Iraq: Nation or Religion? – B. Mikail

Note: This article was published originally on the website of the Middle East Institute.

Iraq is key for understanding the trends that prevail in many MENA countries. It is home to various religious and/or ethnic communities, and its political system is federalist in part. In addition, Iraq is subject to foreign influences, including those originating from countries that seem to have a religious bias — such as in the case of Shia Iran. At first glance, this suggests that Iraq is a prisoner of sectarian logic.

Is Iraqi society structurally sectarian? Or does it have a strong capacity of resilience to sectarian trends? This article explores the nature of Iraq’s political sociology by examining several key indicators: the composition and aspirations of Iraqi society; the nature of the parliament; and the challenges that current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi faced as he tried to form a government in spring 2020.

Sociopolitical Realities in Iraq: The Global Landscape

 Sectarianism is a reality in Iraq. Ethnoreligious trends prevail at the institutional level. Since 2005, the President of Iraq has always been a Kurd, the Prime Minister an Arab Shia, and the President of the parliament an Arab Sunni.

This sectarian distribution of the main institutional positions is not enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, but is nonetheless rooted in practice. With the fall of Sunni President Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was quick to follow a sectarian path. Arab Sunnis felt weakened;[1] Kurds wanted to capitalize on this historical moment to push for autonomy; Shia saw in post-Saddam elections an opportunity to increase their political representation and get revenge.[2] Christian minorities were the only communities to have emerged in post-Saddam Iraq with little political representation, to have faced multiple threats, and to have dramatically decreased in number.[3]

The Iraqi constitution does refer to sectarian diversity in its preamble. However, there are no statistics regarding the actual percentage of ethnoreligious communities in the country. All the scenarios that try to look into Iraq’s sectarian state of play build on general estimates. According to the CIA World Factbook, Arabs constitute 75-80% and Kurds 15-20% of the country’s population.[4] Shia comprise roughly 55-60%, Sunnis 30-35% (bearing in mind that while a majority of Kurds are Sunnis, some are Shia), and Christians less than 5%. The case of mixed Bagdad aside, the three major groups are concentrated in certain geographic areas: Kurds in the north (alongside some Christian communities), Sunnis in the center, and Shia mainly in the South.

Given these sharply delineated ethnic, religious, and geographic differences, one might be led to assume that since 2003 Iraq’s communities have functioned as rigid blocs whose individual members, bound together in sectarian solidarity, support their co-religionists unconditionally.[5] However, the reality is more nuanced.

It is true that since 2005 parliamentary elections — where Iraqis choose their 329 deputies based on party-list proportional representation — have tended to reflect the sectarian composition of the population, resulting in Shia winning a majority of seats. Yet, it is important to note that parliament is fragmented; deep political fissures exist both between and within sectarian groups. There are at least two main Kurdish political factions. The many Sunni parties disagree over key political issues. Five major Shia coalitions competed in the 2018 parliamentary elections, with the Islamist Fatah coalition alone consisting of 18 rival parties.[6] Since 2003, none of Iraq’s religious communities has spoken in a single voice nor has any of the country’s leading politicians succeeded in advancing a political program that transcends this particularism.

Nationalism, Sectarianism, or Both? 

 Iraq’s first parliamentary elections in 2005 saw a total of 12 parties and/or coalitions enter the legislature,[7] while in 2018, this number jumped threefold.[8] The fragmentation of the Iraqi political scene may be a sign of democratic health; but it is also the expression of both political opportunism and a deep social frustration.

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Barah Mikaïl is an associate Professor of International Security at SLU-Madrid and Director of the Observatory on Contemporary Crises.


To quote this article, please use the following reference: B. Mikail (2020). “Iraq: Nation or Religion?”, Observatory on contemporary crises, June 22, 2020, URL:


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