PKK & PUK Peshmerga on the way to the frontline in Kirkuk PKK & PUK Peshmerga on the way to the frontline in Kirkuk Photo credit: Flickr/Kurdishstruggle
The crisis in Iraq: an overview
by Louise Redvers October 2015

The eruption of armed conflict in Iraq in January 2014, and subsequent large-scale territorial seizures by the Islamist militant group calling itself Islamic State (IS), has displaced more than three million Iraqis in the space of 18 months. The UN and international NGOs, already in Iraq in significant numbers supporting some 220,000 Syrian refugees, have struggled to cope with the speed and scale of the displacement. Key challenges have included limited funding, restricted access to large parts of the country due to security concerns and a lack of coordination between the different aid actors involved. Iraq’s weak infrastructure and limited capacity – the result of decades of conflict – as well as its ever-deepening sectarian divides and complicated political landscape, have exacerbated these difficulties. Nearly two years into the crisis there is little sign of the displacement caseload reducing, and with more military offensives on IS territory planned the number of people needing humanitarian assistance – currently estimated to be as many as eight million – is only likely to increase.


Since the start of the crisis in January 2014, when militants from IS first entered Iraq, exploiting a security vacuum created by a rift between Sunni tribal leaders and the Shia-led government, aid agencies have been strongly criticised for prioritising easier-to-reach areas in places like Kurdistan, as opposed to targeting the most vulnerable. Some 500,000 people were displaced from Anbar in the first few months of 2014, about as many as fled Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, when IS invaded in June, yet the situation made few global headlines and repeated UN appeals for funding fell largely on deaf ears.

This apparent international indifference to IS’ rise in Iraq was blamed on a combination of donor fatigue following decades of aid funding for a country that never seemed to get better, and the proliferation of other crises such as Syria, Typhoon Haiyan and the Central African Republic. The inaccessibility of Anbar, which few foreign journalists or aid workers had visited in recent years due to security concerns, was another factor. Mosul and the province of Nineveh, on the other hand, were just a few hours’ drive, if that, from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and a much easier story to cover. Some organisations have made efforts to partner with local and national NGOs to get aid to the millions trapped inside IS-held territories, but more needs to be done to build local partnerships. Domestic NGOs have good community contacts and better access to hard-to-reach areas, but cannot always satisfy increasingly stringent donor requirements.


The UN designated Iraq a Level 3 emergency in August 2014, placing it alongside Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Yemen in terms of severity and scale, but like many other crises it has struggled to attract funding. Apart from a one-off allocation of $500m from Saudi Arabia last year, repeated UN appeals have failed to meet their target; as of 13 August, the 2015 Strategic Response Plan (SRP) was only 40% funded.+See As a result, the World Food Programme (WFP) began cutting back its distributions in March, and in July the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that 84% of the country’s humanitarian health programmes had been suspended, leaving up to three million people without access to key services.

Over the years Iraq has received billions of dollars of inter-national aid and military spending, and many donors believe that, as an oil-exporting middle-income country, it should be doing more to help itself. However, a long history of conflict, including the war with Iran in the 1980s, the first Gulf War in 1991, years of crippling sanctions and then the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent sectarian conflict have greatly weakened Iraq’s capacity, leaving its institutions riddled with corruption and mismanagement. Allegations of misallocation of government cash grants for IDPs are widespread.

Another complication is that, in addition to the sovereign Iraqi government in Baghdad, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan has its own regional government based in Erbil. Although relations are slowly improving, there is little love lost between the two due to long-running budget and territorial disputes, and each is responding separately to the IS crisis, both in humanitarian terms and militarily. As a result, most aid organisations are running two parallel operations, one in the north with the Kurdish government, and one in the south and centre of the country, with the Iraqi government, pushing up costs and adding to the bureaucracy of the response.

Beneath these central structures there is a complex web of provincial authorities. In the south and centre of the country, the provinces have the final say on border control, and there have been numerous instances where fleeing IDPs have been blocked from entering certain governorates due to their ethnicity and religion. In April thousands of Sunni Muslims fleeing an anti-IS operation in Anbar were prevented from entering predominantly Shia Baghdad, leaving them stuck for days in a no man’s land, without food or shelter. Kurdistan also runs a tight border policy and has likewise come under fire for its selective entry policies, which generally allow passage to Christians, Yezidis and other minorities, whom it sees as key to helping it build an independent Kurdish state, but often turning back Sunni Arabs.

In a strongly worded statement in May 2015, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, criticised both governments for failing IDPs, flagging instances of restricted movement, detention without due process and an ‘ad hoc’ approach to aid delivery. While fully cognisant of cases of restricted movement and blocked passage, aid agencies are required to work closely on aid delivery with the authorities, and few have openly challenged their policies on IDP movement and returns. Western and regional governments, which are in coalition with both Baghdad and Erbil to hold back the advance of IS, have also remained quiet, and when pressed say the border forces have to prioritise security.


Few aid actors will deny that the response to last summer’s Mosul and Sinjar displacements was chaotic. The situation was certainly not easy: in the space of a few weeks, at the height of a scorching Iraqi summer, close to a million people streamed into Kurdistan in need of food, water and shelter; thousands more spent weeks under siege on and around Sinjar mountain, where many lost their lives. Half-built shopping malls, hotels and office blocks – once promising symbols of the region’s nascent oil boom – became makeshift shelters strewn with washing lines and cooking pots, and public parks were overwhelmed by rough sleepers sheltering in tents made from plastic sheeting. Aid teams set about erecting tented camps, with some sites chosen so hastily they had to be relocated days later due to moving frontlines or poor water supplies. Rushed aid distributions were often scattergun, duplicating deliveries for some families, and missing others entirely.

Tracking IDPs was next to impossible, both because of their numbers and because of their continued movement onwards to new sites, and it took months for the authorities to agree with aid agencies on a formal system of registration. For most of 2014 IDPs coming into Kurdistan were given temporary tourist passes, and there was widespread confusion about the legality of their status. Many Sunni Arab IDPs from places like Mosul and Tikrit were reluctant to register for fear that their details would be passed to the Kurdish authorities and their notorious plain-clothed Assayish security force, or even passed back to the militants they had fled. Many Anbari IDPs in Baghdad also chose to stay below the radar, worried about being targeted by Shia militia groups and accused of being IS supporters, or being forced to move out of Shia neighbourhoods where they had found shelter.

The lack of accurate registration data meant that initially many aid distributions were based on guesstimates, and even these rough numbers were not always shared between the dozens of organisations running relief drops, leading to confusion and duplication. The sheer number of UN agencies and NGOs involved in the response complicated coordination. It took the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) some time to set up its operation in Erbil, leaving the larger operational UN agencies like UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP to assume de facto charge. In addition to personality clashes at senior level, organisations that had previously had clear mandates working in ‘sectors’ to support Syrian refugees had to reassemble into additional ‘clusters’ to help Iraqi IDPs, often creating whole new working groups. There was duplication and all the usual UN bureaucracy, and while many agencies ‘surged’ staff to assist in the response, the deployments were short term. International NGOs complained that personnel changes meant that it took months to get basic proposals signed off.

It took such a long time for funds to be released that at one stage many NGOs were forced to shut projects for weeks at a time due a lack of cash flow. There were complaints too about national and local NGOs – especially in the south of the country – being excluded from planning and coordination meetings. Limited internet connectivity and language barriers complicated teleconferencing.

Senior officials admit that it took too long for the crisis to become a Level 3 emergency in more than name, but under the leadership of Lise Grande, who was appointed the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq in December 2014, coordination appears to have greatly improved. International NGOs, which had complained about being kept at arm’s length from planning by the UN, have been invited to co-lead response clusters, and now have more say about projects and implementation. Intense lobbying by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) has improved dialogue and partnerships with local and national actors.

With many international UN and NGO staff now based back in Baghdad, after relocating en masse to Erbil in June 2014, the response is less concentrated on Kurdistan, although IS-held areas are still very poorly served. The roll-out of pooled funding has also helped speed up project implementation, ensuring that money – when it is there – gets to operating partners more quickly. Likewise, the launch of a new humanitarian hotline, giving IDPs access to information about services and support, is intended to help bridge the gap between aid agencies and recipients and improve the accountability of aid delivery.

Going forward, the key challenge for aid actors operating in Iraq will be continuing to support the millions of people in need of emergency food, shelter and medical services, while also helping to build resilience among communities facing protracted displacement. The provision of work opportunities and education are vital, both to ensure that IDPs are given a chance to rebuild their lives and to reduce potential tensions between the displaced and their host communities. The UN in particular faces a delicate task in supporting the provincial authorities as they assist people to return to territory reclaimed from IS, without endorsing efforts to reshape the ethnic make-up of certain communities. This will be a particular challenge in the ethnically mixed and long-disputed Nineveh Plains around Mosul, as well as in and around Kirkuk. Both of these areas are very much in the sights of the Kurdish regional government’s state-building ambitions. Development actors such as the World Bank and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) are already stepping in to help the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities rebuild areas reclaimed from IS, and there are concerns about how money will be allocated, and for whose benefit.

For now, the governments of Iraq and Kurdistan, and their international allies, are pursuing a military solution to IS. This is as much to reclaim seized territory within Iraq as it is an attempt to reduce the extremists’ growing international influence. However, IS is just one symptom of Iraq’s deeper sectarian and political divisions. As IDPs begin to trickle home, either because their towns have been liberated or because they can no longer cope with the conditions of their displacement, this needs to be kept in mind. Decades of authoritarian Sunni rule under Saddam Hussein, followed by the post-2003 invasion and Shia-led government, in parallel with Kurdistan’s ambitions for nationhood, have turned Iraq into a complex mosaic of grievances and vested interests.

Failure to acknowledge these challenges by ignoring ethnicised IDP returns policies and not putting in place comprehensive dialogue and peace-building programmes alongside physical reconstruction projects will only store up future conflicts. Helping communities help themselves through livelihood and employment opportunities, and promoting the reintegration of different ethnic groups as they return home, must be an integral part of all programming. This will not be an easy sell to donors, who are under increasing domestic pressure to justify overseas aid spending and prefer quick-impact projects with photogenic deliverables, but aid organisations need to be bold.

With the World Humanitarian Summit looming, the debate is more urgent than ever about how the humanitarian and development sectors can better play to each other’s strengths, rather than working in silos. Iraq provides an opportunity to prove the gap can be bridged. There is also an opportunity for international aid actors to practice what they preach on engaging with national and local actors to build their involvement and capacity. This is key to ensuring that the most vulnerable communities receive aid; given funding constraints, it will also allow for a more sustainable in-country response in the medium to long term.

Louise Redvers is a journalist with IRIN. She has been reporting on the humanitarian impact of Islamic State in Iraq since January 2014.