What's the problem in Iraq

Domestic conflicts

Achim Rohde

The Islamic scholar and Middle East expert Achim Rohde is the scientific coordinator of the Academy in Exile at the Free University of Berlin (https://www.academy-in-exile.eu/). Rohde is the author of State-Society Relations in Ba'thist Iraq. Facing Dictatorship (London: Routledge, 2010), editor of Iraq between Occupations. Perspectives from 1920 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and numerous essays on Iraqi history before and after 2003.

The new government under Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi is trying to stabilize the country's economy, weaken the militias and limit the influence of foreign actors. But the reconstruction of the areas liberated from IS is a long time coming - and the security situation remains precarious.

(& copy picture-alliance, AA)

The current situation

Even after the victory over the jihadist militia "Islamic State" (IS) and the prevention of the separation of the Kurdish autonomous regions in the north of the country, Iraq remains deeply divided politically, religiously and territorially. The remnants of IS continue to be dangerous as a terrorist group. Little can be seen of reconstruction in the recaptured areas. In other parts of the country, too, the infrastructure is deteriorating as a result of decades of underfunding and mismanagement.

Shiite militias, allied with the central government in Baghdad and partly acting on Iranian instructions, have used the fight against IS to consolidate their position of power in the Iraqi state apparatus and to expand their areas of influence to Sunni-influenced provinces of the country. They are known for their reactionary image of society and their brutality towards those of different faiths, critical journalists and LGBTQ people. Demonstrations critical of the government are regularly attacked. They are also central actors in Iraq's mafia-like shadow economy. The new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has been in office since May 2020, is trying to restrict the militias' freedom of movement and their finances. The measures taken by the former head of the secret service are also directed against Iranian influence in the country.

In terms of its composition, the Iraqi parliament that emerged as a result of the 2018 elections presents a very different picture than a decade earlier. There are more parties and none can claim clear leadership. The Sa’irūn list, which was formed by supporters of Moqtada as-Sadr and secular parties, including communists, became the strongest faction with 14% of the votes. She advocates interdenominational Iraqi patriotism. Coming from a family of prominent Shiite clergy, Sadr had previously left the alliance of Shiite parties that had divided power among themselves for years.

The protests of young, mostly Shiite Iraqis, which have continued since 2015, are directed against the government's inaction in the face of the economic crisis, decaying infrastructure, rampant poverty and the transformation of Iraq into a kind of mafia state. Responsible for the grievances are a corrupt elite that fills their pockets, militias that terrorize the population and foreign powers that influence the fate of the country behind the scenes. The protests have grown into a mass movement since 2019 and, with their problem-oriented agenda, signal the resurgence of an Iraqi civil society beyond denominational narratives. Al-Kadhimi has made the call of the protesters for new elections soon his own. He is the first prime minister since the fall of Saddam Hussein who does not come from a Shiite Islamist party. But new elections cannot be more than a start.

The state institutions installed after 2003 are largely dysfunctional. The former exemplary Iraqi education system is in a disastrous state. This also applies to the health system, which is hopelessly overwhelmed by the sharp rise in the number of corona infections since June 2020. The economic crisis triggered by the drop in oil prices and deepened by the consequences of the corona pandemic hits the country, which is almost completely dependent on oil exports, hard. Unemployment is increasing. A lack of government revenue is forcing massive austerity measures, which further aggravate the impoverishment of the population. Finally, the crisis intensifies distribution struggles between the Iraqi central state and the Kurdish autonomous government with negative effects on cooperation in securing the areas formerly ruled by IS.

Climate change is accelerating environmental degradation and endangering the already low productivity of agriculture, the water levels of the Euphrates and Tigris are being throttled by Turkish dams, access to drinking water is becoming scarcer and the water quality is deteriorating. At the same time the population is growing. The power supply only works by the hour. Therefore, with summer temperatures of often over 50 degrees Celsius, people are dependent on private generators to cool their houses and food. But many can hardly afford the gasoline they need.

Causes and backgrounds of the conflict

With the exception of a short breather between 1988 and 1990, the people of Iraq have not experienced any peacetime for decades: The eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was followed by the Kuwait war of 1991 and the "other war" in the time of the UN embargo (1990-2003). [1] In 2003 the US toppled long-term president and dictator Saddam Hussein with its intervention. Disastrous decisions taken by the US occupying power, in particular the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the active promotion of ethno-denominational structures in the construction of the new political system, played a major role in the country's subsequent periodic civil war between Shiite and Sunni actors slidded (2005 to 2007 and 2013 to 2015). Only the ideological fanaticism and the extreme violence of the Sunni IS, including against Sunnis, made it possible to form an all-Iraqi military alliance made up of the army and various militias, which, with the help of the USA and Iran, was able to defeat IS by 2018 with high losses. This initially restored Iraq's territorial unity.

One consequence of the interethnic and interreligious violence was the increasing spatial unbundling and separation of Iraqi society along denominational lines as well as the deterioration in the situation of religious and ethnic minorities (Christians, Yazidis, Turkmens, Assyrians, etc.). The reign of terror by IS and the fight against the jihadists made their situation even worse. Within Iraq, the Kurdish region, which has been autonomous since the 1990s, offered the greatest security and also the best economic living conditions. It was therefore the target of many internally displaced people. Due to the violent prevention of the secession of the Kurdish provinces after the referendum in 2017, the Kurdish independence efforts and the simmering conflict over control of the Kirkuk region, which was claimed by both sides, were only postponed.

The concordance democracy laid down in the Iraqi constitution of 2005 prevents a policy based on practical solutions in favor of clientelism based on ethno-confessional identities. A bloc of Shiite parties used its majority, which was virtually guaranteed due to demographic conditions, to build a political system in which the Shiite actors set the tone. Interdenominational tensions were fueled significantly by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was in office from 2006 to 2014. Arab-Sunni Iraqis in particular were systematically disadvantaged and oppressed. Maliki's policy has made ISIS in the Sunni-influenced provinces of the country acceptable in the first place.

Opinion polls since 2003 continuously point to an ongoing Iraqi national feeling that transcends ethno-denominational boundaries, the beginnings of which go back to the late Ottoman period. Under the influence of the Arab and Iraqi nationalism proclaimed by the state-building elites, progress was made towards national integration, especially in the 1940s to 1960s. A major setback was the almost complete emigration of the Jewish population rooted in Iraq around 1950, whose living conditions there deteriorated dramatically as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel and the resulting conflicts.

The political and civil society diversity that exists in Iraq even under authoritarian conditions has been destroyed, suppressed and / or integrated into the new power structures since the military coup of the Ba’th party in 1968. Religious parties were criminalized and persecuted, but mosques and religious associations remained. They were able to regain room for maneuver, especially in the 1990s. Iraqi society became increasingly religious under the privations of the embargo years. In order to give its rule new legitimacy, the regime reinforced this trend with a populist turn to religious values ​​and discourses. The rule of the Ba’th party - a personalized dictatorship under Saddam Hussein since the 1980s - thus paved the way for the dominance of Islamist forces of various stripes, which since 2003 have been the main actors in the sectarian division of the country.

Processing and solution approaches

The incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi has his hands full holding his government together and limiting the influence of foreign actors, putting the militias in their place and stabilizing the country's economy. The reform of the political system beyond concordance democratic quotas and the fight against corruption remain the most important prerequisites for successful reconstruction. Many people in Iraq no longer have confidence in the political establishment and are calling for a break with the system that has been in place since 2003.

In order to support al-Kadhimi's course, which is fundamentally effective in solving the existing problems, not only the Iraqi but also the relevant regional and global actors must work together much better than is currently the case. However, it is completely unclear how to mediate between the partly diametrical interests:

  • Turkey wants to expand its regional influence through cooperation with Sunni-Islamist forces. For a long time, it did not shy away from cooperating with IS. In the fight against the Kurdish national movement, and in particular the PKK, Turkish troops often intervene deep in Kurdistan Iraq. Turkish dams on the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris endanger Iraq's water supply and thus contribute to its destabilization.
  • In the face of painful experiences in the 1980s, Iran rejects a strong Iraqi central state, but has no interest in its breakup. Rather, Tehran wants to secure its regional aspirations with the help of a compliant neighbor and increase its strategic depth vis-à-vis the USA and its allies in the region.
  • Washington and Tehran were allies in the fight against IS, and under President Obama there seemed to be a chance for a lasting calming of bilateral relations. Under President Trump, the US and Iran are once again on a confrontational course. This poses considerable problems for Iraq, which is dependent on both powers in many ways.
  • While the European Union stands idly on the sidelines, China is bringing itself into play as a new strategic actor in the region through an alliance with Iran. This needs allies in order to be able to hold its own against US pressure. The new alliance signals the dwindling power of the United States. Iraq, in its current weakness, could easily become a victim of geo-strategic conflict.
An internationalization of efforts to resolve conflicts and to rebuild Iraq (and other war-torn countries in the region) under the leadership of the United Nations, flanked by increased diplomatic and economic engagement by the EU, could open up a way out of the mess. In addition, the donor countries and international organizations, such as the IMF, would have to continue to provide the country with money, especially in times of the global economic crisis exacerbated by the corona pandemic and despite the chronic corruption of the Iraqi elites, in order to prevent the collapse of the fragile order and leeway for create necessary reforms.

History of the conflict

Iraq emerged at the end of World War I on a British initiative as a merger of three Ottoman provinces around the cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, initially as a monarchy under colonial rule. The 1958 revolution led to the establishment of a republic and attempts to develop the country independently of the two Cold War power blocs. Until the late 1960s, more or less popular autocratic regents supported by different parts of the army alternated in rapid succession. In July 1968, after a coup, the Ba’th party took power for more than three decades.

After his election as president (1979), Saddam Hussein established a dictatorship that was characterized by extreme internal repression and repeated external wars. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was considered an authoritarian ruler, but due to his buffer function against revolutionary Iran, he was also a useful ally of the West. After the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in August 1990, he fell out of favor in the West. Iraq was largely destroyed in the Gulf War of 1991 and could not be adequately rebuilt due to the UN embargo that lasted until 2003. This ruined all development successes of the 1970s. However, the regime was still able to hold onto power.

The previously secular dictatorship increasingly discovered religion and tribal structures as a means of maintaining power in the 1990s. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein by a US-led Western military alliance in 2003, Iraq has increasingly been drawn into the pull of internal social and regional conflicts that have torpedoed the reconstruction of the country and contributed to the further erosion of the state.


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Government of Iraq (official website).

Reports and analyzes of the International Crisis Group on Iraq.

Iraqi Economists Network.

Kurdistan Regional Government (official website).

Niqash: briefings from inside and across Iraq.