commercial area in Baghdad killing over 32 people and wounding at least 110. In response, security forces killed senior ISIS figure Abu Yaser al-Issawi on 28 January. In August 2021, large-scale operations against ISIS were launched leading to multiple arrests and the killing of ISIS leader Mustafa Hassan Ismail. In late 2021, early 2022, these hit-and-run attacks on government forces continued, as did anti-ISIS operations by Iraqi government forces. ‘ISHM: December 19, 2019 – January 2, 2020’, Enablig Peace in Iraq Center, 2 January 2020; Sofia Barbarani, ‘Deadly twin suicide attack hits central Baghdad’, Al Jazeera, 21 January 2021; Layal Shakir, ‘ISIS suspect arrested across Iraq’, Rudaw, 16 August 2021; ‘Islamic State attack kills 10 policemen near Iraq’s Kirkuk’, Reuters, 5 September 2021; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch – Iraq, June 2019 to February 2021.

On account of the frequency of armed attacks and armed confrontations, the number of casualties, the number of people forced to flee ongoing hostilities, and the types of weapons and military equipment utilized, the required degree of intensity has been reached since January 2014. The fighting has continued unabated and hence there is a non-international conflict between the Iraqi government and the Islamic State group.

Kurdish Peshmerga

In the aftermath of the caliphate era, where Iraqi government forces were supported by Kurdish troops to fight ISIS, there was a direct confrontation between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Peshmerga. After the liberation of the North of Iraq, Kurdish authorities organized a referendum on 25 September 2017 on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan that includes both the current Kurdish region (Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya provinces) and the areas under Kurdish control after they were recaptured from ISIS (territory in Kirkuk, Saladin, Diyala and Nineveh). Michael Knights, ‘What is at stake in Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence?’, BBC News, 18 September 2017; Ranj Alaaldin, ‘The clash over Krikuk: Why the real crisis is in Baghdad – not Erbil’, Brookings, 20 October 2017.

Tensions started to rise after this referendum where an overwhelming majority voted in favour of independence. On 15 October, the deadline expired for the ultimatum issued by the Iraqi government demanding the withdrawal of the Peshmerga from Kirkuk and its important oil fields. ‘Iraq conflict: Kurdish leaders refuse to reject referendum result’, BBC News, 15 October 2017. Fighting broke out between mainly the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Peshmerga and Iraqi governmental forces. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Peshmerga were not involved in the same way as the KDP Peshmerga because of internal divides within the Kurdistan Regional Government over Kirkuk’s role. The violent clashes resulted in the death of 70 Peshmerga members. The number of casualties rose rapidly: according to reports, 400 Kurdish civilians were killed, 200 Kurdish civilians were missing and there were more than 350 military casualties. Another indicative factor for the determination of the required level of intensity is the number of forces involved. It has been reported that the Iraqi government deployed thousands of forces and militias to confront with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmergas. Moreover, 100.000 ethnic Kurds were reported to have fled Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu. Furthermore, The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), raised its concerns about violence in the area of hostilities, referring to allegations of the destruction and burning of over 150 houses of Kurdish civilians and the displacement of 183.000 civilians. On 20 October, fierce confrontations between the Iraqi government forces and the Peshmerga broke out in and around Altun Kupri. After two weeks of fighting, the Iraqi forces took back the province of Kirkuk and 20 per cent of the territory previously controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. ‘US urges calm as Kirkuk crisis escalates’, BBC News, 17 October 2017; Maher Chmaytelli, ‘Kurdish officials say thousands flee Kirkuk since Iraqi army takeover’, Reuters, 19 October 2017; ‘UN Expresses Concern about Reports of Violence in Tuz Khurmatu, in Kirkuk’, UNAMI, 19 October 2017.

On account of the frequency of armed attacks and armed confrontations, the number of casualties, the number of people forced to flee ongoing hostilities, and the types of weapons and military equipment utilized, the required degree of intensity has been reached since 15 October 2017. The fighting has continued unabated and hence, there was a non-international conflict between the Iraqi government and affiliated forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmergas. On 27 October 2017, Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga agreed on a ceasefire which signified the end of the active hostilities between both sides. The fighting did not resume because political negotiations on the situation were taking place between the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Maher Chmaytelli, ‘Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga agree on ceasefire, Kurdistan says’, Reuters, 27 October 2017; Ranj Alaaldin, ‘The U.S. and Kurdistan: Revise and rebuild after Kirkuk’, Brookings, 3 November 2017. The fact that no confrontations occurred since then, lead to the conclusion that there is a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption.  This means that there is a declassification of the conflict and consequently the NIAC between the Iraqi Government Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga ceased to exist.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed group is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - organization' in our classification section.

The Islamic State group

The main armed group is the Islamic State group, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham / the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) and Da'esh. The Islamic State group grew out of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization formed by various Sunni insurgency groups in 2006 and dominated by al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq re-emerged in 2012 with a campaign of coordinated bombings in Iraq. In parallel, the group expanded its activities into Syria and helped set up the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra changes its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and announced its split from al-Qaeda. See L. Sly and K. DeYoung, ‘Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra Splits From Al-Qaeda and Changes its Name’, The Washington Post, 28 July 2016. against the background of the non-international armed conflicts in Syria.

After both Jabhat al-Nusra and the leadership of al-Qaeda rejected the Islamic State group’s attempt to merge with Jabhat al-Nusra in spring 2013, the group began operating under the name of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria. Fuelled by the armed conflict in Syria, ISIS regained strength and operational capacity in Iraq throughout 2013 and was able to control large swaths of territory. According to some, by August 2013, ISIS was  ‘no longer a small cadre based around a single leader, but rather an effective reconstituted military organization operating in Iraq and Syria’. J. D. Lewis, Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent, Institute for the Study of War, 2013. After taking control of Mosul in June 2014, the group changed its name to Islamic State.

The Islamic State group was able to administer the territories it controlled until late 2017 through  a complex administrative structure. A. al-Tamimi, ‘The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence’, 9 Perspectives on Terrorism 4 (2015); N. Thompson and A. Shubert, ‘Anatomy of ISIS’ CNN, 14 January 2015; C. Reuter, ‘Secret Files Reveal the Structure of the Islamic State’, Spiegel Online, 18 April 2015; R. Barrett, The Islamic State, The Soufan Group, November 2014. The group now continues to be able to sustain military operations in Iraq. One of the reasons is that Islamic State has been able to maintain their training camps in the Hamrin Mountains, which allows them to recruit and train new members. For interactive maps showing the evolution of territorial control in Iraq, see ‘Islamic State and Crisis in Iraq and Syria in Maps’, BBC, 2 November 2016. Report of the UN Secretary General on UNAMI, S/2019/365, 23 May 2019; ‘The rise and fall of the Islamic State group: The long and short story’, BBC, 23 March 2019; ‘Where is the Islamic State group still active around the world?’, BBC, 27 March 2019.

While the Islamic State group is the most prominent armed group fighting against Iraqi government forces, a variety of other anti-government armed groups are active as well. Some of them are entering into shifting and temporary alliances of convenience with other armed groups, including the Islamic State group, in different areas of Iraq, but there are also open hostilities reported between such groups. Yet, it is difficult to assess their relative strength and degree of organization. For further information, see Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq Human Rights Office, Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Non International Armed Conflict in Iraq: 5 June – 5 July 2014, August 2014, pp 3-4. See also the statement by N. Mladenov to the Security Council, 7224th Meeting of the Security Council, 23 July 2014, UN doc S/PV.7224, p 4. See also ‘Harnessing Iraq’s Deadly Array of Armed Groups After ISIL’, War on the Rocks, 15 December 2017.

Kurdish Peshmerga

As a preliminary remark, it should be noted that the Kurdish Peshmerga are not a homogeneous group, but rather a multi-faceted security organisation operating from the Kurdish Region of Iraq. They are at the same time a constitutionally recognised security organisation that fought along with the Iraqi Governmental Forces against ISIS, as well as an organisation fighting the Iraqi Regime in order to gain more independence for the Kurdish Region. In addition, the Peshmerga are internally divided along political lines, constituting the armed forces of respectively the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and of the two main Kurdish parties (the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)). However, this division does not affect the assessment of the organisation criterion as the different Peshmerga groups meet the requirements on their own. They each have their own organisational and financial structure and operate inside their own sphere of influence. Moreover, there has been a process of unifying the Peshmerga under one single command structure since 2006. This process, however, was never completed. Feike Fliervoet, ‘Fighting for Kurdistan? Assessing the nature and functions of the Peshmerga in Iraq’, Clingendael, March 2018; Sardar Aziz and Andrew Cotte, ‘The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga: military reform and nation-building in a divided polity’, Defence Studies, 15 February 2021, 226-241.

The Peshmerga are a considerable military force with an estimated strength of 190,000 men in total. Moreover, they clearly had the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations as can be witnessed by their involvement in the NIAC against ISIS in which they conquered considerable amounts of territory from them. In addition to their military operations, they were able to control territory, as they did in and around the region of Kirkuk before the 2017 NIAC. Inga Rogg and Hans Rimscha, ‘The Kurds as parties to and victims of conflicts in Iraq’, International Review of the Red Cross, December 2007, 823-824; ‘Profile: Who are the Peshmerga?’, BBC News, 12 August 2014; ‘Battle for Mosul: Peshmerga push into ISIL-held Bashiqa’, Al Jazeera, 8 November 2016; Feike Fliervoet, ‘Fighting for Kurdistan? Assessing the nature and functions of the Peshmerga in Iraq’, Clingendael, March 2018. Therefore, the organisation criterium is met, which means that the Kurdish Peshmerga are a Party to the NIAC with the Iraqi government.

Foreign intervention after September 2014

U.S. led international coalition

Upon request of the Iraqi government, an international coalition led by the United States began airstrikes against Islamic Group targets in Iraq in August 2014. Annex to the Letter Dated 20 September from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2014/691, 22 September 2014. However, the use of force against a non-state armed group with the consent of the territorial government does not change the classification of the conflict: the armed conflict against the Islamic State group and associated armed groups remains a non-international armed conflict despite the international intervention led by the United States. For further information, see the section on Classification. Since August 2014 and as of June 2019, the coalition has conducted more than 14,000 airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Iraq. For further information, see the data gathered by Airwars, a non-profit organization tracking coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State group - consulted in June 2019.

In September 2014, the United States started airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Syria . The international coalition’s operations against the Islamic State group can be considered as a single non-international armed conflict that takes place across Iraq and Syria.

However, within the international coalition, some states intervene only in Iraq, some only in Syria, and some in both countries. Currently, France, the United Kingdom and the United States undertake airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq. In the past Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Jordan and the Netherlands have reportedly carried out strikes in Iraq as well. Airwars, June 2019 Denmark and Belgium have ended their strikes in early 2016 and late 2018 respectively; however, as of 2019, they still provided support to the coalition, in addition to training the Iraqi forces. Denmark to withdraw special forces from Iraq, but capacity-building contingent will stay’, The Defense Post, 17 May 2018. Canada and Australia also ceased airstrike operations in Iraq and Syria in February 2016 and January 2018 respectively, but they continue to provide air-to-air fueling assistance and reconnaissance flights in support of the coalition in Iraq. Australia to end air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria’, BBC, 22 December 2017.  In December 2018 the Netherlands announced the end of its air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria but it has kept a ground presence in Iraq since then, including for training and capacity building missions. Dutch Military Contribution in Iraq, Defense Ministry of the Netherlands, consulted in June 2019. Germany also provides air-to air-fueling assistance and reconnaissance flights in support of the fight against the Islamic Stage group in Iraq and Syria. In May 2019, however, Germany and the Netherlands announced a temporary suspension of their military training operations in Iraq due to security concerns. German, Dutch military suspend training operations in Iraq amid U.S.-Iran tensions’, Reuters, 15 May 2019.

In early 2020, the U.S. had around 5,200 troops in Iraq, France around 600 troops, the UK around 400 troops, Germany 415 troops most of which are stationed in Jorden, Denmark 170 troops, Norway and Sweden both 70 troops and Denmark 10 troops. ‘Pentagon official assures Iraqis of limited US military role’, AP, 12 February 2019; ‘NATO, US-led coalitions suspend training of Iraqi forces in wake of Soleimani killing’, Daily Sabah, 4 January 2020; Dan Sabbagh, ‘Anti-Isis coalition suspends operations as Iraqi MPs vote to expel US troops’, The Guardian, 5 January 2020; Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘UK forces in the Middle East region’, Briefing Paper House of Commons, 14 January 2020. Within the framework of NATO, the coalition's focus in 2018 shifted from active hostilities with ISIS to establishing a training mission to mentor and advise national defence structures and military education institutions. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, the US, UK and France continue to carry out airstrikes on top of ISIS positions. Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘UK forces in the Middle East region’, Briefing Paper House of Commons, 14 January 2020.

On 5 January 2020, in the aftermath of the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by U.S. forces in Baghdad, the Iraqi Parliament voted a non-binding resolution in order to expel all foreign troops of the coalition. Shortly before this resolution was voted, the NATO and U.S.-led coalition had already decided to temporarily suspend its operations, in order to protect the foreign troops in Iraq after the killing of Soleimani that caused tensions in the region. However, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg declared on 13 February 2020 that the Iraqi government had asked to remain present and continue training of the Iraqi Military. Dan Sabbagh, ‘Anti-Isis coalition suspends operations as Iraqi MPs vote to expel US troops’, The Guardian, 5 January 2020; Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein, ‘Iraqi parliament backs government push to expel foreign troops’, Reuters, 5 January 2020; ‘Iraq parliament passes resolution to expel US-led coalition troops from country’, France 24, 5 January 2020; Katherine Lawlor, ‘Iraq’s parliament votes to end U.S. troop presence in Iraq’, Institute for the study of war, 5 January 2020; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch – Iraq, January 2020 - February 2020.

The killing of Soleimani caused tensions between the coalition and Iran. Iran retaliated on 8 January 2020 by attacking military bases used by the U.S. in Iraq. No casualties were, however, reported and Iran clearly stated that it had no intention to engage into direct confrontations with the U.S. These tensions culminated in direct confrontations between the coalition and pro-Iranian groups. For instance, on 11 March 2020 Iran-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah allegedly directed a rocket attack on Camp Taji in Baghdad, killing two U.S. and one UK personnel. The U.S. retaliated on 12 March 2020 with strikes against five alleged weapons’ depots of Kataib Hizbollah, killing three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and one civilian. Subsequently, attacks by several militias such as the League of Revolutionaries (Usbat al-Thairin) on U.S. related targets in Iraq continued. Tension between the two sides remained with sporadic attacks and counterattacks. Alissa J. Rubin, Farnaz Fassihi, Eric Schmitt and Vivian Yee, ‘Iran Fires on U.S. Forces at 2 Bases in Iraq, Calling It ‘Fierce Revenge’, The New York Times, 8 January 2020; Alex Leary, Nancy A. Youssef and Aresu Eqbali, ‘U.S. and Iran back away from open conflict’, The Wall Street Journal, 9 January 2020; Alex Ward, ‘The US retaliatory strikes on an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, briefly explained’, Vox, 13 March 2020; ‘US launches air raids in Iraq after deadly rocket attack’, Al Jazeera, 13 March 2020; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch – Iraq, January 2020 - March 2020. However, direct confrontations triggering an IAC did not occur. Moreover, on the one hand it remains uncertain whether Iran has the required level of overall control over these non-state armed groups in order to classify this as an IAC. On the other hand, it is questionable whether the required intensity and organisation were met in order to classify it as a NIAC. Therefore, for the time being, no classification is given to these confrontations.

Amid continuing tensions and following the Iraqi Parliament's resolution, the U.S. is slowly beginning to withdraw its troops from March 2020 and hand over control of certain military installations and centres to the Iraqis. This operation was formalised on 26 July 2021, when President Biden announced that the combat mission of the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces would end by the end of the year and they would shift to an “advise, assist and enable mission”. Meanwhile, on 18 February 2021, NATO announced the deployment of 3,500 additional troops to support its training mission in Iraq. Ali Jawad, ‘US combat forces begin withdrawing from Iraq’, AA, 7 October 2021; ‘NATO to send up to 3,500 more troops to Iraq’, Middle East Monitor, 18 February 2021; ‘US combat forces to leave Iraq by end of year’, BBC News, 27 July 2021; Jane Arraf, ‘U.S. announces end to combat mission in Iraq but troops will not leave’, The New York Times, 9 December 2021; ‘US-led combat mission in Iraq ends, shifting to advisory role’, Al Jazeera, 9 December 2021; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch – Iraq, March 2020 – December 2021.

The end of the US-led coalition's combat mission could mark the end of the NIAC between ISIS and the coalition. However, the combat mission ended only recently and the troops remain present on Iraqi territory. Therefore it seems premature to declassify the situation of violence. This is why we conclude that, for the time being, the U.S.-led coalition is engaging in a NIAC against ISIS.

Turkish intervention

In July 2015, the renewed non-international armed conflict in Turkey  between Turkish armed and security forces spilled over into Iraq when Turkey initiated airstrikes targeting the Kurdish Worker’s Party PKK in northern Iraq. The airstrikes against the PKK continued throughout 2016. C. Yeginsu, ‘Turkey Attacks Kurdish Militan Camps in Northern Iraq’, The New York Times, 25 July 2015; Yeginsu, ‘Turkey Escalates Airstrikes on Kurdish Targets in Northern Iraq', The New York Times, 29 July 2015; C. Letsch and Reuters, ‘Turkey Steps Up Bombing of Kurdish Targets in Iraq’, The Guardian, 29 July 2015; ‘Turkey Hits Kurdish Targets After Ankara Bombing’, Al Jazeera, 19 February 2016; I. Sariyuce, J. Sterling, and H. Atay Alam, ‘Turkish Warplanes Wallop Syria, Iraq Targets’, CNN, 29 August 2016. In December 2015, Turkey deployed additonal ground troops to protect their base set up near the Iraq city of Mosul, used to provide training to Iraqi militia fighting against the Islamic State group, a move condemned by the Iraqi government as a ‘hostile act’ in violation of its sovereignty. See 7589th meeting of the Security Council, 18 December 2015, UN doc S/PV.7589. See also Letter Dated 11 December 2015 from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2015/963, 14 December 2015, and  Letter Dated 7 January 2016 from the Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2016/6, 11 January 2016. In May 2019, Turkey announced “Operation Claw” consisting of air and ground raids against the PKK in Iraq's northern Hakurk region. Turkish military strikes against Kurdish militants in Iraq’, Reuters, 28 May 2019; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch - Turkey, May 2019. Due to its use of force in Iraq without the consent of the Iraqi government, Turkey is also a party to the international armed conflict in Iraq.

All parties to the conflicts are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. In addition, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

A series of non-state armed groups are active in Iraq. Below is a selection of the main non-state armed groups.

Amongst the groups fighting against the Iraqi government there are:

  • Islamic State group
  • Islamic Army of Iraq
  • Jaysh Rijāl aṭ-Ṭarīqa an-Naqshabandiya
  • The Kata’ib Thawarat al-Ishreen

The Iraqi government is supported by:

  • Popular mobilization Units and other militia groups
  • Kurdish Peshmerga
Last updated: Thursday 5th May 2022