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Iraq’s contemporary history is replete with both secular and Islamist political currents. Shia and Sunni Islamist movements formed in Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s secular nationalist Ba’athist regime, and as part of the political Islam movement sweeping the larger region. Most of these Islamist parties existed in exile or in hiding for much of 1980s and 1990s, and emerged in Iraq only after the fall of Saddam in 2003. Since that time, both Sunni and Shia Islamist parties have played an important role in Iraq’s political system. Although the 2010 parliamentary election saw the rise of secular political coalitions, rising sectarianism gave new life to Islamist currents. An extreme example was the Islamic State, which took Iraqi towns and cities in early 2014; another is the presence of certain Shia paramilitary groups within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an umbrella armed organization formed as a response to the Islamic State. 

Sunni and Shia Islamist militant groups active in Iraq continue to fuel sectarian violence. In 2015, the Iraqi Security Forces, supported by the PMUs, began re-taking territory from the Islamic State, which at its peak occupied one-third of the country. By the end of 2017, Iraqi forces had retaken most of its lost territory, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. The question of Shia militant groups, however, remains; some have sought a more prominent political role in Iraqi society, yet remain unwilling to integrate into the state apparatus. As Iraq’s nascent democratic system evolves, secular and Islamist forces will continue to vie for influence and power.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Islamist Activity: 

Islamist activity in Iraq today takes three distinct forms based on ethno-sectarian lines. Given that the Shia population of Iraq is significantly larger than that of Iraq’s Sunnis, there exists a wider array of Shia militant groups, ranging from sectarian to nationalist orientations. However, Salafi-jihadi Sunni groups, such as the Islamic State, pose a significant threat to the Iraq state. Additionally, among the country’s Kurdish population, Islamic activity exists but is relatively minimal. 

Shia Groups
The main Shia political factions in Iraq since 2003 have been the Islamic Dawa Party (Ḥizb al-Daʿwa al-Islamiyya), the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri ), and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI (al-Majlis al-A’ala al-Islami al-Iraqi). Both Dawa and ISCI have recently suffered ruptures. Ammar al-Hakim, who previously led ISCI, split from the group in the summer of 2017 to form the National Wisdom Trend (tayar al-hikmat al-watani). Ahead of the 2018 elections, Abadi decided to form a new electoral list, the Victory Alliance (Tahaluf al-Nasr) to compete against his Dawa compatriot Nouri al-Maliki, who headed the State of Law Coalition (Itilaf Dawlat al-Qanun). The main Shia military factions fall under the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs (al-hashd al-shaabi), including the Badr Organization, Asaib ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and others. Many of these paramilitaries have their own political identities. In early 2018, the PMU leadership formed an electoral list named the Conquest Alliance (Tahaluf al-Fatah), which spanned beyond the PMU and includes non-armed Shia Islamists groups such as ISCI.  Smaller Islamist groups include the National Reform Trend (led by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari) and the Fadhila (Islamic Virtue) Party.

The Islamic Dawa Party

The Dawa Party is the oldest Shia Islamist party in Iraq.1 It emerged in the late 1950s in response to the spread of socialist and communist movements in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a distinguished Shia scholar, is widely credited as Dawa’s founder.2 Dawa emphasized the promotion of Islamic values and ethics and believed the right to govern was distinct from the juridical function of religious authorities. It believed that both should be subsumed under constitutional mechanisms.3 

In the 1980s, Sadr split from Dawa due to tensions with the Shia seminary (hawza) in Najaf. Dawa remained the leading Shia Islamist opposition party of the 1970s and 1980s, and therefore suffered fierce persecution from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. During this time, its members remained active and hid in either Iraq or exile. The main exiled Dawa branches existed in Iran, Syria, and the United Kingdom. 

Following the 2003 Iraq war and the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Dawa emerged as one of the main Shia political groups in Iraq. The CPA was a transitional government for Iraq that lasted from March 2003 to April 2004. Since the handover of power, all of Iraq’s Prime Ministers have been members of Dawa, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014). 

Initially, Maliki was selected in 2006 as a compromise candidate because of his reputation for weakness. Until 2008, he relied heavily on other Shia factions, such as ISCI and the Sadrists, for political support. However, with U.S. support in the form of a surge of military personnel, he was able to launch a political and military campaign against both Sunni (AQI) and Shia (the Sadrist Trend’s Jaysh al-Mahdi, or JAM) militant groups, thus solidifying his leadership and the political supremacy of Dawa. Maliki then formed the State of Law Coalition (Dawlat al-Qanoon), which has remained the umbrella organization for Dawa. Maliki became the single most powerful political actor in Iraq during his second term as premier (2010-2014), when he centralized power and weakened Sunni and Shia political opponents.4

The emergence of the Islamic State, however, caused Maliki to step down and allow another compromise candidate, Haider al-Abadi, to emerge and assume the premiership. Although they come from the same party, Abadi and Maliki are political rivals. As a result of this schism, and despite continuing to be the strongest party, Dawa has split into two factions. In the 2018 elections, these two groups ran in two separate lists, costing them the victory. Abadi’s Nasr won 42 seats (out of 329) and Maliki’s State of Law won 25 seats.5

The Sadrist Trend

The Sadrist Trend is a nationalist religious movement founded by Shia cleric Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr (the son of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr) in the 1990s. Across southern Iraq and in Baghdad, the movement gained widespread support from poor Shia communities that were drawn to its emphasis on economic and social relief, along with its focus on traditional Islamic law and customs.6 The Sadrists believe that religious leaders should take an active role in political and social affairs. This position aligns the group with the current Iranian regime to a certain extent, but the Sadrists are distinguished by their desire for technocratic ministers.7 Sadrists oppose the interference of any external actor (including both the United States and Iran) in Iraqi domestic affairs. 

In 1999, Saddam Hussein ordered the assassination of Sadeq al-Sadr and his two oldest sons, causing much of the movement’s leadership to go into hiding. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Sadrist Trend re-emerged under the leadership of his youngest son, Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrists vehemently opposed the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. They also opposed Baghdad’s new elite of exiled returnees who had spent decades away from the country – referring to these leaders as “foreigner Iraqis.”8 Muqtada al-Sadr was able to derive considerable legitimacy on the street by making the claim that he was the only leader who had lived in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The Sadrist Trend and its Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia were a powerful force during the height of sectarian violence in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. 

The movement lost significant influence as U.S. and Iraqi forces degraded the JAM during security offensives in 2007 and 2008. Nouri al-Maliki’s Saulat al-Fursan (Operation Knights Charge) effectively drove out Sadr, who disbanded the JAM and went into exile in Iran.

In 2011, Sadr returned from exile. His time in Iran had turned his sympathies back toward Iraq, and his public discourse reflected this change in sentiment. He restructured the movement to emphasize political and social programs and a need to combat ineffective governance.9 Sadr has also presented himself as cross-sectarian – he worked with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani and secular leader Ayad Allawi (who represented Iraq’s Sunnis) in an effort to depose Maliki in 2012. His emphasis on combatting corruption and calling for a change to the political system of muhasasa, which grants power based on identity, has won Sadr significant support with the population. 

Moreover, in 2016, Sadr inspired a protest movement that saw millions take to the street of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.10 In March 2016, Sadr trespassed into Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses most of the international embassies in the city. Rather than reprimanding or arresting Sadr for trespassing, the Iraqi general in command greeted him respectfully.11 

Despite opposing the existence of the PMU, the Sadrists continue to maintain a militant wing, called Sarayat al-Salam (the Peace Brigades), which has less sectarian connotations than the previous JAM. The Peace Brigades have fought alongside Sunni tribes in Anbar, and remain skeptical of the better-funded, Iranian-backed Shia paramilitaries – particularly Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Like Dawa, the Sadrist Trend supports a strong central Iraqi government, but opposes an American or Iranian presence in Iraq. It also opposes the current elite, which it believe is corrupt and unrepresentative of the people.

Sadr has also continued to be against Iranian influence in Iraq, and in the summer of 2017 made visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to improve relations with regional Sunni powers. Inside Iraq, Sadr enjoy support from Sunni populations. 

In 2018, the Sadrists formed the Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Tahaluf al-Sairoon), which included Islamists and secularists linked to the Iraqi Communist Party. The list was based on a renewed conception of political Islam, which according to Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abdul Jabar could bridge together the Islamists and the secularists – who were united against the common enemy, i.e. the post-2003 Iraqi elite.12 The list won the most seats (54 seats) in the May 2018 elections, giving Sadr the chance to play kingmaker in the future. 

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq 

The third significant Islamist political actor in post-2003 Iraq is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was originally founded in Iran in 1982, following Saddam Hussein’s crackdown on Dawa, and worked closely with the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq War to support Shia activism against the Saddam regime. It had a militia called the Badr Corps.

Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, SCIRI became a dominant political force in the post-CPA government, while maintaining its close relationship with Iran. In the mid 2000s, many Badr members were incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces, where they retained their fighting status.13 

As time went on, Iran increased its interference in Iraq. In an effort to distance itself from Iran, SCIRI changed its name to ISCI in 2007.14 In addition, the group began to focus more heavily on Iraqi nationalism. It also shifted its primary religious allegiance away from Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who believes religious leaders should not be involved in the administration of the state. Sistani is the head of the Najaf Shia seminar (hawza) and as such is the head of the Shia religious establishment (marjai’ya). 

After the death of ISCI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim in August 2009, his son, Ammar al-Hakim, assumed control of the movement. ISCI has suffered from two key defections. In March 2012, ISCI split from the Badr Organization. The split was partly due to leadership squabbles in the wake of poor performance in the 2010 parliamentary elections.15 More importantly, the two organizations disagreed over whether to support the incumbent prime minister, Maliki. The Badr organization, under the leadership of Hadi al-Ameri, split off from Hakim’s ISCI. Then, in 2017, Hakim left ISCI to form the National Wisdom Trend (tayar al-hikmat al-watani), leaving Humam Hamoudi to take over as leader of ISCI. In his departure, Hakim cited internal power struggles within ISCI’s senior leadership, who made running the party difficult.16

Eventually, ISCI, now led by Humam al-Hamoudi, would rejoin Ameri’s Fateh electoral alliance. Moreover, under the auspices of the PMU, ISCI maintains a military wing, which is active in the fight against the Islamic State. Its militias include the Supporters of the Faith brigades. These groups receive funding and weapons from the prime minister’s office, and abide by the central government's policy decisions. They often fight alongside the Iraqi Security Forces. 

The ideological concept of leadership by clerics (wilayat al-faqih) divides ISCI from Dawa and the Sadrists. ISCI maintains its belief that clergy should lead society. By contrast, Dawa and the Sadrists, stemming from the influence of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, believe that the community should be dominant in society (wilayat al-umma). 

The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)

Following the emergence of the Islamic State, which began taking over Iraqi towns and cities in early 2014, Maliki established the PMU, which was later further legitimized by Sistani’s fatwa, which called on Iraqis to volunteer to fight against the group. 

The PMU is not a single organization; rather, it consists of some 50 militias, some of which are loyal to Sistani. But the most powerful and formidable PMUs are loyal to and backed by Iran. Those groups tend to be better-funded and better-equipped than their wholly Iraqi counterparts. Hadi al-Ameri’s Badr Organization, Abu Muhandis’ Kataib Hezbollah (KH), and Qais Khazali’s Asaib ahl al-Haq (AAH) are all groups that are fighting in direct coordination with Iran. They are known to receive extensive support from the Qods Force paramilitary unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), including training, funding, and supplies. They share strong relations with the IRGC-QF’s leader, Qassem Solaimani.17 KH emerged in 2007, and since that time has conducted numerous attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.18 KH has used advanced tactics and systems, including Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortars (IRAMs).19 The group has remained active following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011.20 It has reportedly conducted attacks against the camps of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group with elements based in Iraq.  KH fighters are also fighting in Syria at the behest of the Iranian and Assad regimes.21 

AAH is an offshoot of JAM and was formed following the split between Muqtada al-Sadr and Qais Khazali.22 Khazali, who was captured by Coalition forces in March 2007 but subsequently released as part of a prisoner exchange in January 2010, is the leader of AAH. Since the departure of U.S. forces in December 2011, AAH has expressed its desire to participate in Iraqi politics and rebranded itself as a nationalist organization also dedicated to Islamic resistance. It has established political offices throughout the country and has instituted religious and social outreach programs.23 AAH’s turn toward politics has heightened its competition with the Sadrist Trend. Sadr and Khazali have publicly traded accusations and the tensions have even resulted in violent clashes.24 Maliki cultivated strong ties with AAH as a counterbalance to the Sadrists and other opponents. The second group includes paramilitaries closer to Sistani. The Ali al-Akbar Brigades and the Abbadiyah Brigades are part of this group. 

The third group is made up of militias that represent wings of political parties. For instance, the above-mentioned ISCI militias, or Sadr’s Sarayat al-Salam, fall into this category.25 

In November 2016, the Iraqi parliament passed a law that will transform the PMUs into a legal and separate military corps alongside the state’s forces.26 The PMUs also showcase splits within the Shia movement in Iraq.27 For instance, both Sadr and Sistani remain opposed to the politicization of the PMUs, and both call for the provision of greater power to the state. Sadr, despite being the leader of a militia, has claimed he is willing to disband it if all other paramilitaries are also disbanded and monopoly over the use of legitimate violence is restored to the central government. 


As discussed above, in 2017 Ammar al-Hakim broke away from ISCI to form the National Wisdom Movement (Tayar al-Hikmah al-Watani). In the 2018 election, Hikmeh placed seventh with 19 seats. The group is based on Hakim’s ideas for a new form of Islamism that moves past the post-2003 ethno-sectarian based political system. He argues for a bottom-up Islamism that is in tune with wider Iraqi society and is not solely based on Shiism. He also argues in favor of greater independence from Iran. 

Sunni Groups

The Sunni political landscape has shifted dramatically in Iraq in recent years. The major ideological debate among the Sunni Islamist community, however, remains the question of cooperating with Baghdad.28 During the civil war (2006-2007) and then again following the emergence of the Islamic State in Mosul and elsewhere (2014-present), many Sunni Islamists have chosen to reject the central government, which they perceive to be a Shia-Iranian dictatorship. However, during the Anwar Awakening and subsequent period of comparatively good governance in Iraq (2008-2010), Sunni Islamists participated in the political process. 

The Iraqi Islamic Party

The only Sunni Islamist political party in Iraq has been the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) – although it is not a unified organization and lacks the institutional capacities of most political parties. It is currently led by Ayad al-Samarraie. 

The IIP has its roots in the mid-1940s or early 1950s, when Mohammed al-Sawwaf, an Iraqi studying in Egypt, met Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.29 Upon his return to Iraq, al-Sawwaf and another activist, Amjad al-Zahawi Mahmood, founded an Iraqi organization modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Islamic Brotherhood Society.30 Later, in 1960, the Iraqi Islamic Party was formally established after Abdul-Karim Qassem’s government allowed political parties to form in Iraq.31 Following the overthrow of Qassem’s government by the Ba’ath Party in 1963, the IIP was violently suppressed but continued its operations clandestinely and in exile.32 Ayad al-Samarraie, who had been the Secretary General of the IIP since 1970, fled Iraq in 1980.33  

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in 2003, many IIP leaders, including al-Samarraie, returned to Iraq and the party re-emerged. In the December 2005 parliamentary election, the IIP ran as a party of a Sunni coalition known as Tawafuq (Iraqi Accord Front), which won 44 seats in the 275-member parliament. From 2005 to early 2009, Tawafuq was the dominant Sunni political presence in the parliament, though it was seen by many Sunni Iraqis as an exile party that did not represent their interests. By early 2009, Tawafuq began to disintegrate as its constituent parties left the coalition during the debate over the selection of the parliamentary speaker.34 

In 2009 and 2010, the IIP lost a considerable portion of its electorate to the secular nationalist coalition of former Prime Minister Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya, also called the Iraqiyah list. By the 2010 parliamentary election, the vast number of Sunni political entities joined the Iraqiyah List. Even IIP leader Tariq al-Hashimi left the group to join al-Iraqiyya. IPP was the only party to run under the Tawafuq banner in 2010, and consequently, the total number of seats held by Tawafuq shrank from 44 to just 6. 

The Association of Muslim Scholars 

The Association of Muslim Scholars (Hay’at al-‘Ulama’ al-Muslimeen) formed immediately after the U.S.-led invasion in April of 2003. The group is not a political party, but rather a group of influential Sunni clerics and scholars seeking to represent the Sunni voice in a Shia-dominated Baghdad. It was initially led by Harith al-Dhari, a cleric who called on Iraqis to boycott the U.S.-led attempts to rebuild the Iraqi government in a fatwa that also called for a “national insurgency.”35 Such sentiments, along with the Iraqi people’s fear of retaliation if they participated in the political process, combined to significantly depress voter turnout. For example, Anbar Province, which is 90% Sunni36 and has often suffered from violence and high levels of insurgency, had a voter turnout of just 1% in the January parliamentary interim elections of 2005.37 However, by the December 2005 elections, national voter turnout rose to 77%.38 The group was an important driving force of Sunni insurgency in 2006. However, it came into conflict with AQI and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, particularly on the question as to the type and scope of acceptable violence. Following Harith’s death, his son, Muthanna, has taken over the organization, which continues to claim to speak on behalf of disenfranchised Sunnis. It also relies on rousing a sense of Iraqi nationalism. 

Other groups seek to represent Sunni interests as well. The Sunni Endowment (Waqf al-Sunni) is a government-recognized body tasked with managing holy sites (include thousands of mosques) and distributing resources to the population. It is led by Abdul Latif al-Humayim, who was appointed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The Fiqih Council of Iraq (Majma al-Faqih al-Iraqi) is another group seeking to represent Sunnis. Its goal is to spread the Islamic call of faith, order, and ethics. The Dar al-Iftah al-Iraqi, which is based in Erbil, is another religious organization seeking to represent Sunnis. Finally, Hayat al-Iftah al-Salafi is a small Salafi organization led by Mahdi al-Subaie, who is opposed to the government in Baghdad.

The Islamic State (formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq - AQI) 

The Islamic State initially grew out of an al-Qaeda offshoot, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI members included native Sunni Iraqis, members of the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar Al-Islam, and some foreigners, including its Jordanian-born leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.39 AQI was responsible for some of the deadliest car bombs and suicide bomb attacks in Iraq, as well as a surge in sectarian violence. AQI became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. The organization had lost many of its strongholds in northern and western Iraq following the security offensives that began in 2007; however, it continued to operate in areas of northern Iraq, especially the city of Mosul, and in areas of Diyala, Salah ad-Din, Anbar, Baghdad, and its surrounding areas. Though AQI leaders pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group lost its affiliation and was no longer able to retain operational links with al-Qaeda leaders based in the tribal areas of Pakistan.40  

ISI’s subsequently transformed into the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2014. Back in Iraq, the group maintained a largely passive presence, but as Maliki began suppressing and attacking Iraqi Sunnis, the Islamic State grew in numbers. Finally, in early 2014, it began taking over Iraqi territory, beginning in Fallujah and leading to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which was taken in June 2014. Following this, ISIL formally declared a Caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State. The group’s leader is currently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. By 2017, the group suffered defeats at the hands of the Iraqi security forces, the PMU, and the Kurdish peshmerga, reversing a trend of steady territorial gains and political growth. As of this writing, it has lost control over several major cities, including Mosul (which it claimed as its capital), Ramadi, Fallujah, and Tikrit. 

To maintain legitimacy, the group has altered its tactics, reverting to AQI-style guerilla warfare and attacks on civilians in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahadeen, and Anbar. Most of its attacks are against security forces, including checkpoints manned by police or PMU groups. While it remains a threat to Baghdad and other major cities, ISIS has begun to show signs of transitioning back into the role of an underground organization.

Kurdish Groups

Political Islam has also developed extensively in Iraqi Kurdistan, also called the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous region in northern Iraq run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is particularly strong in the city of Halabja, but occurs in other major areas as well. The largest Kurdish Islamist political groups are the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG).41 

The Kurdistan Islamic Union

The KIU, also known as Yekgirtu, was established in 1994. Principally an adherent to Sunni Islam, the group was closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. The group describes itself as “an Islamic reformative political party that strives to solve all political, social, economic and cultural matters of the people in Kurdistan from an Islamic perspective which can achieve the rights, general freedom, and social justice.”42 It is currently led by Secretary General Sheikh Salah ad-Din Muhammad Baha-al-Din. The KIU has no armed forces of its own, and is most active in charity work.

The Kurdistan Islamic Group

The KIG was established in 2001 as a splinter faction of the KIU. It is led by Mala Ali Bapir. The KIG is believed to have close ties with extremist Islamist armed groups, such as Ansar al-Islam, which has been involved in attacks against leaders of the predominant political parties in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).43 Bapir, however, claims his group has abandoned violence. 

Nevertheless, the political influence of the KIU and KIG cannot compete with that of the KDP, PUK, and Change List (Gorran), which dominate Kurdish political and social life. Of the 111 seats in the Kurdish parliament, the KIU and KIG have only four.44 At the national level, the influence of Kurdish Islamist parties is even further diminished. The KIU has 4 seats in the 325-seat Iraqi parliament, while the KIG has only 2 seats. The emergence of Gorran shifted the balance of power and gave the KIU and KIG another ally in the Kurdish Regional Government parliament with which to challenge the dominant Kurdish parties. However, Kurdish Islamist parties remain only marginal actors in Iraqi political life.

Islamism and Society: 

97 percent of the Iraqi population is Muslim, and of that group, 60-65 percent are Shia Muslims.45 Iraqi Shia primarily live in central and southern Iraq, though there are Shia communities in the north. 32-37 percent of Iraqi Muslims are Sunnis, and they are concentrated mainly in central and northern Iraq.46 Of Iraq’s more-than-30 million citizens, 75-80 percent are Arabs; 15-20 percent are Kurds; and Turkmen, Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenians, and other minority groups comprise the remaining 5 percent.47 Religious minorities, such as Christians, Mandeans, and Yazidis comprise the remaining three percent of Iraq’s population; however, these non-dominant ethnic and religious populations have declined significantly since 2003.48  

According to the U.S. military, more than 77,000 Iraqis were killed during the height of sectarian violence between 2004 and 2008; Iraqi government statistics put that number at over 85,000.49 According to the UN, the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq led to “staggering violence,” with some 18,800 killed between January 1, 2014 and October 31, 2015.50 Fortunately, the death toll has since abated. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq estimated that approximately 6,878 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2016 in total, primarily by the Islamic State.51  

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime in 2003, both Sunni and Shia Iraqis were able to openly express their Islamic faith in ways that they had not in decades. This was especially true for Shia Iraqis, who for the first time in decades could take part in the religious pilgrimages to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq. Exiled Sunni and Shia Islamist parties and movements returned to Iraq, where they played key roles in shaping Iraq’s emerging political system. Iraqi politics, after 2003, became defined by identities – making political Islam an important tool for legitimacy. 

Parts in the north of Iraq have, during various periods, fallen under strict Salafi-Jihadi rule. From 2004 to 2007 and from 2014 to 2017, as the security situation has deteriorated and the Iraqi state proved itself unable to capably govern, Sunni Islamist militant groups (namely, AQI then the Islamic State) have grown in strength and violently imposed their strict interpretations of Islamic law. They established strongholds in the predominantly Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq, such as the Anbar or Ninewah province. There, they brutally enforced harsh societal rules, including banning smoking and singing, prohibiting men from shaving their beards, forcing marriages and raping local women, such as Yazidi women, forcing minorities to flee their homes, requiring the wearing of strict Islamic dress by women, and maiming or killing anyone caught violating their radical laws.52 

In the south, Shia militia groups have also at times enforced strict rules in the areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq that were under their control. During the 2005-2007 civil war, sectarian violence soared, as Shia militia groups violently attacked mixed areas of Baghdad. 

At other times, however, sectarianism has been rejected. In 2008, Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities grew frustrated with the years of strife, under which Islamist parties and militias dominated. Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province rejected AQI rule and took up arms against Sunni extremists, in a movement that became known as the Anbar Awakening. Awakening movements spread across Sunni areas from 2007 to 2008.53 This, coupled with the U.S.-led security offensive that cleared first Baghdad and later the provinces surrounding the capital, significantly degraded AQI’s capabilities and networks. During the Surge, Iraqi forces supported by the U.S. also targeted Shia militia groups in Baghdad and throughout central and southern Iraq. This culminated in the Iraqi-led operations in Basra and Baghdad, which dealt a significant blow to JAM and culminated in Sadr’s announcement to disband his once-fearsome militia.54 By mid-2008, when the last of the Surge forces left Iraq, violence had plummeted by more than 60 percent.55  

The 2009 and 2010 elections saw the reorientation of Iraqi politics away from Islamism in a manner that reflected changes in society. As discussed above, Islamist exile parties like ISCI and the IIP lost considerable influence.56 New political realities emerged in Iraq, and there was widespread anti-incumbent sentiment and a growing demand for secular, nationalist, and technocratic government that could preserve security, provide essential services, and reduce corruption.57 These themes played an important role in the provincial and parliamentary elections. 

By 2017, however, the shift from identity to issue-based politics had reappeared, as internal Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni struggles outweighed the sectarian narrative. An NDI poll that year found that most Iraqis blamed corruption and their own leaders, rather than sectarianism, for the rise of groups like ISIS.58 Moreover, the poll also revealed that Shia leaders such as Abadi or Sadr enjoy considerable popularity in Sunni areas. 

Nonetheless, Iraqi society remains heavily fragmented and sectarian divisions still exist, providing an opening for the re-emergence of the Islamic State.59 Iraq’s leading Shia parties, Dawa and the Sadrist Trend, retain their Islamist character and have emphasized this identity to shore up support. 

Islamism and the State: 

Iraq is a parliamentary democracy and not a theocratic republic like its neighbor, Iran. The Iraqi Constitution guarantees the democratic rights of all Iraqi citizens as well as “full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals.”60 Yet the Iraqi Constitution stipulates Islam as the official religion of the state and makes clear that no law may be enacted that contradicts the establish provisions of Islam. The ambiguities inherent in these provisions have led to challenges in interpretation and meaning. In some areas of Iraq, local governments have adopted stricter interpretations of Islamic law. The provincial councils in Basra and Najaf, for instance, have banned the consumption, sales, or transit of alcohol.61 In November 2010, the Baghdad provincial council used a resolution from 1996 to similarly ban the sale of alcohol.62 There have been occasional violent raids or attacks on venues believed to be selling alcohol.63 

The Iraqi government’s response to Islamist militant groups has varied. Islamist parties dominated provincial and national governments from 2004 to 2008. During that time, the state was both unwilling and unable to challenge the Islamist militant groups that threatened the state’s legitimacy. Shia militia groups penetrated elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, and certain paramilitary and police units were accused of perpetrating brutal sectarian violence.64 The threat from extremist groups ultimately jeopardized the functioning of the Iraqi state by late 2006. Several months later, in early 2007, U.S. forces announced a change of strategy in Iraq and the deployment of 20,000 additional troops, in what became known as the Surge. As the counterinsurgency offensives of the Surge unfolded, the Iraqi state also became more willing and able to challenge Sunni and Shia extremist groups as their influence and capability waned.65 U.S. support during this time was critical in giving the Iraqi Security Forces, and even Iraq’s political leadership, the confidence to move against extremist groups as well as in preventing the manipulation of the security forces for political ends.66 U.S. and Iraqi leaders also worked to professionalize the Iraqi Security Forces, expand their capabilities, and root out corrupt or sectarian elements. U.S. and Iraqi operations from 2007 to the present significantly degraded both Sunni and Shia extremist groups and reduced violence, doing so by over 90 percent.67 

Today, Iraqi forces continue to robustly target the Islamic State in Iraq. Despite the growing influence of the PMU, which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both criticized for committing war crimes,68 the government has decided not to act against Shia militant groups. Given the weakness of the central government, it is unclear whether the Iraqi state can maintain the will or muster the ability to sufficiently check Shia militant groups (some of which continue to receive Iranian assistance), or whether political interests will enable such groups to expand.


[1] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future (New York: Norton, 2006), 117.
[2] Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada (New York: Scribner, 2008), 31; Faleh Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in 
[3] Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, 78-80; Islamic Dawa Party, “Party History,” n.d.,
[4] Jabar, Malik, “Maliki and the Rest: A Crisis within a Crisis”,  IIST Iraq Crisis Report – 2012, June 2012,
[5] Michael Knights, “Iraqi Elections and U.S. Interests: Taking the Long View,” Policy Analysis, The Washington Institute, May 17, 2018,
[6] Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, 272-273.
[7] Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War Iraq Report 12, January 2009,
[8] Makiya, Kanan. The Rope (New York : Pantheon Books, 2016).
[9] Makiya, Kanan. The Rope.
[10] Mansour, Renad and Clark, Michael, “Is Muqtada Al-Sadr Good For Iraq?”, War on the Rocks, May 2016,
[11] “Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr starts Green Zone sit-in,” Al Jazeera March 28, 2016,
[12] Jabar A. Faleh, The Iraqi Protest Movement, London School of Economics Middle East Centre Paper Series, June 2018,
[13] “Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr starts Green Zone sit-in,” Al Jazeera.
[14] “Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council,” International Crisis Group Middle East Report Number 70, November 15, 2007.
[15] “URGENT...SIIC, Badr Organization announce their official split,” All Iraq News, March 11, 2012,
[16] “الحكيم يعلن تأسيس تيار الحكمة الوطني,” السومرية نيوز/, 24 تموز 2017,”
[17] Sullivan, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[18] Yusif Salman: “Leading Figure in the Al-Sadr Trend to Al-Mashriq: Al-Sadr Met Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Leader in Qom,” Al-Mashriq (Iraq), January 18 , 2010; Martin Chulov, “Qais al-Khazali: from Kidnapper and Prisoner to Potential Leader,”Guardian (London), December 31, 2009,
[19] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Individual, Entity Posing Threat to Stability in Iraq.”
[20] Ashish Kumar Sen, “Dissidents Blame Camp Attack on Iraq,” Washington Times, February 18, 2013,
[21] Michael Gordon and Steven Lee Myers, “Iran and Hezbollah Support for Syria Complicates Peace-Talk Strategy,”New York Times, May 21, 2013,; Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday, and Sam Wyer, “Iranian Strategy in Syria,” A Joint Report by AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War, May 2013, 23-25,
[22] Karin Bruilliard, “Ex-Sadr Aide Held in American Deaths,” Washington Post, March 23, 2007,; Felter and Fishman, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq: Politics and ‘Other Means,’” 35; Sullivan, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[23] For a detailed analysis of AAH’s political activities, see Sam Wyer, “The Resurgence of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq,” Institute for the Study of War Middle East Security Report 7, December 2012,
[24] Wyer. 22-25.
[25] Habib, Mustafa, “Taming The Beast: Can Iraq Ever Control Its Controversial Volunteer Militias?”, Niqash,
[26] “Iraqi parliament passes contested law on Shi’ite paramilitaries,” Reuters, November 26, 2016,
[27] Renad Mansour, Iraq After the Fall of ISIS: The Struggle for the State, July 4, 2017,
[28] Mansour, Renad, “The Sunni Predicament in Iraq”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2016,
[29] Basim Al-Azami, “The Muslim Brotherhood: Genesis and Development,” in Faleh A. Jabar, ed., Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq (London: Saqi, 2002), 164.
[30] Al-Azami, “The Muslim Brotherhood: Genesis and Development;” Graham Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi’a : The Forgotten Muslims (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000); “Iraqi Islamic Party,”, n.d.,; Iraqi Islamist Party, “History,” n.d.,
[31] Thabit Abdullah, A Short History of Iraq: From 636 to the Present (London: Longman, 2003).
[32] “Iraqi Islamic Party”; Iraqi Islamic Party, “History.”
[33] “Iraqi Islamic Party”; Iraqi Islamic Party, “History.”
[34] Domergue and Sullivan, “Balancing Maliki.”
[35] Meijer, Roel, “The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq”, Middle East Research and Information,
[36] "Irakische Streitkräfte starten Rückeroberung Ramadis". Deutsche Welle, May 26, 2015,
[37] Wong, Edward, “Turnout in the Iraqi Election is Reported at 70 Percent”, The New York Times, December 2005,
[38] Anthony H. Cordesman, Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency and the Risk of Civil War, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2006, pg, 8,
[39] United States Forces-Iraq, “The Insurgency,” July 31, 2009,
[40] Kenneth Katzman, “Al Qaeda in Iraq: Assessment and Outside Links,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, August 15, 2008,; DoD News Briefing with Commander, U.S. Forces-Iraq Gen. Raymond Odierno from the Pentagon, June 4, 2010.
[41] Rafid Fadhil Ali, “Kurdish Islamist Groups in Northern Iraq,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 6, iss. 22, November 25. 2008,[tt_news]=34176.
[42] Qassim Khidhir Hamad, “Kurdish Election Lists,” Niqash (Baghdad), June 30, 2009.
[43] Kathleen Ridolfo, “A Survey of Armed Groups in Iraq,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Iraq Report 7, no. 20, June 4, 2004.
[44] “The Kurdistan Parliament,” Kurdistan Regional Government website, accessible at; “The Members of the Parliament for Third Term 2009,” Kurdistan Parliament website, accessible at
[45] “The Kurdistan Parliament,” Kurdistan Regional Government website.
[46] “The Kurdistan Parliament,” Kurdistan Regional Government website.
[47] “Iraq,” CIA World Factbook, updated April 6, 2011,; “Background Note: Iraq,” U.S. Department of State, September 17, 2010,
[48] “Iraq,” CIA World Factbook, updated April 6, 2011.
[49] “US military says 77,000 Iraqis killed over 5 years,” Associated Press, October 15, 2010,
[50] BBC Middle East, “Iraq Conflict: Civilians suffering ‘staggering’ violence – UN”, BBC News, January 2015,
[51] Bethan McKernan, “Scale of Iraqi civilian casualties inflicted by Isis revealed by UN,” The Independent, January 3, 2017,
[52] Rod Nordland, “Despite Gains, Petraeus Cautious About Iraq,” Newsweek, August 21, 2008,; “Marriages split al Qaeda alliance,” Washington Times, August 31, 2007,; “Severe Islamic law which banned 'suggestive' cucumbers cost Al Qaeda public support in Iraq,”Daily Mail (UK), August 10, 2008,
[53] John A. McCary, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” The Washington Quarterly, January 2009,
[54] Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War Iraq Report12, January 2009, 37-38,
[55] Viola Gienger, “Iraq Civilian Deaths Drop for Third Year as Toll Eases After U.S. Drawdown,” Bloomberg, December 29, 2010,
[56] Iraqi High Electoral Commission, “Iraqi CoR Election Results,” n.d.,
[57] Sullivan, “Iraq’s Parliamentary Election.”
[58] Improved Security Provides Opening for Cooperation in Iraq: March to April 2017 Survey Findings, National Democratic Institute, June 7, 2017,
[59] Marisa Cochrane Sullivan and James Danly, “Iraq on the Eve of Elections,” Institute for the Study of WarBackgrounder, March 3, 2010,
[60] Iraqi Constitution, Section One, Article Two.
[61] “Alcohol Banned in Iraq holy Shiite City of Najaf,” Middle East Online, October 11, 2009,
[62] John Leland, “Baghdad Raids on Alcohol Sellers Stir Fears,” New York Times, January 15, 2011,
[63] Leland, “Baghdad Raids on Alcohol Sellers Stir Fears,” New.; “Kurdish Club Scene Booming as Baghdad Bans Alcohol,” Associated Press, January 11, 2011.
[64] Lionel Beehner, “Shiite Militias and Iraq's Security Forces,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, November 30, 2005,; “Iraq 'death squad caught in act,'” BBC, February 16, 2006,; Steve Inskeep, “Riding Herd on the Iraqi Police's Dirty 'Wolf Brigade,’” National Public Radio, March 28, 2007,
[65] Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War Iraq Report12, January 2009, 22,
[66] For more information on the growth and professionalization of the Iraqi Security Forces during the Surge, see LTG James Dubik, “Building Security Forces and Ministerial Capacity: Iraq as a Primer,” Institute for the Study of War Best Practices in Counterinsurgency Report 1, August 2009,
[67] Scott Peterson, “US reports 20 percent drop in Iraq violence,” Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2011,
[68] “Iraq: End irresponsible arms transfers fuelling militia war crimes,” Amnesty International, January 5, 2017,; “Iraq: Possible War Crimes by Shia Militia,” Human Rights Watch, January 31, 2016,