Current Situation in Iraq

Iraq is managing to stay in one piece in spite of devastating odds

Political divisions in combination with high unemployment and devastating wars have made Iraq one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East. The federal government in the capital city, Baghdad, is now dominated by the Shiite Arab majority, and Sunni Arabs, who formed the backbone of Saddam Hussein’s regime, feel marginalized.

Iraq’s Kurdish minority has its own government and security forces. The Kurds are at odds with the central government over the division of oil profits and the final status of mixed Arab-Kurdish territories.

There is still no consensus on what a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq should look like. Most Kurds support independence, joined by some Sunnis who want autonomy from the Shiite-led central government. Many Shiite politicians living in oil-rich provinces could also live without the interference from Baghdad. On the other side of the debate are the nationalists, both Sunni and Shiite, who advocate a unified Iraq with a strong central government.

The potential for economic development is huge, but violence remains endemic and many Iraqis fear continued acts of terrorism by jihadist groups.

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Iraq and the Islamic State

A member the US forces walking past a drone in the Ain al-Asad airbase

AYMAN HENNA / Getty Images

Most of the territory in Iraq once controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been recaptured. ISIL, which grew out of al-Qaeda after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, was formed by Sunni militants. The group proclaimed the desire to form a caliphate in Iraq and then resorted to unspeakable violence and horror to achieve its goal.

Multinational military operations against the terrorist group intensified in 2017–2018, displacing at least 3.2 million Iraqis, over 1 million from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed that Iraqi and allied forces have driven ISIL out of the country once and for all.

On Jan. 5, 2020, in response to ongoing disruption in the region, the U.S.-led international coalition announced it was suspending its ISIL fight to concentrate on security for its bases. Approximately 5,200 American soldiers are still based in Iraq.

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Federal and Regional Governments

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi addressing the media
Iraqi's current Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Michele Tantussi / Getty Images 

Until 2018, the federal government of Iraq was headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who kept the country together through wars and financial crises. The federal government is a coalition of Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, and other leaders. Abadi, a Shiite, emerged as a strong leader for Iraq with historically high levels of Sunni support for his nationalist, anti-sectarian stance.

The current prime minister of Iraq is Adil Abdul-Mahdi al-Muntafiki, who took office in October 2018. Beginning in October of 2019, mass anti-government protests took place in many cities in Iraq, protesting in part Iran's influence in the country and largely supported by the clerics. Although mass killings of protesters as seen in Iran have not occurred, more than 500 protesters have been killed and 19,000 wounded. In November and in response to the protests, Abdul-Mahdi was dismissed as prime minister but remains in a caretaker role. 

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), based in Erbil in northern Iraq and led by the duly-elected Nechirvan Novan Barzani since June 2019 participates in the federal state institutions in Baghdad, but the Kurdish area is considered a semi-autonomous region. There are major differences within the KRG between the two major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Kurds voted for an independent Kurdistan in 2017, but Baghdad considered the referendum illegal, and Iraq's federal Supreme Court ruled that no Iraqi province was allowed to secede.

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Iraqi Opposition

Iraqi followers of Moqtada al-Sadr protesting
Iraqi followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are a part of the al-Sadr movement.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / Getty Images

In and out of government for over a decade, the group led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is called al-Sadr Movement. This Islamist group appeals to low-income Shiites with a network of charities. Its armed wing has fought against the government forces, rival Shiite groups, and Sunni militias.

Traditional community leaders in Sunni areas have been at the center of opposition to the Shiite-led government and have backed the efforts to counter the influence of extremists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The London-based Foreign Relations Bureau of Iraq is an opposition group comprised of Iraqi diaspora as well as in-country Iraqis. The group, which came into existence in 2014, consists of a large number of intellectuals, analysts, and former Iraqi politicians who advocate for women’s rights, equality, Iraqi independence from foreign control, and a nonsectarian approach to governance.

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U.S. / Iran Conflict in Baghdad

Iranians marching in the streets of Ahvaz
Iranians marching in homage of top general Qasem Soleimani.


On Jan. 3, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the drone-strike assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi military leader Abut Mahdi al-Muhandis and eight others at the Baghdad airport. Secret diplomatic conversations through intermediaries resulted in a limited retaliation on the part of the Iranis, but 16 missiles were fired at Iraqi bases housing American and Iraqi troops. No one was hurt at the bases, but in the confusion, a Ukrainian civilian passenger jet was destroyed by one of the missiles, killing 176 people.

Protests, which had ceased after Soleimani's assassination, started again on Jan. 11, this time rejecting both Iran and the United States. Answering a nonbinding parliamentary vote led by Iraq's Shiite Muslim political blocs, acting Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called for the 5,200 American troops in Iraq to withdraw from the country. President Trump and the State Department have rejected that option, instead threatening sanctions against Iraq. Those threats have abated, but the region remains uneasy and the future uncertain.


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Manfreda, Primoz. "Current Situation in Iraq." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Manfreda, Primoz. (2021, February 16). Current Situation in Iraq. Retrieved from Manfreda, Primoz. "Current Situation in Iraq." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 11, 2021).