Iraq is a country located in the region of Western Asia. Iraq held its first parliamentary elections in 2018 after defeating the Islamic State (IS). A difficult task awaited the electoral victories, and Iraq is not an easily controlled country. After the battles against IS, a massive effort is needed for reconstruction, not least in the war-torn city of Mosul, and more than two million Iraqis live as internal refugees. The popular dissatisfaction is great with the lack of community service and corruption. The Iraqi government is also forced to balance Iran’s and US claims to influence.
All elections since the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein overthrown in 2003 have confirmed that it is now the Shiite Muslim Arab majority that governs Iraq. A Shiite government may also have succeeded in almost completely eliminating IS, but the challenges that existed before IS remain – not least the position of the Sunni Arabs and the large Kurdish population – and the Shi’a groups are not moving in the same direction.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Iraq, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
The 2014 election was the first since the US withdrew the US forces that had the task of chasing Saddam and pushing for a regime change. The then Shiaallians of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s then-sitting became by far the largest, but nevertheless received just over a quarter of the mandate. In total, some 40 parties and alliances took place in Parliament. Maliki, which has ruled since 2006, tried to re-establish government, but the growing civil war changed the situation. Just over a month after the 2014 elections, the Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS) entered Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
IS’s advance pushed Maliki so hard that he was forced to let go; his party mate in the Dawa Shiite party, Haider al-Abadi, was named new prime minister. Since then, another election has been held (2018), but despite the fact that the government in Baghdad during Abadi’s time in power could proclaim victory against IS, Abadi could not sit safely in the saddle either.
In 2014, Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia Alliance received the Rule of Law, which includes Dawa, 92 of the then 328 seats. Parties loyal to Maliki-critical Shi’a preacher Muqtada al-Sadr and the strongly Iran-friendly Shi’a group ISCI (see Political groupings) came in second and third place. The largest Sunni electoral list was Muttahidun, but many Sunnis also voted for secular Shi’ite Muslim and ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi. The Kurdish parties went to elections on various lists. Self-government President Massoud Barzani’s party KDP was given slightly more mandate than the traditional rival PUK.
The political landscape was very sparse for Iraq’s next major challenge.
Fight against IS
It was a very eventful term that began in 2014. In January, IS had conquered the city of al-Fallujah in western Iraq. On June 10, Iraq’s government army suddenly collapsed in the country’s second largest city of Mosul, and the jihadists also captured Tikrit, Tal Afar and other Sunni cities. As a result, Sunni rebels joined the IS, which at the same time captured large quantities of US-made weapons from the army. The jihadists ruthlessly attacked political opponents and religious minorities. Shiite Muslim prisoners of war were massacred and Christian Assyrians-Syrians were forced to flee the Nineveh plain around Mosul.
In August 2014, IS turned to Iraqi Kurdistan and entered the Sinjar Mountains, where the Yazid minority was subjected to genocide-like persecution (see Religion). At the end of June, the jihadist group proclaimed a “caliphate”, that is, an alleged leadership over all the world’s Muslims. (It was then that IS, which had previously acted under other names, shortened its name to the Islamic State alone.) IS now ruled over millions of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria, while the Baghdad government had begun mass recruitment of Shi’ites to strengthen the army. At the same time, Kurdish leader Barzani promised that Kurdistan would proclaim independence. Iraq seemed to be on the verge of falling apart.
The US and Iran both began to pressure their Iraqi allies to create a new unity government. The United States demanded that Barzani shred the Kurdish independence plans, which he reluctantly did, and that Nuri al-Maliki should be replaced by a new prime minister. In July, Fuad Masum from the Kurdish PUK had been elected new Iraqi president. Masum now nominated Shi’a politician Haider al-Abadi from the Dawap party as head of government and Abadi’s government was approved by parliament in September 2014. Maliki accepted a post as vice president.
On August 7, the United States, which had tried to step down its efforts after the fall of Saddam Hussein, was back in an active war role in Iraq. Now the United States, together with several other countries, launched air bombings against IS. The attacks were also extended to Syria. Military operations centers were set up by the United States both in Baghdad and in Kurdish Erbil to organize cooperation with Iraqi forces. Many countries sent aid and weapons to the Kurds. Some countries, especially Iran and the United States, continued to provide direct support to the Baghdad government and Iran supports the various Shi’ites (see Foreign Policy and Defense). Also important in the fight against IS was the rapid intervention in northern Iraq from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch YPG, which helped defend the Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar. The PKK strengthened its position in northern Iraq, where the group has long had bases but lacked political influence.
In the fall of 2014, IS advancement stopped. The group had lost ground especially in northern Iraq, even though it had taken up some territory in western Iraq and Syria. In the spring of 2015 IS made a new rapid operation and entered al-Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, which is Iraq’s largest province and forms its westernmost part. But in June 2016, Iraqi government forces began to take the initiative back and expelled IS from al-Fallujah.
In October, government forces, together with Shiamilis and Kurdish peshmerga and with US-backed aircraft and a number of allied countries, launched an offensive to recapture Mosul. The fighting became very fierce and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, but in July 2017, the government declared Mosul liberated. The government forces continued to push IS and took back the strategically important city of Tal Afar in August. IS domination was practically crushed and the army began the cleansing of the Jihadists’ last strongholds in the desert area along the Syrian border. In December 2017, the government declared complete victory over IS.
Reduced interest in elections
Just a few weeks later, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, bolstered by the success, announced that he was leading a new party alliance, the Seger Alliance, ahead of the May 12, 2018 elections. But voter enthusiasm had not grown: only 44.5 percent voted and The victory alliance became third. Voter turnout has dropped for every election since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2005, in the first multi-party after Saddam, 79 percent voted. In 2010, voter turnout dropped to just over 62 percent and in 2014, 60 percent voted.
Ahead of the 2018 elections, the number of seats in Parliament was increased to 329, by weighting nine mandates for ethnic minorities (one seat more than before). 83 mandates are reserved for female candidates.
After the 2018 elections, complicated government negotiations took place. The one who, in front of others, stepped out of the election was Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who used to be described as a firefighter when he led his militia against the US presence in Iraq. His alliance Sa’irun (often translated March for Reform) also surprisingly consisted of secular parties, including Iraq’s Communist Party, in addition to his own list of Istiqama. The alliance became the largest in the new parliament, borne out by a message to fight poverty and corruption. Since Sadr himself did not run for office, he could not become prime minister, on the other hand given a central role as “kingmaker”. Over the years, Sadr has also become more critical of the influence of the Shi’a regime in Iran. As soon as his election victory could be expected, it was reported that Iran was backing other parties and alliances in Iraq to make the Sadrallian negotiations on government cooperation difficult. Qasem Soleimani, general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and commander of the elite forces in the Jerusalem force, was already in place the week after the election in Baghdad to lubricate Iran’s contact network.
Lockdowns between the parties were so severe that Iraq entered 2019 without having a new government. There was also no new state budget, which among other things led to uncertainty about which regional investments in infrastructure could be promised to citizens who were tired of electricity and water shortages. Eventually, Iraq gained a new federal government, but in 2019 popular dissatisfaction increased again and the security forces’ harsh grip on protesters was questioned. The government’s position was also undermined by the balancing act of Muqtada al-Sadr, which in short can be described as acting with his party alliance both opposition and government support at the same time.
Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi submitted his and the government’s resignation application to Parliament in December 2019. This happened against the background of the street demonstrations escalating; the number of casualties during the two months during the demonstrations had passed 420. Around 20,000 people had been injured, the vast majority of protesters. Only in May 2020, after several government leaders tried but failed to gather support from the parties, did intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi replace Adil Abd al-Mahdi as head of government. The new government faces enormous challenges, not least the covid-19 pandemic, which weakens the economy and will make it even more difficult to meet the needs of the population. The World Bank has warned that Iraq is facing its most difficult year since 2003, and that the proportion of poor people could double.
As early as 2020, something that could put the US-Iran power struggle at its peak also occurred: The United States carried out a drone attack in Baghdad that killed Iranian General Soleimani, and several Iraqi Shiites, including a militia leader. Iran responded militarily, including on Iraqi soil. The incident could lead to Iran further strengthening its influence, despite the fact that there are Iraqis who oppose both Iranian and US involvement.
One perspective that many still fear is that IS should be able to use the contradictions between Iranians and Americans, and possibly the withdrawal of military forces from other countries, to once again build up some force.
New generation in Kurdistan
One of many uncertainties in Iraq is how Kurdish voters and parties act. In September 2017, the Kurdish autonomy conducted a referendum on independence, despite strong protests from the Baghdad government, which claimed that the vote was contrary to the country’s constitution. The neighboring countries of Turkey, Iran and Syria, with their own large Kurdish minorities, also objected to the Kurds’ ambitions to proclaim an independent state, which was feared to have serious consequences for the entire region. The UN Security Council called in vain for the Kurds to suspend the referendum. It was considered particularly serious that the referendum was also conducted in disputed areas that have been under Kurdish military control since 2014. Despite the threatening international noises, almost 93 percent said yes to independence.
Instead of strengthening their position through the referendum, the Kurds weakened. The Iraqi army quickly took back all the areas outside the official Kurdish autonomy that the Kurds controlled and some 100,000 civilians fled. Kurdistan was isolated from the outside world and the old conflict between rival local parties KDP and PUK flared up again. In 2018, the KDP, the PUK and the Kurdistan Communist Party still agreed on a joint election effort, but it was made more difficult by the KDP not wanting to stand in Kirkuk after the events when the Kurds were pushed back there. Kurdish lists received a total of 58 seats in the elections.
Prior to the 2018 parliamentary elections, the situation had arisen that both KDP’s and PUK’s “strong men” had long since been missing. The PUK’s Jalal Talabani, who for many years had held the federal presidential post, had died and the KDP’s Barzani, which enforced the failed Kurdistan referendum on independence, had been forced to resign. After the election, before Parliament’s vote on the next federal president – a power post weighted for a Kurd – the PUK and KDP supported various candidates. Today, a new generation is connected to the Barzani clan at the regional power posts in Kurdistan.
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FACTS – POLITICS
Jumhuriyyat al-Iraq / Republic of Iraq
republic, federal state
Head of State
President Barham Salih (2018–)
Head of government
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (2020–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
On March for Reform / Sadr 54, Conquest / ISCI 48, Victory Alliance / Abadi 42, Rule of Law / Maliki 26 (2018)
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Rule of Law 92, Blocks of the Free / Sadr 34, Citizens List / ISCI 31, Muttahidun 28, KDP 25, al-Wataniyya List 21, PUK 21 (2014)
44.5% in the 2018 parliamentary elections
2022 parliamentary elections
Saddam is executed
Saddam Hussein is executed after being convicted of crimes against humanity.
Car bombs kill over 200
More than 200 people die when car bombs explode in predominantly Shiite Muslim city of Baghdad. It is the bloodiest attack in the capital since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Resumed ties to Syria
Iraq and Syria reestablish diplomatic relations after close to a quarter of a century.
100 civilians are killed every day
The UN announces that violence in Iraq now requires an average of more than 100 civilian lives per day.
Local al-Qaeda leader is killed
Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is killed in an air raid in Baquba on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Shia Muslim al-Maliki forms government
After a lengthy stalemate, Shi’ite Muslim compromise candidate Nuri al-Maliki is commissioned to form government.
Attacks against Shiite shrine
One of the most important shrines of Shia Islam, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, is subjected to an explosion that, among other things, is destroying the gilded dome. The attack triggers a wave of violence demanding the lives of hundreds of people in clashes mainly between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.