Is structural political change possible in Iraq?

Is structural political change possible in Iraq?

The demonstrations in Iraq have now been ongoing for four weeks, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured, with no solution in sight.



It is impossible to truly understand what is happening in Iraq today without taking into account some important background information about the country and its ethnic/sectarian groups.

Iraqi society is extremely complex, it is composed of a broad variety of ethnic and religious groups which are themselves divided further into tribal factions. Loyalty often comes first to the tribe and then to one’s religious sect and only to the nation in the last instance, while allegiance to a political perspective ranks somewhere in the middle.

Due to the difficulty of the situation which has developed in Iraq over the past couple decades, there are no exact statistics to rely on. However, looking at older statistics, we can estimate that Iraq is composed of some 33 million citizens, 75 – 80% of which are Arab. The next largest group is the Kurds who make up about 15 – 20% of the population, while the Turkmen and Ashouri ethnic groups make up the remaining 5%.


Somewhere between 60 – 65% of Iraqi people are followers of Shia Islam while 30 – 35%  are Sunni– less than 5% are Christian or Izadi. One of the reasons the country’s composition is so complex is that the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen are themselves divided into Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Izadis.

The only group which is relatively homogenous is the Iraqi Ashouris, who are almost all Christian.


Many Jews used to live in Iraq but most had fled to Israel, with only a small number predicted to have returned after the fall of Saddam Hussein, although there are no statistics available to confirm the specifics.

The Shiites mainly live in the central, southern and eastern parts of Iraq while the majority of Sunnis live in the western and north-west of the capital Baghdad, with the Kurds predominantly occupying the north-east.



The British Ruled Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman empire, eventually granting independence to the Iraqi kingdom in 1932.

In 1958, the kingdom collapsed and a republic was established. In 1968, the Baath Socialist party began to rule the country as a one-party State until 2003 when the country was invaded by the US and the government deposed.



In 2005, a multi-party parliamentary system was established wherein Parliamentary seats were distributed among different ethnic and religious sects. The presidency went to the Kurds, the prime minister’s position went to the Shiites and the speaker of the parliament was given to Sunnis.

Despite that Shiites make up the majority of the population, the Sunnis have historically dominated the country politically due to the support of neighboring Sunni nations.

Moreover, as a result of the rise of Arab nationalist movements after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds, Turkmen and Ashuris have always faced discrimination from the central government.

Even though the Baath government system was based in Arab Nationalism, Shiites still faced discrimination during Saddam Hussain’s rule. Hussain’s government did not allow them in high ranking positions in the government, army or security services.

This is part of the reason that both the Shiites and Kurds believed that an ethno-sectarian political system might provide stability and protection.

The Sunni community, on the other hand, was angry about losing the dominance it had held over the country for centuries.

Moreover, in 2003, Paul Bremer was appointed by American President George Bush as chief executive. He implemented an expunction law which dismissed hundreds of thousands of government and military employees (the majority of them Sunnis) from their jobs due to their connection with the previous regime; another two million were forced to retire or left without work altogether.

The military government formed by the Americans in Iraq set a basis of corruption in this country which was designed to allow the invaders to steal the country’s resources.

The situation created social precedent for rebellions all over the country, the first of which took place in the Sunni Areas of northern and western Iraq.

ISIS was able to find a lot of trained ex-army fighters and people who were angry about the situation to recruit for their struggle against the US.

The Shiites who are in control the wealthiest areas of Iraq agreed to send their young men to fight ISIS, subjecting them to a horrible economic situation where most resources were allocated to support the war effort, mainly going toward buying weapons from the US.

After ISIS collapsed, the Kurds felt that it was time to seek independence, at which point the Iraqi government was faced with rebellion in the Kurdish Areas.

After the Kurdish Crisis was quelled, the country began to experience a new crisis from the Shiite side.

Shiites control most of the wealthiest areas of Iraq, yet, their conditions compared to the Sunni or Kurdish provinces are far worse.

Aside from the corruption, over the past fifteen years the Iraqi government has spent most of the income gathered from the Shiite provinces on the Sunni and Kurdish provinces in order to keep these groups from rebelling. This has created widespread dissatisfaction among the Shiites.

The situation also opened space for foreign interference in the Iraqi domestic debates: the US and its allies are attempting to fight a proxy battle with Iran and its allies in the streets of Iraq.



If we want to thoroughly talk about political parties in Iraq we would need a far more extensive article. However, we can roughly summarize the groups into these categories:

Kurdish groups:

The Kurds are divided into three main formations:

1 – The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

2 – The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – headed by Kosrat Rasul Ali after the Death of Jalal Talebani and based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. This group split off from the KDP.

3 –   The Gorran Movement (the name comes from a Kurdish word, and is not to be confused with the Quran), led by Omar Said Ali and established by Nowshirwan Mustafa in Sulaymaniyah (the party formed from a split in the PUK).

4 – The Kurdish Islamic Union led by Salaheldin Bahaeedin, based in Erbil and affiliated with the international Muslim Brotherhood movement.

5 – Kurdistan Islamic Groups such as the Union of Salafi and Sufi Kurdish Islamic movements and their affiliated political parties.

Sunni political groups:

The largest Sunni political group is the Iraqi Islamic Party.

The Sunni community in Iraq lacks strong political parties, the main political players are the tribes.

Even though tribalism is widely spread across Iraq, in the Shiite and Kurdish provinces the political parties have mostly grown past their tribal roots.

Shiite political groups:

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, most of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish political parties were opposition groups and faced heavy suppression.

Compared to the Sunnis who lack political organization in Iraq, the Shiites have a variety of political formations vying with one another for power.

Many of the leaders of these groups used to live abroad, usually in Iran and Syria: this is why the majority of them still have good relations with Iran.

However, this does not mean that all of them are close to Tehran. It is increasingly common for Americans to form relations with Shiite groups to oppose Iran and other Shiites in order to weaken Iranian influence in Iraq.

Moreover, we find that some of these Shiite political groups which had long been allies are now fighting each other in the streets for a bigger share of power.

The most prominent Shiite rivals in Iraq are:

  • The Sadrist movement led by Moghtada Al-Sadr, which is connected to a large non-sectarian protest movement. The coalition derives power and legitimacy from its ability to assemble demonstrations and protests.
  • The right-wing Dawa faction led by Nouri Al-Maliki. The faction’s power and legitimacy come from its role in fighting ISIS since 2014 through paramilitary groups and militias. It has close relations with Iran. Maliki was once a popular public figure, and deriving strength from his hard-line approach to targeting opponents.
  • The Nasr coalition, led by current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. The coalition derives power and legitimacy from the fight against ISIS. Al-Abadi has had a lot of success in improving key ministries and gaining support from allies beyond Tehran in the fight against ISIS.
  • The National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar Al-Hakim, who is also the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi council.
  • The Islamic Dawa Party – an Iraq Organization lead by Kasim Muhammad Taqi Al-Sahlani.


These four groups represent the mainstream of Shia politics in Iraq. Together they were able to win а majority of seats in Parliament during the 2018 election.

However, there are many other Shiite groups who are also powerful on the ground. Groups such as Al-Hashd Alshabi or The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the People’s Mobilization Committee (PMC) and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are good examples.

Another group was formed around top Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani’s non-sectarian[ fatwa “Sufficiency Jihad” on 13 June 2014. The fatwa called for defense of Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad, and to participate in the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, following the Fall of Mosul on 10 June 2014. The forces brought together a number of Shiite militias, most of which received direct support from Iran, along with a small number of Sunni tribesmen.

The original seven militias (Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, and Kata’ib Jund al-Imam) are considered Shiite political groups.

It is increasingly clear that the mainstream formations are going to face significant challenges in the streets. While the Shiite groups which are opposed to Iran are far smaller and have much less influence, they nonetheless have managed to challenge to political mainstream from time to time.

The most important groups whose leadership claim to be the Mahdi of the Shiites are:

1 – Heidar Moshatet, which exists mainly in cities of Baghdad and Al-Emarah.

2 – Ansar Al-Mahdi, which exists mainly in city of Al-Basra

3 – Jond Alsamaa, which exist mainly in the city of Hella.

4 – Mouteoun, which mainly exists in Diali province.

5 – Momahadoon, which spread in the provinces of Euphrates and Baghdad.

6 – Mokhtar.

7 – Rowat AL Hadith, which spread in center of Euphrates and the southern Iraq provinces.

8 – Ashab Alghazieh, a group which has two major branches. The most important of the two is the Rouhallah branch which believes that Imam Khomeini (the establisher of Islamic Republic in Iran) was secretly the awaited Mehdi of the Shiites and that he did not die but is hiding and will return.

The other branch is the Nabaa Aazam Branch who considers Moghtada Al-Sadr to be the awaited Imam Mahdi of the Shiites.

Most of the followers of this branch live in Amara province.

9 – Sorkhi, which are spread all around Shiite provinces in Iraq and are suspected in the arson of the Iranian consulate in Karbala couple of weeks ago.

10 – Molavieh, which has spread in Diwaniyah, Basra, Amara and the southern provinces of Iraq.



In 2018, parliamentary elections took place in Iraq in which pro-Iran groups were able to win a majority in parliament, but did not win enough seats to form a government on their own.

The only person almost all of the political groups were ready to agree to run the government was Adel Abd Al-Mahdi, a man with a clean reputation among the Shiites.

Abd Al-Mahdi’s first goal was to fight corruption which led to enmity among the political parties who are using the corrupt system to fuel their careers.

He is deeply detested by the US for a variety of reasons:

  • Refusing to adhere to sanctions against Iran.
  • Negotiating with Russia to buy S300 and S400 and other defense weapons.
  • Interfering in solving the debate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Trying to rebuild broken Arab national power by bringing Egypt, Jordan and Syria together.
  • Visiting China and signing a $200 billion contract with Beijing. Notice that the recent demonstrations began exactly when he came back from China and a day before he was to visit Tehran to deliver a message from King Salman to the Iranians.
  • Condemning Israel on attacks against Hashd Al Shaabi military base in Iraq and threatening to respond.
  • Trying to build up relations between Iraq, Russia and Iran, while working with Russia to weaken American influence in Iraq based on the strategy developed in Syria.



While both the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon started approximately at the same time and the demands of the demonstrations were similar, the only commonality between the two is the influence of the US.


The ethno-sectarian system of Iraq has fuelled a system of sectarian-based patronage and corruption with control over public sector positions and resources.

Lebanon’s financial crisis has resulted in the oligarchy losing much of its power, while in Iraq the main problem is the massive amount of wealth which is squandered due to corruption.

No one has been killed in Lebanon, while in Iraq hundreds are now dead.

While varied groups of people joined the demonstrations in Lebanon finding common demands, in Iraq, only the Shiite areas of the country are in upheaval.

Although the Shiites form the majority of the Iraqi population, the demand of the demonstrators to bring down the ethno-sectarian based political system cannot be accomplished, as Sunni and Kurdish communities would feel threatened.

In both countries the sectarian political system is the result of popular dissatisfaction, but in Lebanon, the younger generation has begun to reject the sectarian political system while in Iraq there is no satisfactory replacement possible for the current political system.

In Lebanon it is possible we will see the resignation of the prime minister and the implementation of a new political system… in Iraq, however, this would be impossible, as the Kurds and Sunnis would likely choose complete separation rather than subjugation to the Shiite majority.

Emad Abshenass
Journalist, writer and Political Science professor (Iran)

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June 2024