Issue 65 - Article 4

Sectarianism and humanitarian security: is acceptance working in Iraq?

October 29, 2015
Barah Mikail, Lisa Reilly and Raquel Vazquez Llorente
Controlled IED explosion in Iraq

Security risk management strategies aim to ensure safer access to communities in need of humanitarian aid. In Iraq, the link between humanitarian access and security risk management is even stronger. This article explores developments in Iraq and their impact on the security of humanitarian workers operating in the country. This article is based on 15 interviews held with 20 humanitarian workers of 14 organisations (international and national NGOs, United Nations agencies and donor governments) in August 2015 in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. It also takes a critical look at the role acceptance plays as a security measure, and what impact changes in context have had on the ability of aid agencies to gain humanitarian access and implement programmes.

Humanitarianism and sectarianism in Iraq

The Iraqi population has faced a dire humanitarian situation for decades. While oil-rich Iraq enjoyed wealth and high levels of growth at the end of the 1970s, a series of catastrophic decisions by President Saddam Hussein accelerated the disintegration of the country. The Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), the Gulf War (1991) and the international embargo that followed Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait all contributed to the degradation of living conditions in Iraq. Although Iraqis were still able to meet some of their basic needs through government programmes, the economy was in ruins.

The US-led invasion in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam’s regime added to this bleak situation. A number of factors accelerated the political, economic and social disintegration of Iraq, notably the coalition’s war strategy and its apparent lack of preparation to deal with the aftermath. The attempt by the Coalition Provisional Authority to remove from government all public servants affiliated to the former ruling Ba’ath Party resulted in the political exclusion of hundreds of thousands of people – including people who could have helped with the accompanying democratisation process.


With the sudden crumbling of previously strong central institutions, Iraqi leaders tried to find alternatives. Appointed leaders failed to gain political legitimacy or guarantee the country’s security, and Iraq soon began to fragment along sectarian lines. In the centre of the country, Arab Sunnis feared that the toppling of Saddam would lead to political domination by the Arab Shiites, who comprise the majority of the population (around 60%). Northern-based Kurds, who had started establishing autonomous institutions following the Gulf War in 1991, took the opportunity after 2003 to push their own local political agenda. Localism and sectarianism flourished, and attacks on religious symbols, such as the Shiite al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, contributed to the radicalisation of post-war sectarian politics – aggravated by the inability of Iraq’s leaders to agree on a national agenda to support the reconstruction of the country. The US and its allies proved incapable of compensating for the inexperience of Iraq’s new, often opportunistic, political representatives and leaders.

Despite growing violence – mostly in the form of regular attacks on religious shrines and against the government, and more recently executions carried out by Islamic State (IS) – humanitarian organisations have been able to operate since the downfall of Saddam’s regime in 2003. However, the withdrawal of the US in 2011, the emergence of IS, and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s failure to tackle corruption, coupled with his decision to send troops into Sunni areas in 2013, have increased social tensions and hostility towards the government – all of which have made Iraq a more insecure place for aid agencies. Agencies operating in Iraq face a range of threats and risks according to their regions of operation, and many see the country as at least two, if not three, distinct contexts: Baghdad and the south, areas under Islamic State control and (the easiest and safest) Iraqi Kurdistan.

Baghdad and Southern Iraq

he-65-figure-p14Frequent bomb attacks, shootings, firefights and demonstrations pose a considerable risk to humanitarian agencies in Baghdad and Southern Iraq. Between January and August 2015, 1,229 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detonated in Baghdad. Roadside IEDs are found mostly on the periphery of the city, while suicide bombings and vehicle-borne IEDs are more frequent inside Baghdad. The majority target civilians in busy locations such as markets. Magnetic or adhesive IEDs usually target government officials or the security forces. Although humanitarian workers are not being directly targeted, traditional security risk management approaches are ill-suited to such a volatile context. Relying on acceptance by the community outside of the immediate areas where large humanitarian operations are conducted is becoming increasingly challenging for aid agencies.

IS territory

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to implement protection programmes in accordance with its very specific mandate in IS-held areas. However, both NGO and UN representatives question whether any form of humanitarian acceptance will be achievable in territory under IS control. Some local organisations seem to have been able to gain intermittent access through their knowledge and contacts, but international aid agencies face specific challenges, including the direct targeting of foreigners and the risk of torture and death in the event of capture. The nature of these threats has made agencies reluctant to share information and analysis on their operations, security strategies or movements for fear that such information could fall into the hands of Islamic State and be used to target them. The risks to staff also mean that aid agencies are less likely to try to access IS-controlled areas, leaving a considerable gap in knowledge of security issues, as well as in information concerning humanitarian needs in areas under IS in control.

With a protection crisis across the country and nearly a quarter of the population in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, UNOCHA, Iraq Humanitarian Response Plan, June 2015. many aid agencies are unwilling to jeopardise their existing operations by trying to gain access to IS territory, where it is much more difficult to work safely and effectively. Although security concerns are the main reason for not working in areas where IS operates, reputational damage and perception issues also deter humanitarian agencies from venturing into IS-controlled territory. Organisations operating in Iraqi Kurdistan risk having their authorisation to work revoked if they also work in IS-controlled territory, as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has made it clear that cross-line operations are not allowed. Media in the region is highly politicised and could make humanitarian assistance an instrument for fuelling sectarian tension.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Paradoxically, instability in the rest of Iraq is benefiting the KRG. The Kurds have been able to rule an extended territory that looks like a safe haven compared to the rest of the country. As such, Iraqi Kurdistan is the easiest and safest environment for aid agencies.

Humanitarian agencies are able to work in territory controlled by the KRG because the government is willing to allow them to do so, rather than through more proactive acceptance strate-gies by aid agencies themselves. There are, however, some notable exceptions. For instance, security and programme staff from the Danish Refugee Council work together to gain acceptance from communities through social cohesion projects that seek to reduce tensions between incomers and host communities. Within the more liberal Christian area of Erbil, where many agencies are based, humanitarian organisations rely on de facto acceptance to protect staff, rather than protection measures such as the armoured vehicles and reinforced compounds seen in southern areas of Iraq. There is a perception, however, that international staff have become too complacent regarding the security situation in Erbil.

While agencies have assumed that they have achieved acceptance in Iraqi Kurdistan, the evidence is not readily apparent. NGOs have very low visibility and use unmarked vehicles and no signage on their offices, security measures which are normally taken in areas where NGOs have not been accepted and are even being deliberately targeted. This lack of visibility may be linked to the negative perceptions of foreigners reportedly held by the local population. These perceptions stem primarily from previous experience with international oil workers, who were perceived as primarily interested in making money. Although aid agencies believe that local people will understand that they have come to help and will accept them, for their part locals believe that most foreigners are there to make money, convert them to Christianity or spy on them. Rather than continue to assume that acceptance is an effective security strategy, agencies should be constantly questioning whether they have actually achieved acceptance, and should regularly review their strategies against changes in the context.

Humanitarian action in fragmented contexts

Last year an additional 2.2 million people were newly displaced by Islamic State offensives, bringing the total to 3.2m, or 11.49% of the Iraqi civilian population. More than 90% of IDPs and refugees do not live in camps, and are scattered across 3,000 locations. OCHA, ‘Iraq Humanitarian Response Plan’, June 2015. Northern Iraq hosts the largest number of IDPs and refugees. In 2014, the population in Iraqi Kurdistan increased by 28% due to the conflict in Syria and the crisis caused by IS, placing additional strain on the region’s economy.

Humanitarian agencies need to understand and consider sectarian tensions when planning security risk management strategies in a context as fragmented as Iraq. The newly elected Prime Minister, Haidar Abadi, is pushing for reforms to end corruption and bad governance, and to reunify Iraq by winning its people’s support. This is a huge task, and it is not clear whether he will succeed. The absence of a strong Iraqi national army, the mushrooming of militias such as the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga and warnings from powerful local leaders that Iraq could end up being partitioned do not suggest that the Iraqi government is likely to regain control of the country in the near future.

To ease sectarian tensions and guarantee sustainable humanitarian access, 30 NGOs are working in partnership to implement social cohesion programmes. Under the coordination of the DRC, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is leading a cluster response plan to promote understanding between sectarian groups through a focus on emergency livelihoods, in order to mitigate tensions in local communities that have witnessed large influxes of IDPs. National NGOs that have safe access to affected populations have been encouraged to participate. While the hope is that these programmes can help ease tensions between sectarian groups, their restricted scope – with only 200,000 people targeted for assistance out of 3.3m in need of emergency livelihoods – may limit their impact.

To date host communities have borne influxes of large numbers of IDPs and refugees with remarkable equanimity. As the majority of older people in Iraqi Kurdistan have been displaced at some point in their lives, they empathise with refugees and internally displaced people. However, the long-standing tensions between Kurds and Arabs, and the lack of social cohesion, can jeopardise humanitarian access and the ability to deliver aid in a neutral and impartial manner. Undoubtedly, the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan and regional and internal politics will have an impact on the ability and willingness of NGOs to work in different areas of the country.

Barah Mikail is a Senior Researcher on the Middle East and North Africa at FRIDE and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Louis University, Madrid campus. Lisa Reilly is the Executive Coordinator at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). Raquel Vazquez Llorente is a Research Advisor at EISF.


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