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Instability in Iraq

Updated February 13, 2024
A member loyal to the Islamic State waves an Islamic State flag in Raqqa on June 29, 2014.
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border on August 11, 2014.
Rodi Said/Reuters
A member of militias known as Hashid Shaabi walks with his weapon in the town of al-Alam on March 10, 2015.
Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Kurdish people attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25 independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq on September 16, 2017.
Ari Jalal/Reuters
Iraqis demonstrate in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad against corruption and lack of services on September 7, 2018.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Six years after the war against the Islamic State, Iraq still faces significant challenges to its recovery. Over one million people remain internally displaced while three million people need humanitarian assistance as Iraq continues its reconstruction. In addition to reintegrating liberated Sunni communities into the political system, the government has struggled to achieve the demobilization and integration of powerful Shiite militias, which formed during the fight against the Islamic State, into the Iraqi security forces. The government also faces ongoing tensions with Kurdish groups pressing for greater autonomy in the north following a failed independence referendum in October 2017. Since the start of the Israel-Hamas War, Iraq’s stability has deteriorated significantly, with Iran-backed militias targeting U.S. forces in the west and north of the country.


Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has undergone a long period of instability, with armed groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the disbandment of the military and the ban on Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. In 2014, the Islamic State advanced into Iraq from Syria and took over parts of Anbar province, eventually expanding into the northern part of the country and capturing Mosul in June 2014. Former President Barack Obama authorized targeted air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and the United States formed an international coalition of nearly eighty countries to counter the terrorist group. Regional forces—including as many as thirty thousand Iranian troops—joined the Iraqi army, local tribes, and the Kurdish Peshmerga in operations to retake territory from the Islamic State, recapturing Tikrit in April 2015, Ramadi in December 2015, Fallujah in June 2016, and Mosul in July 2017.

The Trump administration sharply escalated the U.S. presence in Iraq in early 2017 to bring a swift end to the Islamic State, and the Iraqi government declared victory over the group in December 2017. Since then, most foreign troops have withdrawn from Iraq, except for a small U.S. contingent.

In late April 2018, the U.S. military officially disbanded the command overseeing the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, declaring an end to major combat operations against the group. Roughly 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government as part of a mission to train, advise, and assist the Iraqi military in fighting domestic terrorism.

Underlying sectarian tensions in Iraq among Sunni and Shiite groups, as well as tensions between Kurdish groups in the north and the government in Baghdad, exacerbated the fight to dislodge the Islamic State. These tensions intensified after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein, now threatening the stability of the new Iraqi government as it looks to rebuild the country and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. There also remains a larger concern that the aftermath of the conflict and challenges of reconstruction and reintegration will lead to the break up of Iraq and that sectarian tension will plague the region for years to come, possibly expanding into a proxy conflict among various international groups.

A coalition of parties led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won a surprise victory in Iraq’s May 2018 parliamentary election. Their victory raised questions about continued Iranian influence in Baghdad, as al-Sadr’s Shiite bloc has historically remained at odds with Iranian-backed groups in Iraq. Following the 2021 election, which saw increased representation [PDF] for minority groups, the newly elected parliament could not form a coalition government, precipitating a political crisis.

The assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in November 2021 led to armed clashes between the Iraqi government and the Iran-backed militias accused of orchestrating the attack. Amid the political crisis, the entirety of al-Sadr’s political bloc resigned from parliament in a gamble aimed at pressuring the government to elect a president. The move largely backfired as al-Sadr’s bloc was quickly replaced, allowing the Shiite groups backed by Iran to assume a majority in the parliament. Al-Sadr retired from politics in August 2022, leaving control of the Iraqi government to his Iranian-backed rivals.

In October 2022, Abdul Latif Rashid was elected president, promising to return the country to normalcy. The premiership was ultimately handed to Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, a long-time ally of Iran. His pro-Iran government includes ministers with ties to several U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, including Kataib Hezbollah. However, al-Sudani has taken a measured approach by expressing a desire to keep U.S. forces in Iraq while continuing his predecessor’s “balance and openness” policy. The United States remains concerned about Iran’s increasing involvement in Iraq and its government, which has disrupted Iraqi relations with the United States and reintegration with other Arab countries, particularly the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to plague Iraq, despite its diminished presence. The Islamic State has reverted to its insurgency roots and refocused to orchestrating a hit-and-run campaign. For example, it planted a bomb near the city of Kirkuk in December 2022 that targeted and killed nine federal police officers. In response, the United States announced that it would keep its troops in Iraq to fight the Islamic State.

Recent Developments

Since late 2022, Iraq has faced economic and infrastructural issues. In November, a gas cylinder explosion killed fifteen people in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, and in October, a gas tanker explosion in Baghdad killed at least nine people. In January, al-Sudani replaced the Central Bank governor after the value of the Iraqi dinar hit new lows, and the previous governor essentially quit. To solve these critical issues, al-Sudani has implemented several measures, including approving a $152 billion budget meant to add public sector jobs and increase public salaries.

However, Iraq's political instability persists. In late March 2023, the Iraqi government passed amendments that would increase the size of electoral districts, reducing opportunities for smaller parties and independent candidates to win seats in future elections. These amendments were supported by the Iran-backed Coordination Framework but proved to be controversial, sparking demonstrations and prompting several MPs to leave and postpone the session. Similarly, in late June, over fifty MPs resigned from the local parliament in Iraq’s Kurdish region. They protested a court ruling by the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court that rejected their decision to delay regional elections. The ruling is another sign that Baghdad has largely reigned in the Kurdish region’s autonomy, having asserted its control over oil revenue and key infrastructure.

Days later, thousands of Iraqi followers of a Shiite cleric protested in major Iraqi cities, criticizing the burning of a Quran during a demonstration in Sweden, demanding the Swedish ambassador’s expulsion from Iraq, and storming the Swedish embassy in Baghdad. These recent mobilizations showcase the ongoing capacity of al-Sadr to foster instability despite the suspension of his movement in April.

In August 2023, Iran-aligned groups killed Kurdish protestors in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk over the handover of a building to the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Following days of deadly ethnic clashes, the Supreme Court in Baghdad halted Al-Sudani’s order to return the building to the KDP on September 1. The oil-rich province lies along the fault line between the Kurdish autonomous region and areas controlled by Iraq’s government. It has been the center of some of Iraq’s worst violence since the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Turkey has escalated its military attacks against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PPK) in northern Iraq, including a drone strike that killed seven members on August 24. In late August, Turkey called on Iraq to designate the PKK as a terrorist organization, citing the group’s threat to both Iraqi and Turkish security.

At the end of August 2023, the Iranian government announced that the central Iraqi government had pledged to disarm and relocate militant groups from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq by September 19. Despite the joint success of the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil, tensions between Turkey and the Kurds increased following a PKK suicide bombing outside of a government building in the Turkish capital Ankara in October. Although no casualties besides the two PKK-linked attackers were reported, the attack was the first in the Turkish capital since 2016. In response, Turkish forces conducted air strikes in northern Iraq, destroying sixteen targets of the PKK. The situation continued to escalate with further Turkish strikes in northern Iraq in 2024 following a PKK December 22 attack on a Turkish base that killed twelve soldiers, and a similar attack on January 12 that killed nine more.

Over the course of the Israel-Hamas War, Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq and Syria have targeted U.S. troops in the region over 165 times in opposition to Israel’s campaign in Gaza. The remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq have been subject to consistent attacks on their bases, such as the Al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, where an attack on October 17 resulted in the death of an American civilian contractor. In February 2024, the United States conducted a series of retaliatory strikes in response to an attack in Jordan on a U.S. military outpost near the Syrian border that killed three American soldiers. The strikes included more than eighty-five targets throughout Iraq and Syria and were the first in a multi-tiered response by the Biden administration. According to the Iraqi government, sixteen people, including civilians, were among those killed in the first round of U.S. strike s, while twenty-five were injured. On February 5, 2024, Russia called a UN Security Council meeting, where the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations accused the United States of violating international law by striking Iraq and Syria.

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