Country Briefing

Area: 438,317 km²
Capital: Baghdad
Population: 40,462,701 (2022 estimates)
Official language: Arabic, Kurdish[1]

1. Brief overview

Iraq is the easternmost country in the Arab world, characterised by the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris, mountain ranges in the north-east of the country and desert in the west and south.[1] Iraq's population of about 40 million consists of 75 to 80 percent Arabs and 15 to 20 percent Kurds. Between 95 and 98 percent of the population are Muslims, of which 61 to 64 percent are Shiites and 29 to 34 percent Sunnis. The rest of the population is made up of ethnic and religious minorities.[2] The majority of Kurds are found in the north-east of the country, especially in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, which essentially consists of the three provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.[3] Sunnis predominate in the north and west of the country, including in the provinces of Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Ninawa and Diyala.[4] The region south of Baghdad is Shiite. [5]

In addition to their national and confessional affiliation, many Arabs and Kurds identify very strongly with their family and tribe.[6] There are about 150 tribes in Iraq, to which 75 per cent of the total Iraqi population belong.[7]

After World War I, the heterogeneous population of the country found itself in a common national territory as a result of decisions by major and regional powers (Great Britain, France, Turkey),[8] initially as a British mandate territory. From 1979, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, led the country and silenced his critics by brutal means. In 2003, Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party were overthrown by the United States and its allies. This created a security vacuum that led to the proliferation of insurgent armed groups and an outbreak of sectarian violence that peaked in 2006-2008. After the extensive withdrawal of the USA in 2011, the situation in the country remained unstable. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a sectarian upheaval in the country's political leadership and Shiite Arabs gained the upper hand in the country through elections. Nouri Al-Maliki, who served as prime minister between 2006 and 2014, was accused of marginalising the Sunni population, amassing power for his own party and suppressing the opposition. In this context, the Sunni-influenced Islamic State (IS), an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, came to the fore. By the end of 2014, IS controlled about a third of Iraqi territory. The atrocities committed by IS led to millions of internally displaced people in the country. In response to the collapse of Iraqi security forces in Mosul, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani called on Iraqis to take up arms to defend their country from the IS threat. In response, thousands of mainly Shiite Iraqi men volunteered to fight, leading to the formation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF),[9] which have played a crucial role in the country's politics since the collapse of IS territory (→ more information on the PMF). Between October 2019 and 2021, Iraq saw recurrent protests against the existing system of government, corruption, high youth unemployment, infrastructure deficiencies, as well as foreign influence. [10]In August 2022, the worst violence in Baghdad in years occurred after the political resignation of the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr following months of deadlock over the formation of a new government resulted in riots. [11]

2. Autonomous Region of Kurdistan

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is recognised as an autonomous “federal region” in the Iraqi constitution of 2005.[12] The more than 6 million Kurds in Iraq[13] see themselves as an ethnically distinct group,[14] whose society is based on tribes.[15] The majority are Sunni Muslims.[16] Under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds were victims of a process of Arabisation that culminated in the "Anfal" campaign in the late 1980s, in the course of which several Kurdish regions were bombed with chemical weapons.[17] In 1991, today's KRIgained autonomy from central Iraq.[18] In the following years, today's dominant parties in the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as well as the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), gained power.[19] The DPK is dominated by the Barzani family, from which both the president and the prime minister of the region come as of August 2021.[20] Other parties in the region include the Gorran Movement, the New Generation Movement, Islamic parties, and a number of minority parties. [21]

The Kurds and especially the Peshmerga fighters, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government,[22] were actively involved in the fight against IS.[23] Through military gains against the IS, the Kurdish Regional Government also managed to bring previously disputed territories under its control, which, however, were lost again after the holding of a controversial independence referendum and the subsequent fierce reaction of the central government.[24] The volatile security situation from 2014, the massive drop in oil prices from 2015 and differences with the Iraqi central government led the KRI into an economic crisis after years of economic and political rise.[25] In 2022, the KRI faces a number of challenges. Military operations by Turkey against the PKK on Iraqi territory put the KDP in particular in a difficult position between Turkey as an economic partner and its own countrymen. It is also increasingly difficult for the KDP and PUK to appear as a political entity at the national level. Within their own region, the two parties are facing growing protests against their government due to increasing socio-economic problems.[26]

3. Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMF or Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi, is a heterogeneous umbrella organisation of about 50 armed groups[27] of different political and ideological orientation. The largest bloc, which includes the Badr Organisation, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq and Kata'ib Hezbollah, is closely linked to Iran, the second bloc follows the Shi'ite cleric Ali al-Sistani, and the third bloc, Saraya Al-Salam, follows the Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr,[28] the latter two of which are characterised by a comparatively nationalist attitude.[29]

At the end of 2016, the PMF were granted a legal status equivalent to the Iraqi armed forces, which means that they are formally subordinate to the Prime Minister.[30] Since the end of the fighting against IS, the PMF have expanded their sphere of influence. They are politically and economically active and have their own party bloc in parliament.[31] Strong gains in the 2018 parliamentary elections have allowed the PMF to expand their power in state institutions[32] and they are soon indistinguishable from the original state actors in their day-to-day activities.[33] Any changes in the situation as a result of losses in the 2021[34] elections remain unclear due to an ongoing political deadlock in forming a government[35] and Muqtada Al-Sadr's resignation[36] with September 2022. In addition to their political role, the PMF remain active militarily and as a security actor.[37]

Especially in the north and west of Iraq, harassment and interference in municipal, administrative and daily affairs by members of the PMF have been repeatedly reported,[38] and also the demonstrators in Baghdad and southern Iraq have shown their displeasure about the Iranian influence of the PMF since October 2019. [39]

Detailed information on the Shiite militias in Iraq can be found here. [40]

(→ search on PMF)

4. Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups

Despite IS's territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, no new extremist groups have clearly emerged in Iraq. Such networks are maintained by groups such as Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) and the Iraqi offshoot of Al-Qaeda, but they operate quietly.[41] In comparison, IS remains active in Iraq, particularly in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din and Ninawa,[42] especially in areas disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi national government.[43]

IS focuses on two types of attacks in Iraq. On the one hand, improvised explosive devices are used, checkpoints and socially and politically important people are attacked. On the other hand, IS attacks public and private infrastructure, such as petrol stations, oil and gas pipelines, water supply facilities and electricity pylons, and burns down crops and houses to cause chaos.[44] (→ search on IS in Iraq)

5. Ethno-religious minorities

In addition to Shia and Sunni Arabs and the predominantly Sunni Kurds, Iraq is home to numerous ethnic or religious minorities.[45] The 2005 constitution recognises that Iraq is a country of multiple nationalities, religions and denominations.[46] The ethno-religious minorities include the Turkmen (→ search), the Christians (→ search), the Yezidis (→ search), the Circassians (→ search), the Faili Kurds (→ search), the Kaka'i (→ search), the Mandaean Sabaeans (→ search), the Roma (→ search), the Shabak (→ search), the Baha'i (→ search) and a very small number of Jews ‑(> search).[47] In addition to the ethno-religious minorities, there are also Palestinian refugees (→ search), stateless Bidun (‑ > ecoi search), and Iraqis of African descent (→ search). During the past decades of violence in the country, first under Saddam Hussein, then after his fall in 2003, as well as after the spread of IS in 2014, members of minority groups were particularly exposed to attacks,[48] which led many to leave the country. [49]

The Iraqi constitution specifically mentions Christians, Yezidis and Mandean-Sabeans on the subject of religious freedom and names Arabic and Kurdish as the country's official languages. The constitution also provides for mother tongue education and specifically mentions Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian.[50]

Reports of discrimination against and violence against minorities include harassment and arbitrary arrests, intimidation and denial of services, violent attacks by non-state actors, and general societal discrimination in everyday life.[51] (→ search on minorities in Iraq)

Map 1: Ethnic and linguistic groups. Source: Ministry of the Interior (Austria); Ministry of Defence and Sport (Austria): Atlas Syria & Iraq, 2016, p. 20

Map 2: Religious and sectarian groups. Source: Ministry of the Interior (Austria); Ministry of Defence and Sport (Austria): Atlas Syria & Iraq, 2016, p. 18

[1] Britannica Online Encyclopedia: Iraq, Country, 29 August 2022

[2] CIA - Central Intelligence Agency: The World Fact Book - Iraq, Country Summary, 15 June 2022

[3] Kurdistan Regional Government: Facts & Figures, no date

[4] Rudaw: Amid Iraq's instability, Sunnis ponder autonomy from Baghdad, 11 January 2020

[5] Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies: The role of ethnicities, religions and sects in Iraq, 27 February 2021

[6] Britannica Online Encyclopaedia: Iraq, People, Arabs, 29 August 2022

[7] CRS - Congressional Research Service: Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social and Political Activities [RS22626], 7 April 2008, p.1

[8] BBC News: Sykes-Picot: The map that spawned a century of resentment, 16 May 2016

[9] World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: Iraq, May 2018

[10] EPIC - Enabling Peace in Iraq Center: The Long Game: Iraq's "Tishreen" Movement and the Struggle for Reform, 30 September 2021, pp.3-4, 47

[11] BBC News: Iraq: Tense calm in Baghdad after cleric issues appeal, 30 August 2022

[12] Constitution of Iraq 2005, translation by Constitute Project, no date, Article 117; Agence France-Presse: Iraq's Kurdistan region, autonomous since 1991, 27 September 2018 [veröffentlicht von Fondation-Institut Kurde de Paris]

[13] BBC News: Iraqi Kurdistan profile, 25 April 2018

[14] Kelly, Michael: The Kurdish Regional Constitution within the Framework of the Iraqi Federal Constitution: A Struggle for Sovereignty, Oil, Ethnic Identity and the Prospects for a Reverse Supremacy Clause, Pennsylvania State Law Review 114(3), May 2010, p. 710.

[15] Britannica Online Encyclopaedia: Kurd, People, Social Organization, 22 March 2022

[16] The Kurdish Project: Kurdish Religions, no date,Kurdish%20Religions,as%20neither%20Sunni%20nor%20Shiite.

[17] HRW - Human Rights Watch: Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, July 1993

[18] Agence France-Presse: Iraq's Kurdistan region, autonomous since 1991, 27 September 2018 [veröffentlicht von Fondation-Institut Kurde de Paris]

[19] LSE - London School of Economics: The Iraqi Kurds' Destructive Infighting: Causes and Consequences, 15 April 2020;
Culturico: The dKRI side of democracy in Kurdistan: The rule of two clans, 6 February 2021

[20] The Presidency of the Kurdistan Region - Iraq: A statement from the President of the Kurdistan Region, 29 August 2022;
Kurdistan Regional Government: Statement by PM Masrour Barzani on the anniversary of the Badinan Anfal, 25 August 2022

[21] Kurdistan Parliament - Iraq, Parties in the Kurdistan Parliament, no date (accessed 5 September 2022)

[22] GPPi - Global Public Policy Institute: Iraq After ISIL, Sub-State Actors, Local Forces and the Micro-Politics of Control, March 2018, p.6.

[23] Clingendael - Netherlands Institute of International Relations: Fighting for Kurdistan?, Assessing the nature and functions of the Peshmerga in Iraq, March 2018

[24] The New Humanitarian: In Iraqi Kurdistan, reality bites as independence dream fades, 26 September 2019

[25] Kurdistan24: Five reasons for Kurdistan Region financial crisis, 8 January 2016; MEMO - Middle East Monitor: Economic crisis threatens stability of Kurdistan Region, 14 August 2020

[26] Clingendael - Netherlands Institute of International Relations: The Kurdistan Region of Iraq: A Challenging Time Ahead, 28 June 2022

[27] EPIC: The Future for Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Units (author: Matthew Schweitzer), 18 January 2017.; The Century Foundation: Understanding Iraq's Hashd al-Sha'bi (Author: Fanar Haddad), 5 March 2018; ICG - International Crisis Group: Iraq's Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018, p.1

[28] ICG - International Crisis Group: Iraq's Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018, p.3-4

[29] Clingendael - Netherlands Institute of International Relations: Power in perspective: Four key insights into Iraq's Al-Hashd al-Sha'abi, June 2018, p.3

[30] RFE/RL - Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: Iraq's Parliament Adopts Law Legalising Shi'ite Militias, 26 November 2016

[31] ICG - International Crisis Group: Iraq's Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018, p.i-ii

[32] MENA Prison Forum: Dispossession and Disappearance, 17 October 2021

[33] War on the Rocks: The 'Hybrid Armed Actors' Paradox: A necessary compromise? (Author: Renad Mansour) 21 January 2021

[34] Atlantic Council: Iran's allies lost seats in the Iraqi elections. Now Tehran is recalibrating its strategy, 7 December 2021

[35] BBC News: Iraq: At least 23 dead amid fighting after Moqtada al-Sadr quits, 30 August 2022

[36] Al Jazeera: Iraq parliament swears in new members after dozens walk out, 23 June 2022;

BBC News: Iraq: At least 23 dead amid fighting after Moqtada al-Sadr quits, 30 August 2022

[37] INA - Iraqi News Agency: PMF counts the number of its forces, elaborates its essential duties, 13 June 2022

[38] Al-Araby Al-Jadeed: PMF barracks - an Iranian facade to monitor Iraqi provinces معسكرات الحشد الشعبي... واجهة إيرانية لمراقبة المحافظات العراقية]] 12 February 2019.;
USDOS - US Department of State: 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Iraq, 2 June 2022

[39] Carnegie Middle East Center: How Deep Is Anti-Iranian Sentiment in Iraq?, 14 November 2019

[40] ACCORD - Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation: thematic dossier on Iraq: Shiite militias in Iraq, 20 December 2021

[41] K4D, Knowledge, evidence and learning for development: Helpdesk Report, The Islamic State in Iraq, April 2019, p.17

[42] Clingendael - Netherlands Institute of International Relations: A stubborn threat: Islamic State in Iraq in early 2022, May 2022, p.3

[43] Rudaw: ISIS attacks killed over 350 people in Iraq in 11 months, 27 December 2021

[44] The Jamestown Foundation: Islamic State Strategies and Propaganda in Iraq Raise Prospects for Resurgence, 22 April 2022

[45] Minority Rights Group International: World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People: Iraq, May 2018

[46] Constitution of Iraq 2005, translation by Constitute Project, of 25 January 2006, Article 3

[47] IILHR - Institute for International Law and Human Rights: Iraq's Minorities and Other Vulnerable Groups: Legal Framework, Documentation and Human Rights, May 2013, pp.64-147.

[48] HRW - Human Rights Watch: Iraq, At a Crossroads, Human Rights in Iraq Eight Years after the US-Led Invasion, 2010, p.65

[49] UNPO - Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization: The Situation of Minorities in Iraq after ISIS, 7 June 2018.

[50] Constitution of Iraq 2005, translation by Constitute Project, undated, 25 January 2006, Articles 2 and 4.

[51] EUAA - European Union Agency for Asylum: Iraq - Targeting of Individuals, January 2022, pp. 45-47; 51-52; 54-62