Iraq after ISIS

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(Disponible en français : L’Iraq après l’État islamique)

In December 2017, Iraq’s government declared that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State/Da’esh) had been defeated within Iraq. At its height in 2014–2015, the so-called caliphate covered one third of the country’s territory.

Even in the midst of the military campaign to defeat ISIS, observers stressed that it was equally necessary to plan for what came after the fighting. Decades of experience have shown the international community that post-conflict peacebuilding can be derailed by persistent insecurity, governance failures, economic stagnation and societal divisions.

This note examines some of the challenges Iraq faces as the country emerges from years of conflict and instability.

This map illustrates the territorial boundaries within Iraq, as well as Iraq’s boundaries with neighbouring countries. In the map, the boundaries of the 18 governorates within Iraq are depicted together with the capital of each governorate. Other cities mentioned in this publication are also identified, namely Sinjar, Tikrit, and Fallujah. The countries surrounding Iraq are identified: Kuwait; Saudi Arabia; Jordan; Syria; Turkey; and Iran. The map also depicts the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the confluence of which is in Shatt al Arab. The Gharraf Canal also connects the two rivers.Source: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2018, using data from Natural Earth, 1:10m Cultural Vectors, Populated Places” and 1:10m Physical Vectors, “Rivers + Lakes centerlines”, version 4.1.0; and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Administrative Unit Layers (GAUL),  GeoNetwork, 2015.  The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS PRO v. 2.1.0.


During the conflict with ISIS, critical infrastructure, houses, schools, police stations and clinics were damaged or destroyed. The Iraqi government assessed that it would need more than US$88 billion to recover and rebuild.

In February 2018, Kuwait hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq. It garnered approximately US$30 billion in pledges from donors, which – analysis indicates – came mostly in the form of hoped-for investment deals, export credits and loans.

For its part, the Government of Canada announced almost $12 million in development assistance. That amount is part of the more than $260 million in humanitarian, development and stabilization assistance that Canada committed to Iraq for 2016–2019.

Humanitarian Needs

Even though the armed conflict in Iraq ended with the territorial defeat of ISIS, the country’s humanitarian needs remain acute. Moreover, remnant ISIS insurgents continue to carry out targeted attacks and assassinations.

Out of a population of 37 million people, there are an estimated 6.7 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance in Iraq.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that approximately 1.67 million people are displaced within Iraq. In November 2018, the IOM reported that the pace of return “appear[ed] to be slowing, leaving the populations who still remain behind either in, or at risk of, protracted internal displacement.”

The Legacy of Trauma

As of November 2018, the United Nations (UN) had discovered more than two hundred mass graves in Iraq. An estimated 30,000 civilians were killed between 2014 and 2017; a further 55,150 were injured. The UN cautions that these “figures should be considered an absolute minimum.” Among the victims of ISIS were members of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities, public servants, professionals, tribal and religious leaders, and female political candidates.

Iraq’s recent history of societal divisions and violence is complex and must be understood in conjunction with the security and governance challenges the country has faced since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 2003.

As Iraq looks to move forward, the state’s treatment of Iraq’s minority Sunni communities, from whence ISIS derived support, could influence whether the country enjoys stability in the longer term.

The Security Forces

In the years following its 2003 invasion of Iraq, and after having disbanded Iraq’s armed forces, the United States spent some US$25 billion to build, equip and train new Iraqi security forces.

That investment did not, however, prevent the collapse of those forces as ISIS fighters pushed through northern Iraq in 2014.

State security forces eventually regrouped and dismantled ISIS’s territorial base of operations, piece by piece. They were aided by militias and an international coalition, of which Canada is a member.

The Militias

There may be 50 militia groups active in Iraq. Most of them are Shia groups known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (or Hashd al-Shaabi). They helped to halt ISIS’s advance toward Baghdad in 2014 and were involved in battles that followed.

Then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried to bring the militias – estimated by some to comprise more than 100,000 members – into the government fold, including through a 2016 law that incorporated them as an independent formation of Iraq’s armed forces under the authority of the Prime Minister’s National Security Council.

Concerns have lingered about the militias’ loyalty to the state and the degree to which the government’s control of these groups is nominal, rather than functional. Some of the militias are affiliated with Iran. Even so, experts indicate that the militias are not a homogenous force; they have divergent allegiances and compete with one another for power and resources.

A July 2019 decree issued by Iraq’s new Prime Minister reportedly gave the Popular Mobilization Forces until the end of the month to integrate with the armed forces of the Iraqi state.

The 2018 Parliamentary Elections

Given the creeping authoritarianism, corruption and sectarianism that destabilized Iraq in the lead-up to the events of 2014, observers argue that durable peace will ultimately depend as much on governance reforms as the consolidation of security gains.

Parliamentary elections for the 329 seat Council of Representatives were held on 12 May 2018. Voter turnout – reportedly at 44.5% – was lower than in other elections held since 2003.

Jockeying related to the formation of a coalition government involved the leaders of the electoral lists that garnered the most seats in the vote:

  • Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who did not run for office himself but led the On the Move (Saairun) Alliance that won the most seats – 54 – in the election in partnership with the Iraqi Communist Party and a mix of liberal and secular groups. Sadr has seemingly transformed himself from the leader of a militia movement (known as the “Mahdi Army”) to a nationalist political figure.
  • Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Conquest (Tahalof al-Fateh) Alliance, which included representatives linked to Shia militias and won 48 seats. Ameri is the head of the Badr Organization, the political arm of a powerful Shia militia, the Badr Corps, which has long-standing ties to Iran.
  • Haider al-Abadi, since August 2014 the incumbent Prime Minister, who ran at the helm of the Victory (al-Nasr) Alliance, which was Shia-led but included Sunni candidates. It won 42 seats.

Another Shia alliance, State of Law (I’tilaf Dawlat al-Qanun), led by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister from May 2006 to August 2014, won 25 seats, while the National Wisdom Movement (Tayar al-Hikma al-Watani), led by Shia Cleric Ammar al-Hakim, won 19 seats. The secular National Coalition (I’tilaf al-Watania), led by Vice-President Ayad Allawi, won 21 seats. The two dominant Kurdish parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – won 25 and 18 seats, respectively.

Iraq’s Supreme Court ratified the electoral results on 19 August 2018.

A Season of Discontent

Political dynamics in Iraq were further complicated by protests that erupted in July 2018 in the southern part of the country, which drew attention to the central government’s inability to provide adequate services to the population.

The protests were sparked by shortages of safe drinking water and electricity in impoverished areas of the country – including the city of Basra – where the temperature can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer months.

The situation intensified in early September 2018 when protestors stormed and set fire to part of Iran’s consulate in Basra. Some Iraqi government buildings, political offices and a militia headquarters building were also ransacked and torched.

In April 2019, Basra’s provincial council voted in favour of seeking to become an autonomous region in Iraq.

Turning Point?

When juxtaposed against the political uncertainty in Baghdad, which by September 2018 was still awaiting agreement on a new government, the riots in southern Iraq created the sense of a country perched on a fragile precipice.

However, in a development that was greeted positively internationally, on 2 October 2018, Kurdish politician Barham Salih was elected by Iraq’s Parliament as the country’s President. He moved swiftly to designate an independent, Adel Abdul Mahdi, as Iraq’s next Prime Minister. The selection of the country’s former Vice President and oil minister was seen as a compromise among the rival blocs in the Parliament.

Months later, the sides had not been able to break their impasse in relation to the important posts of defence, justice and interior ministers. The parliament did, however, reach agreement on the relevant appointees at the end of June 2019.

The larger question remains: can Iraq’s political and governing elites usher in the kind of reforms that have proved elusive since 2003?

Figure 1: Religious Demography in Iraq

Figure 1 shows Iraq’s religious demography. 64 to 69 percent are Shia Muslims, 29 to 34 percent are Sunni Muslims, one percent are Christian, and one to four percent fall in another category.

Source of data:Iraq,” The World Factbook 2018, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C., 2018.
Note: There are no recent Iraqi government statistics in relation to the country’s religious and ethnic groups that are considered to be reliable and comprehensive. Another estimate, provided by the U.S. Department of State, suggests that Shia Muslims constitute 55–60% of Iraq’s population. In terms of ethnic groups, Shia Muslims are predominantly Arabs, but also include Turkmen and Faili Kurds. According to the Department of State, an estimated 24% of the country’s population is Arab Sunni Muslims, 15% Kurdish Sunni Muslims and 1% Turkmen Sunni Muslims. There may be fewer than 250,000 Christians in Iraq. Most Iraqi Christians – approximately 67% – are Chaldean Catholics, while 20% are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. There are also Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Bahai, Armenian, Kaka’i, Shabak and Jewish populations in Iraq. See: U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017.

Figure 2: Ethnic Groups in IraqFigure 2 shows ethnic groups in Iraq. 75 to 80 percent are Arab, 15 to 20 percent are Kurdish, and five percent fall in another category.

Source of data: “Iraq,” The World Factbook 2018, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, 2018.
Note: Data are based on a 1987 government estimate.

Additional Resources

Pesha Magid, “How ISIS Still Threatens Iraq,” Dispatch, Foreign Policy, 28 May 2019.

National Democratic Institute, Parliamentary Elections: A New Turning Point for Iraq, February–April 2018 Survey Findings, Public-Facing Report, 12 July 2018.

United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Human Rights, Every Day, for all Iraqis’: Promotion and Protection of Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence Captured by ISIL/or in Areas Controlled by ISIL in Iraq, 22 August 2017

Renad Mansour, Iraq After the Fall of ISIS: The Struggle for the State, Research Paper, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, July 2017.

Renad Mansour, Iraq’s 2018 Government Formation: Unpacking the Friction between Reform and the Status Quo, London School of Economics, Middle East Centre Report, February 2019.

World Bank Group, Iraq: Systematic Country Diagnostic, February 3, 2017, Report No. 112333-IQ.

Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Pantheon Books, New York, 2012.

Author: Allison Goody, Library of Parliament

Categories: International affairs and defence

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