Iraq (officially known as the Republic of Iraq) is a Federal parliamentary republic located in the central part of the Middle East. Iraq bordered by countries such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Syria, has an area of approximately 438,317 Square Kilometers, and a population of around 40 Million. Iraq plays a major role in Middle Eastern politics due to its unstable nature, strategic location between two of the regions most stable countries, and a history defined by violent authoritarianism and colonialism.
The history of Iraq can be traced back to the 24th Century BCE, with the establishment of the Akkadian Empire in present-day Iraq. The Akkadian Empire lasted until 2150 BCE when it was replaced by the Assyrian Empire, which remained in power until 627 BCE. After the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire came to power. The rule of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was ultimately short-lived, as the area comprising present-day Iraq was conquered by the Persian (present-day Iran) Shah Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE and soon became an integral part of the Persian Empire for the next few centuries. Iraq was conquered by the Arabs in 634 CE and its city of Baghdad became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate by the 8th Century CE. Iraq soon became the primary cultural center of the Muslim world during the “Islamic Golden Age.” The Iranians re-established control over Iraq by the 11th Century and Iraq remained as part of present-day Iran until 1831, when the Ottoman Empire gained control over the area after lengthy conflicts with both the Safavid and Qajar Iranian monarchies.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the UK acquired a mandate over Iraq and sought to remake Iraq into an image that would suit their plans for global domination. The British government installed into power a Sunni monarch, Faisal ibn Husayn (despite the fact that Iraq is majority Shi’a) and worked to suppress the nationalist sentiments of groups within Iraq such as the Kurds and Assyrian Christians. These parameters would continue until the 1958 Revolution that established the Republic of Iraq. The UK ultimately granted Iraq independence in 1938, but the country still relied on British support and was considered to be a “vassal state” of the declining British Empire.
The monarchy was overthrown in the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 by Abd al-Karīm Qāsim and Abdul Salam Arif. Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party assumed power after the July 1968 Iraqi Revolution and soon sought to remake Iraq into their own image. Even though Saddam Hussein implemented a series of progressive social programs, improved women’s rights, and nationalized Iraq’s oil production in 1972, he had a reputation as a brutal dictator who allowed little opposition to his rule. For example, Saddam Hussein was known for committing human rights abuses against both the Shi’a Muslims and Kurds of Iraq (ranging from torture to mass executions), allowed only Sunni Muslims into positions of power, and implemented an apartheid system meant to separate Shi’a Muslims from the rest of Iraqi society. After the successful conclusion of the Iranian Revolution in early 1979, Saddam set his sites on Iran, which he felt was in a vulnerable position due to the recent Revolution and purges by the government of Ayatollah Khomeini against former members of the Shah’s military force. Iraq launched a war against Iran in June of 1979 with the goal of overthrowing the Khomeini government from power and annexing the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which is home to a large population of Iranian Arabs who identify as Sunni Muslim. Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was backed by countries such as the US, Soviet Union, UK, France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the Iranians were able to hold the border for over nine years. During the war, Iraq (with US and Israeli help) developed a chemical weapons program and used these weapons numerous times over the course of the war, on both Iranian soldiers and civilians, as well as the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Ultimately, Iran was able to turn back the Iraqi invasion and won a pyrrhic (costly) victory.
The current Iraqi constitution was adopted on 15 October 2005. The constitution stipulates that Iraq is a democratic, federal parliamentary Islamic republic. The federal government is composed of three branches, the executive, legislative, and judiciary, as well as numerous independent commissions. Aside from the federal government, there are regions (made of one or more governorates), governorates, and districts within Iraq with jurisdiction over various matters as defined by law. The executive branch of Iraq consists of the Presidency Council and the Council of Ministers. The president is the head of state, protecting the constitution and representing the sovereignty and unity of the state, while the prime minister is the direct executive authority and commander in chief. The president and vice presidents are elected by the Council of Representatives. The prime minister is nominated by the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives. Upon designation, the prime minister names the members of his cabinet, the Council of Ministers, which is then approved by the Council of Representatives. The executive branch serves a four-year term concurrent with that of the Council of Representatives. The current President of Iraq is Fuad Masum, who assumed office on July 24, 2014, and the current Iraqi Prime Minister is Haider al-Abadi, who came to power on September 8, 2014.
The Council of Representatives is the main elected body of Iraq. The Constitution defines the “number of members at a ratio of one representative per 100,000 Iraqi persons representing the entire Iraqi people.” The members are elected for terms of 4 years. The council elects the President of Iraq; approves the appointment of the members of the Federal Court of Cassation, the Chief Public Prosecutor, and the President of Judicial Oversight Commission on proposal by the Higher Juridical Council; and approves the appointment of the Army Chief of Staff, his assistants and those of the rank of division commanders and above, and the director of the intelligence service, on proposal by the Cabinet.
The judicial system of Iraq consists of three levels, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, and the Central Criminal Court. The Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of laws and regulations, acts as a final court of appeals, settles disputes between the federal government and the regions and governorates, municipalities, and local administrations, and settles accusations directed against the President, the Prime Minister and the Ministers. The Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal is a special court established to try Iraqi nationals or residents accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or other serious crimes committed during the 35-year rule of Saddam Hussien (1968-2003). The Central Criminal Court is the main criminal court of Iraq and is based on an inquisitorial system and consists of two chambers: an investigative court, and a criminal court. The Iraqi judiciary is supervised by the Higher Judicial Council, which nominates the Chief Justice, Justice of the Judiciary Oversight Commission, and drafts the budget of the judiciary.
Iraq has a mixed record regarding human rights and is widely considered by international observers to be an unstable democracy. Since 2003, Iraq has made some progress in developing a democratic political system for the first time since the late 1960s. Iraq has had seven competitive elections over the past 13 years that resulted in a variety of different political parties coming into power. Additionally, civil society organizations have grown in number since the 2003 US-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power and are viewed as essential aspects of political participation by a majority of the population of Iraq. Despite some progress over the past few years, Iraq continues to remain a highly unstable country in terms of politics. The Iraqi Consitution includes no provisions establishing a system of checks and balances between the branches of government and high levels of political corruption have plagued the Iraqi government in recent years. These problems are further compounded by the lack of strong formal governmental institutions meant to promote political stability. Arbitrary arrests and torture are a common occurrence in Iraq, though the human rights situation has improved overall when compared to when Saddam Hussein was in power. As a result of these challenges, protests have emerged in Iraq in 2011 and 2015 due to the fact that the citizens are increasingly growing tired of weak governmental institutions and the failure of the government to develop credible solutions to the problems facing Iraq such as the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS and the poor economic situation facing the country.
In terms of demographics, Iraq is estimated to be ~99% Muslim. Approximately 51-65% of Iraqi Muslims are Shi’a, whereas 35-46% are Sunni. Iraq is home to the cities of Karbala and Najaf, which are the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam. Najaf is the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib (the first Shi’a Imam), and Karbala is the site of the tomb of the grandson of Muhammad and Shi’a Imam, Husayn ibn Ali. Najaf is also a center of world renown Shi’a seminaries and schools. A majority of Iraqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians and members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Despite numbering as high as 16 million as late as 1987, the Iraqi Christian population has declined to 450,000 as of 2013. Some of the factors contributing to the decline of the Iraqi Christian population include the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, political instability, and lack of economic opportunities. A majority of Iraqi Christians over the past three decades have migrated to countries such as Iran, the US, UK, and Canada to flee oppression and find a better life. Other religious groups in Iraq include Yazidism, Zoroastrianism, Mandaeism, and several indigenous religious groups. A majority of the population of Iraq (~80%) identifies as Arab and Arabic, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani are the official languages of the country. Iraq has a literacy rate of 79.7% (85.7% for men and 73.7% for women).
Iraq has a GDP of $660 billion (2017 estimates), a Human Development Index Score of 0.649 and a GINI Score of 30.9. The economy of Iraq is primarily serviced-based (54.6%) and industry and agriculture make up 40.6% and 4.8% of the economy respectively. The unemployment rate of Iraq is ~16% and the GDP per capita is $17,000. The economy of Iraq continues to remain stagnant due to political instability, lack of foreign investment, and inefficiencies resulting from excessive governmental intervention in the Iraqi economy.
Iraq has a complex role in terms of international politics. Previously considered a “pariah state” during the rule of Saddam Hussien, Iraq is working to rebuild its reputation in the eyes of the international community. Iraq is a member of a number of international organizations such as the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations and has diplomatic relations with a majority of countries. Historically, Iraq and Iran had a very tense relationship due to the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War, religious differences, and differing visions for their respective roles in the greater Middle East. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussien however, Iraq and Iran have expanded their diplomatic ties and now consider each other to be allies. Additionally, Iraq is seeking to develop constructive ties with countries such as the US (despite their open conflict in the past), Russia, Brazil, India, and Jordan. On the other hand, Iraq views Saudi Arabia as its main regional opponent, criticising the Saudi government for their discrimination against Shi’a Muslims and noting that the Saudi government has played a major role in the growth and spread of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda and destructive ideologies such as Wahhabi Islam.
In conclusion, Iraq continues to remain arguably one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East some 15 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussien and his authoritarian regime. Some of the main issues preventing Iraq to emerge as a strong country include the lack of formal governmental institutions, the continued existence of violent extremist groups, weak economic prospects, and the legacies of authoritarianism and colonialism.