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.
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, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, the Islamic State group announced that they had established a caliphate in the territory they control across Iraq and Syria.
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 then ‘A 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.
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 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. 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.
In addition to the Islamic state group and associated groups, other armed groups are fighting against the Islamic State group. ‘Harnessing Iraq’s Deadly Array of Armed Groups After ISIL’, War on the Rocks, 15 December 2017. First, the Iraqi government forces are supported by an array of armed groups known as the Popular Mobilization Units, some with close ties to opponents of the current Iraqi Prime minister Abadi or Iran. International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018; A. Slemrod, ‘Who Are Iraq’s Militias?’ IRIN, 13 July 2016; K. H. Sowell, ‘The Rise of Iraq’s Militia State’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 April 2015. Second, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government have retaken large areas of territory from the Islamic State group. They have received military assistance from Western governments. For further information, see A. Bayoumi and L. Harding, ‘Mapping Iraq’s fighting groups’, Al Jazeera, 27 June 2014; A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflict in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2014, p 145. Human Rights Watch accused the Peshmerga forces of apparently unlawful destruction of homes after taking control over villages from the Islamic State group, see for example Human Rights Watch, Marked with an “X”. Iraq Kurdish Forces Destruction of Villages, Homes in Conflict with ISIS, 13 November 2016. In addition, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK, based in northern Iraq, has also participated in the fighting against the Islamic State group. R. Hall, 'Kurdish Group Fighting Islamic State Tells America: Stop Calling Us Terrorist', Global Post, 22 December 2014; M. A. Salih, 'PKK Forces Impress in Fight Against Islamic State', Al Monitor, 1 September 2014.
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 provide 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; ‘Le ministre présente les opérations 2019’, Defense Ministry of Belgium; ‘"Mission accomplie": voici ce que les forces spéciales belges ont accompli en Irak’, LaLibre.be, 6 February 2019. 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.
The U.S. currently has 5,200 troops in Iraq. ‘Pentagon official assures Iraqis of limited US military role’, AP, 12 February 2019.
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.
Kurdish referendum for independence
In September 2017, people living in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, voted in favor of independence. D. Zucchino, 'As Kurds Celebrate Independence Vote, Neighbours Threaten Military Action', The New York Times, 25 September 2017; 'Iraqi Kurds Decisively Back Independence in Referendum', BBC, 27 September 2017. However, the vote for independence has been rejected by the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdistan is not recognized as a state. Hence, the independence referendum does not change the classification of the conflict. For the question of secessionist movements and statehood, see 'international armed conflict - secessionist entities' in our classification section. Since the independence referendum, Iraqi government forces re-entered and re-established control over areas previously controlled by Kurdish forces, in particular the contested area of Kirkuk. L. Morris, 'How the Kurdish Independence Referendum Backfired Spectacularly', The Washington Post, 20 October 2017; D. Zucchino and E. Schmitt, 'Struggle Over Kirkuk Puts the U.S. and Iran on the Same Side', The New York Times, 18 October 2017; S. Peçanha, 'Independence in Iraq Backfired', The New York Times, 5 November 2017.
Views of parties to the conflicts and other actors
In their first joint report on the ‘Protection of Civilians in the Non-International Armed Conflict in Iraq. 5 June – 5 July’, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq described the situation as ‘the non-international armed conflict that commenced in Iraq in Anbar governorate in January 2014’. 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, i. They have maintained this qualification in subsequent reports, see for example 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: 6 July – 10 September 2014 ; 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: 11 December 2014 – 30 April 2015. Similarly, in his July 2016 report to the Security Council, the United Nations Secretary General refers to the ‘beginning of the armed conflict in January 2014'. Fourth Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 7 of resolution 2233 (2015), UN doc S/2016/592, 5 July 2016, §34. In their review of the periodic report of Iraq, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights referred to the on going armed conflict in Iraq. Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Fifth Periodic Report of Iraq, UN doc CCPR/C/IRQ/CO/5, 3 December 2015; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding Observations on the Fourth Periodic Report of Iraq, UN doc E/C.12/IRQ/CO/4, 27 October 2015.
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.
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 are:
- 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. After taking control of Mosul in June 2014, the group changed its name to Islamic State. The Islamic State group is listed on the Security Council ISIL (Da'esh) & Al-Qaida sanctions list. With the adoption of Security Council resolution 2253 (2015), the Security Council renamed the Al-Qaida sanctions list to 'ISIL (Da'esh & Al-Qaida' sanctions list. The Islamic State Group is listed under Al-Qaida in Iraq. The Islamic State group includes so-called foreign fighters from across the globe. See the Geneva Academy research on foreign fighters.
- Islamic Army of Iraq, a Sunni armed group formed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2014, the group reportedly reactivated its militia.
- Jaysh Rijāl aṭ-Ṭarīqa an-Naqshabandiya, also known as the Naqshbandi Order or JRTN, the main front for Ba’athist insurgents.
- The Kata’ib Thawarat al-Ishreen, also known as the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a nationalist group formed by former Ba’athist soldiers, believed to be an anti-Islamic State group. For further information on these three groups, 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 A. Bayoumi and L. Harding, ‘Mapping Iraq’s Fighting Groups’, Al Jazeera, 27 June 2014.
The Iraqi government is supported by:
- Popular mobilization Units and other militia groups. The links between government forces and Popular Mobilization Units and other militia groups appear blurred in many instances. See Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Iraq in the Light of Abuses Committed by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Associated Groups, 13 March 2015, UN doc A/HRC/28/18, §51. See also A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflict in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2014, p 143.
- Kurdish Peshmerga, the security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. They have received military assistance from Western governments. For further information, see A. Bayoumi and L. Harding, ‘Mapping Iraq’s Fighting Groups’, Al Jazeera, 27 June 2014; A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflict in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2014, p 145.