The UK strategic priorities in Iraq: A policy debate with Amb. S Hickey

The UK believes that without capable and functioning state institutions, there will be no stability or prosperity in Iraq”, said Stephen Hickey, the UK Ambassador to Iraq, in a MERI policy debate on 22 April, 2021.

This special roundtable was attended by a selection of local policy makers, legislators and academic experts as well as members of the UK’s diplomatic mission in Erbil (listed below). In his opening remarks, broadcast live on TV, Amb. Hickey articulated the UK’s policy objectives in Iraq, which could be summed up in the following key points:

  • To support stability in Iraq via supporting the state institutions, good governance and economic reform. A strong state requires strong institutions and rule-of-law.
  • To support Iraq’s civil society. The UK believes that a strong state needs a strong and vibrant civil society, which is key to prosperity and legitimate stability.
  • To counter and ultimately prevent the threat of terrorism and violent extremism in Iraq. Terrorism coming from Iraq has long represented a major security threat to UK.

Amb. Hickey added that the UK faces a number of challenges in achieving these policy objectives, including:

  • Security threats to the Iraqi state from ISIS and the diverse armed non-state actors (ANSA). The UK along with other international actors and partners in Iraq are deeply concerned about the destabilizing activities and agendas of ANSA’s across Iraq, particularly in the disputed territories.
  • Covid-related restrictions which have challenged both the Iraqis and the international community.
  • Iraq’s complex political dynamics which have created uncertainties and an environment not conducive to making rapid progress. It difficult in Iraq to predict, plan and work for the future.

The Ambassador’s presentation was followed by a stimulating questions and answers session which was carried out under Chatham House Rules. During this part, a number of issues were highlighted by various participants, which are summarised here without attribution or affiliation:

  • Iraq remains vulnerable to terrorist threats, and has the enabling factors to terrorism, such as sectarian politics, perceptions of injustice, and lack of economic development. These remain unaddressed. The threat of terrorism is a major concern, especially in liberated territories from ISIS and parts of the disputed territories where ANSAs are playing a destabilizing role.
  • A key feature of the Iraqi politics is not just its complexity but also that power is dispersed and fragmented at all levels. These cause volatility and uncertainty, constraining the work of the international actors in Iraq.
  • There will be no stability in Iraq with ANSAs, many of whom operate outside the framework and reach of the state institutions. A new administration in Washington and recent JCPOA negotiations are viewed as an opportunity to normalise and stabilise Iraq’s political process, and address the threat of Iranian-backed ANSAs.

Policy recommendations

  • Iraq must adopt a long-term approach to address the root causes of instability. The country’s security, economic and political challenges are very complex. Iraq’s post-2003 political process was hampered by the lack of long-term strategies.
  • Iraq needs accountability. The state institutions, armed forces and political actors should be held accountable for their actions and behaviours. During the protests, people were killed, but still no one has been held accountable. Lack of accountability will only further contribute to the eroding trust and confidence in the government, especially among the youth.
  • Another root cause to Iraq’s problems is that the country’s post-2003 economic model is dysfunctional. Iraq needs to reduce the size of its public employment and expenses, while enhancing the private sector and attracting investment. This is the answer for the growing dissatisfaction of its young people.
  • Iraq’s political actors should take full responsibility for leading the country out of its current problems. External actors can support and assist, but cannot fix Iraq’s problems on their behalf.
  • The continuation of rocket and drone attacks on Erbil, without a strong and tangible response from the international actors, has created fear and uncertainty among the Kurdish population and political parties. A greater cooperation between Baghdad and KRG is required, with greater international engagement and support. The international actors take this threat of ANSAs seriously, and seek comprehensive solutions diplomatically, economically and politically. All at the same time and at all levels.
  • The UK and other global actors are encouraged to step up their support for the UN-led peace efforts in disputed territories, specifically in Sinjar (Shingal). The UN monitoring can be effective in implementing the Sinjar Agreement between Erbil and Baghdad, and support the stabilisation and return of displaced Yazidis. The UN monitoring is also viewed central for applying pressures and holding parties accountable. In this context, a solution to disputed territories is also vital for protecting the vulnerable ethno-religious communities in Nineveh Plain, Sinjar and Kirkuk.
  • The Kurdistan Region’s safety and stability is dependent on a safe and stable Iraq, as the recent events have shown. Kurdish parties should seek to solve their internal problems and divisions, and those with the Iraqi government.


  • Abdul Satar Majid              Polit Bureau Member, Kurdistan Justice Group
  • Charlie Sykes                       Military Liaison, British Consulate, Erbil
  • Dara Khailani                      Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister, KRG
  • Dlawer Ala’Aldeen              President, MERI
  • Falah Mustafa                     Advisor to the President of the KRI
  • Fawzi Harir                          Chief of Staff, the Presidency of KRI
  • Fuad Smail                           HR Director, MERI
  • Hiwa Osman                        Journalist
  • Imad Farhadi                      PUK Foreign Relation
  • Kamaran Palani                  Research Fellow, MERI
  • Khanzad Ahmed                 President, Kurdistan Women Council
  • Melanie Smart                    Acting British Consul General in Erbil
  • Nahro Zagros                      University Professor.
  • Nashat Mahmoud              Advisor, Kurdistan Region’s Parliament
  • Romeo Hakari                    Kurdistan Parliament Member
  • Sadi Pire                              Polit Bureau Member, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
  • Samuel Nicholls                 British Consulate, Erbil
  • Stephen Hickey                  British Ambassador to Iraq
  • Tanya Gilly                          Former Member of Iraqi Council of Representatives and a Civil Society leader

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