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A History of Violence

How government dysfunction, identity politics, and regional divisions made Iraq into a tinderbox, by Andrew Reddie.

By: /
24 January, 2014
By: Andrew Reddie
Former Managing Editor,

A Sunni Muslim fighter looks at a burning police vehicle in Ramadi (Reuters)

According to, the death toll in Iraq for 2013 swelled to over 7,000 – the highest annual toll since 2007 – the year of the U.S. military’s “surge” operation to bolster security forces in Baghdad and Anbar Province to the west of the capital.  In January 2014, the long-burning dispute between the Shia majority government in Baghdad and Sunni political parties and the recent announcement of the upcoming election led to conflagrations in Fallujah and Ramadi, and fears that the stability of the post-occupation Iraq governance architecture might not endure. With Iraqi Kurds clamoring for autonomy in the North and neighbouring countries seeking to sway the country’s future according to their regional agendas, the renewal of violence is less of a surprise than a tragic confirmation of the inherent weaknesses of Iraq’s pseudo-democratic political apparatus.

The failure – on the part of the international community and Iraqi politicians – to create a positive-sum, democratic political system capable of addressing the myriad concerns of Iraq’s multiple ethnic groups became obvious almost immediately after U.S. forces relinquished political control of the country in 2005. Since then, most political and societal issues have only grown larger and more complex. Today, ominous headlines regarding Iraq focus largely on the rising body count. However, the focus on these grim statistics is misplaced; the less easily measured governance challenges – those facilitating the violence – ought to be commanding the attention of both international observers and Iraqis, especially as the country edges closer to its first post-occupation election cycle, tentatively scheduled for April 30, 2014. As the international community’s collective focus shifts once again toward an election in the Middle East, there is little chance of accurately assessing the extent to which progress has stalled (or shows signs of resuming) if we passively consume the stream of reports of attacks in and around Baghdad.

How Iraq’s leaders, politicians, and coalitions address (or fails to address) the following three governance challenges of government dysfunction, identity politics, and neighbourhood rivalries will determine the future of this nascent democracy in April, for the next five years, and beyond.

Timeline of Violence

Government Dysfunction

Iraq’s contemporary political system has faced obstacles since its inception in 2005. Simply put, Iraq is a multi-party federal parliamentary representative democratic republic. Despite the ideals included in this long title, its political processes have hitherto failed to reestablish the social contract between the population and the governed – a crucial aspect of democracy. The dysfunction in the government has three main causes: a strained relations between the executive and legislative branches of government, political gerrymandering among ethnic-political factions, and Nouri al-Maliki’s performance as prime minister.

The complicated relationship between the executive branch, comprised of Prime Minister Maliki and his Council of Ministers, and the legislative branch, composed of both the Federation Council and the Council on Representatives, has served to destabilize rather than support a democratic decision-making process. This problem is due in large part to the fact that the multi-ethnic, multi-party Council of Representatives retains the responsibility of appointing the prime minister, while no Iraqi political party or coalition in the legislature enjoys a clear majority.


The complexity of the legislative and executive processes, combined with competition among coalitions of different ethnic groups, has in part led Maliki – a Shia – to pursue policies designed to favour Shia political parties rather than broaden his secular State of Law coalition. Indeed, Maliki’s defeat of the Mahdi Army – a militia under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric opposed to Maliki’s secular coalition – with the help of U.S. troops during the “surge” operation in 2008 is now a distant memory. This development has made it increasingly unlikely that Maliki, who hopes to hold on to office, will raise issues that major Shia polities might criticize in the lead up to the 2014 elections.

While previous elections kept Maliki’s State of Law coalition in power while maintaining Maliki’s grip on a Shia-led government, they fuelled fears among rights groups that the Iraqi government is “creeping” toward a clientelist and authoritarian regime and away from the democratic ideals enshrined in the constitutional framework established in 2005.

The constitutional framework, however, has also contributed to the challenges currently facing the regime, as the messy delineation of the territories ruled from Baghdad or by the regionally autonomous Kurdish region remains a constant source of contention between Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish, and Turkman, respectively. Moreover, the definition of what constitutes a district, subdistrict, or governorate – integral variables in election processes that privilege proportional representation – remain constantly in flux, as the Constitution allows regions and governorates to combine following a petition by their representatives and a plebiscite. Meanwhile, electoral laws change from election to election. This trend has led to allegations of gerrymandering in districts that harden populist positions rather than contributing to a diverse body politic. These changes to electoral law also mean that for each political party or coalition that stands in elections, the goalposts are continually moving. In such a system, any kind of political victory for minority groups becomes a challenge. Even the compensatory seats awarded to minority groups have proved to be controversial. While the Iraqi Constitution affords minority groups representation and mandates that 25 percent of representatives be women, it does little to mitigate the fact that the demographics of the country – and the predilection of the population to vote for populist candidates – narrows minorities’ and women’s chances considerably. It should also be noted that Sunni groups have made amendments to the Constitution and condition of their continued participation in the Iraqi political process.

Current processes leave political actors from across the ideological and ethnic spectrums feeling disfranchised, resulting in increased ethnic tension. The recent history of parliamentary elections, in addition to the de-Ba’athification process that dismantled Saddam Hussein’s primarily Sunni government, has bred distrust of the current regime among ethnic minority groups, and particularly the Sunni minority, who have boycotted (and threatened to boycott) the electoral process. Fear of disfranchisement led to a broad Sunni boycott of the parliamentary election of January 2005. While Sunni political parties eventually became part of the election process in subsequent parliamentary and local elections, they continually accuse Maliki and the government in Baghdad of marginalizing and persecuting them.

The postponement of recent, local elections in the predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh amid security concerns also fuel Sunni concerns that their position is being marginalized. Iraqi security forces have been disproportionately active in Sunni enclaves of Baghdad and in Sunni provinces during recent elections. This activity has led some to fear that Maliki is tending toward authoritarianism as he seeks to maintain control over the country.

But while Baghdad suffers from the renewed sectarian violence, the security situation in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah continues to improve. Unfortunately, most successful local government processes in Iraq are largely a reflection of the fact that their populations are relatively homogeneous. Government control in towns and cities that have diverse ethnic polities remains tenuous. Like Baghdad, oil-rich Kirkuk (which includes large Kurdish, Turkmen, and Sunni enclaves) has suffered outbreaks of violence in the past year. The Kurdish historical claims to the city have raised the possibility of it joining the Kurdish autonomous region or as part of any future, independent Kurdish state.

As elections approach, Sunnis and other minorities see the Iraqi state as a vehicle of the Shia (and to a lesser extent, Kurdish) majority rather than as representative of the population as a whole. The fact that each region, governorate, and province has significant power in terms of managing security in their respective constituencies also serves to weaken the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of minorities and those living outside of Baghdad. Government dysfunction will not be remedied without an effort from Maliki to reach across party lines; and legitimacy will not improve without adjustments to electoral rules and parliamentary processes provided for in the Constitution.

An immediate remedy to the challenges facing the upcoming electoral process is to establish constitutionally mandated electoral rules that cannot shift from one election to another. To do this, it will be necessary for all political players and regions to reaffirm their commitment to the Iraqi state. The current administration under the direction of Maliki must bear the burden of this project. Maliki should also seek to broaden his secular coalition rather than rely upon the Shia majority for power. If this approach costs Maliki his government in the April election, his peaceful surrendering of power to the Iraqiyya List, or an alternative coalition, would serve as an endorsement of the democratic political process.

The April Election and Identity Politics

The Iraqi government in Baghdad recently agreed to hold a general election on April 30, 2014. As with the elections that occurred in the past, identity politics – namely the rift between Shia and Sunni parties – and populist platforms are likely to determine the extent of upheaval during the lead up to the vote, as well as the outcome. These pressures will test the strength of Iraq’s already weak governance architecture.

Ethnic and religious divisions typically sharpen as political battles grow more complex and allegations of fraud and mistrust proliferate; but in the case of Iraq, where such divisions have been drawn out and papered over numerous times. Four months from the potential election, Maliki’s recent penchant for populist politics, the rise of Sunni parties, and the renegotiation of the existing secular coalitions are combining to set the country up for a difficult election season.

Shia-led parties, including Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, which joined with the Supreme Iraqi Council to create the United Iraqi Alliance in 2005, have dominated Iraqi politics since the U.S.-led invasion of the country. However, while the Alliance has repeatedly won elections, its coalition has been shaky as the Sadrist Movement, in particular, has repeatedly split from the Shia-based political consensus and weakened Maliki’s ruling coalition.

The uncertain fate of Maliki’s government may also contribute to the government’s authoritarian tendencies. Maliki’s ability to play Sunni political parties off against each other while pandering to his Shia constituents has worked in the past. Indeed Maliki’s executive authority – first obtained in the contentious election process of 2005 without broad Sunni participation – has been and remains a serious impediment to national reconciliation, as the consociational model of governance that provided each ethnic group with discrete executive roles has not borne fruit. Some accuse it of entrenching political and ethnic divisions rather than papering over the cracks.

These complications also shaped the most recent parliamentary election. In 2010 Maliki’s State of Law Coalition won only 89 seats, while the multi-ethnic Iraqi National Movement (INM), also known as the Iraqiyya List, won 91 of 325 of seats to become the largest alliance in the assembly under the leadership of former Shia Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. With the election resulting with a plurality but no absolutely majority, Maliki managed to eventually form a coalition government with Jalal Talabani (the Kurdish leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) continuing as President and Allawi heading the newly-created security council.


Unfortunately and not surprisingly, the elections of 2010 were subject to numerous accusations of fraud. The government’s decision to accuse 499 primarily Sunni candidates of having ties to the Ba’ath Party undermined the credibility of the electoral process. The Independent High Electoral Commission decided that 456 of these candidates would not be able to stand for election, compromising the democratic legitimacy of the vote. This decision raised questions surrounding the continued appropriateness of de-Ba’athification, as it reflected the government’s determination to marginalize politicians with ties (however spurious) to a regime that lost power a decade prior.

One Sunni politician likely to remain a prominent figure as the next round of election approaches is the secular Iraqi National Movement’s (INM, or al-Iraqiyya) Tariq al-Hashimi, who previously served as vice president from 2005 to 2009 and remains a possible contender to craft a coalition that will include a majority of Sunni stakeholders.

With that said, the next few months will almost certainly lead to a re-organization of both the secular INM movement and various other prominent Sunni politicians. Specifically, the “United” bloc under the leadership of former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi has emerged as an adversary to Maliki’s ruling coalition. Meanwhile Maliki has branded al-Issawai a ‘defendant’ by accusing the United bloc of supporting and carrying out terrorist operations. Unsurprisingly, al-Issawi rejects these allegations and has risen to prominence in his native, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar. Former Agricultural Minister Izz al-Din al-Dawla has also emerged as an early leader of the al-Tariq coalition following his resignation from Maliki’s government in the aftermath of the killing of a Sunni protestor in Mosul in March 2013.

These parties do not appear to have connections with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni-supported terrorist affiliate of al-Qaeda, but there are concerns that if violence worsens as the election approaches, extremists may exploit the upheaval to expand their networks and operations. There are also fears that local Sunni militias including the Sons of Iraq, a part of the Sunni Awakening Movement, may resort to sectarian violence rather than peacekeeping in the event that violence occurs in their districts during the run-up to the election.

These issues, and various others, surround the upcoming election. As Ahmed Ali of the Institute for the Study of War points out,  the most serious political challenges in Iraq concern election law, including the question of whether to hold a single- or multi-district election. A single-district election would allow all votes cast for a particular political party in the country to contribute to that district’s overall number of seats. Such a system would benefit the Kurdish parties as they seek to account for Kurdish votes outside of Kurdistan. Meanwhile, the government-supported, multi-district election would provide seats to the Council of Representatives based on provincial voting. There is also the question of whether to use open- or closed-lists that allow the leaders of political groupings to assign votes to candidates. Controversy surrounds the issue of allocating compensatory seats to minorities. For the first time since 2005, major political parties including Maliki’s own State of Law coalition, al-Iraqiyya, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are attempting to exclude minority groups that were previously protected by the Constitution and the consociational process.


A voter in Baghdad in 2010 (Reuters)

Whether this still nascent consociational political order can continue to exist after the election has a great deal to do with cleavages between political parties representing Sunni and Shia constituents. The ideal scenario for a peaceful election would involve a broad-based consensus that the election rules are just and that their results should be respected regardless of outcome. The elections should also take place against a backdrop of a renegotiation and affirmation of the viability of the continued existence of the Iraqi state in perpetuity. Moreover, a significant victory for secular political coalitions in the elections should also strengthen moderate, rather than extremist, views. Unfortunately, even in this scenario, the underlying problems enshrined in the existing power-sharing arrangements would remain, so political order in the country would remain vulnerable.

Neighbourhood Rivalries

The vulnerability of Iraq’s political system becomes more pronounced as the election nears, as existing coalitions are likely to change and alliances to shift. As part of the electoral process, money and other forms of support will likely flood into the country from the various states outside of Iraq that view the country’s political future as integral to their own. The fact that Iraq’s internal rivalries map onto broader regional politics creates perhaps the most complex long-term challenge to the nation’s political stability and sovereignty.

The story of neighbourhood rivalries begins in Iraq itself, as Baghdad attempts to deal with the pseudo-sovereign Kurdish region. As noted briefly above, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq enjoys fairly significant regional autonomy as part of the transitional authority agreements first brokered in 2003 (specifically, the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period) and the Constitution (specifically Article 140) formalized in 2005. The struggle, most cogently explained by Peter Bartu, to implement Article 140 and finally define the final boundaries of the Iraqi territories to be administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has fueled continued tension between the Kurdish population and Baghdad. While Maliki has kept Kurds involved in the federal government and has formed coalitions with the help of having Talabani as president, Kurdish political parties have increasingly voiced concerns that they are marginalized in Baghdad.

Ironically, compared to the complicated governance arrangement in Baghdad, the Kurdish autonomous region enjoys a relatively simple parliamentary democracy via its 111-seat Kurdistan National Assembly – the Kurdistani List and Gorran List serve as the two major political alliances – representing its population of 5.5 million of three governorates. Current President Massoud Barzani, first elected in 2005, was relected in 2009 with 70 percent of the vote. 

During the most recent term, however, there have been significant tensions between Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government and Maliki’s Iraqi government, primarily surrounding issues of territorial control, power sharing, and oil production. The control of significant portions of Kirkuk, Diyala, Naniwa, and Sulaimanya has served as a constant source of tension between Barzani and Maliki. In April 2012, Barzani threatened to have Iraqi Kurdistan secede from Iraq. In response, the Iraqi government formed a new command center (Tigris Operation Command) to operate in the disputed areas. In these areas, there have been continued clashes between the Peshmerga (the Kurdish military force), which  previously backed the U.S.-led invasion, and Iraqi forces. These territorial conflicts also take place against a backdrop of continued debate between the KRG and Baghdad concerning Iraqi sovereignty and the continued process of decentralization that the KRG views as fundamental to the continued viability of an Iraqi state. These arguments have frayed relations between the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan and the ruling National Iraqi Alliance in Baghdad.


Kurdish Peshmerga tanks on the outskirts of Kirkuk during a 2012 standoff with the Iraqi army (Reuters)

With regard to oil, Iraqi Kurdistan has recently signed an agreement with Turkey to build a pipeline that will run independently of the Baghdad-controlled pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey. This agreement would allow for increased revenues from oil production while effectively cutting Baghdad out of the price negotiating process and securing the KRG a budget separate from that entailed in the revenue-sharing agreement that was part of the Constitution of 2005. Ankara previously enjoyed close relations with Baghdad but has evidently chosen to prioritize its increasing reliance on oil for energy, entering into a separate agreement for Kurdish wells capable of providing upwards of 2 million barrels per day across the border. This agreement also follows repeated freezes in Kurdish oil exports after disagreements over payments between Baghdad and the KRG.

The agreements with Turkey are changing, albeit incrementally, the way in which Ankara views the Kurdish region and the possibility of the region’s expansion into Turkish territory. This is a notable development, given Turkey’s long-term struggle with the separatist Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK). The softening in relations between the two sides in the conflict, as well as Turkey’s apparent support for Sunni groups in Iraq, is weakening Baghdad’s position in the region.

In contrast, Iran, another neighbouring state affected by Kurdish autonomy and concerned about its own Kurdish diaspora, has supported Maliki’s efforts to contain the Kurds. Significant intra-Kurdish disagreement concerning how to support its ethnic brethren in neighbouring states such as Syria, Turkey, and Iran is compounded by debate over whether Kurdish Iraq can and should begin to act like a state rather than as a nation. With significant Turkmen and Sunni minorities in Kurdish Iraq, the fate of the Kurds and Kurdish autonomy remains uncertain, while the province is a drain on the limited resources and political capital of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government is being pulled in many directions internally and externally, and not just by the Kurds. Indeed, the Iraqi political situation is often viewed as a microcosm of the Middle East, in general. The country straddles the two major branches of Islam, rendering it vulnerable to foreign policy shifts in neighbouring states that are more homogenous. Funding for the recent spate of sectarian violence noted in the introductory paragraphs has been traced to donors from as far afield as Pakistan, as well as the usual suspects of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

The civil war in Syria has been difficult for the government in Baghdad (and to a lesser extent, Erbil). Aside from the obvious problem of refugees flooding across the border, Iraq has served as a conduit for funds, weapons, and fighters for both sides of the Syrian conflict. During a recent trip to Washington, Maliki warned U.S. policymakers that al-Qaeda affiliates  performing operations in Syria (including Jabhat al-Nusra) were linked to the recently renamed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Maliki asked the US to provide weapons and munitions to help the government confront the threat of terrorism and the rise of sectarian violence that the government in Baghdad claims is tied to the civil war in Syria. Whether the sectarian violence is, in fact, an external force on the country rather than a function of domestic frustration at the lack of political representation, dearth of economic development, and evidence of corruption among political elites is debatable.


As the elections in Iraq draw near, political stakeholders in Iraq and throughout the country face considerable challenges. Externally, the large number of neighbouring states that maintain an interest in the outcome of Iraq’s governance processes complicate a troubled domestic political process. Internally, the convoluted governance processes that sought to open up the government to democratic rule and proportional representation remain in serious danger of being overtaken by the forces of populism. Moreover, the political interests behind the various interpretations of election law make delays to the process likely – especially given the tardy announcement of the election itself – and may yield yet more violence in the coming months.

The challenges posed by government dysfunction, identity politics and developments in the region have exacerbated the already substantial risks of ethnic civil war and the division of Iraq making it increasingly unlikely – at the time of writing – that Iraq will solidify the democratic processes established in 2005. To mitigate these obstacles, the international community must remain focused on addressing the political challenges facing Iraq even as their attention wanders to other pressing international challenges in Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. Multi-state dialogue with the current government – through the existing UN mission, regional organizations, and bilateral conversations – concerning the organization of the April election, a push for a long-term agreement concerning the administration of autonomous regions in the country, serious conversations concerning term limits, and robust election monitoring regime are essential to mitigating just a few of the substantial risks facing Baghdad and its still relatively young regime.

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