Iraq: at a glance

After multiple invasions, Zoe Holman explores the ongoing appetite for change in Iraq.

Girls sit at desks in a classroom
Children in school in the town of Karamles, 2019. Credit: Alexandra Rose Howland

When British troops drove out their Turkish and German enemies and marched into Baghdad in 1917, their commander announced to locals that they came not as conquerors or enemies – but as liberators. ‘Your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers,’ he said.

It is difficult not to recall these words, as a young man from Mosul recounts how, a century later, he watched foreign militants violently acquire the homes of his neighbours and spray graffiti on their walls reading ‘Property of the Islamic State’. Up to 90 per cent of the Islamic State (IS) fighters that seized more than a third of Iraqi territory from 2014-2017 were believed to have come from outside the country’s borders (with characteristic Iraqi dark humour, the young man likens their diversity to a United Colours of Benetton advertisement).

Like previous invaders, IS laid waste to much of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage, imposing archaic laws in their ‘liberation’ campaign to establish a Muslim caliphate. It seems that modernity in the land often deemed the ‘cradle of civilization’ – credited with inventions from writing, algebra and perfume to ancient robotics – has been defined by the yoke of tyranny: foreign and home-grown.

The country’s 1932 independence as the Kingdom of Iraq did not spell the end of Western powers’ commercial or military interference. It was local reaction against ongoing imperial intervention that led to the 1958 overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy and subsequent rise of the Ba’ath party, with its ideology of pan-Arab nationalism. From 1979 onwards Ba’athism turned more toward despotism than socialism as president Saddam Hussein asserted his power domestically and among neighbours. The Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980-88 saw as many as one million casualties and an incalculable cost to Iraq’s economy. A chemical attack on the northern town of Halabja made clear Saddam’s genocidal intentions toward Iraq’s Kurds (among other minorities).

Following the invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, it was Iraqi civilians who felt most acutely the weight of punishment. UN-imposed sanctions stretched out over nine years, compelling Iraqis to sell everything from their homes to their furniture to survive as unemployment reached 50 per cent.

The promises of liberation that scaffolded the US-led invasion in 2003 proved as disingenuous as the claims of Weapons of Mass Destruction that preceded it. The botched regime change and occupation further destabilized the country and region into sectarian fragmentation. Alongside elements of Iraq’s once-marginalized Shi’a majority, the Kurds appear to have been the main beneficiaries of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ through the establishment of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). But KRG leaders appear scarcely less corrupt and repressive than their counterparts in Baghdad.

Three years after the declared defeat of IS, more than one million Iraqis remain internally displaced. Contemporary Baghdad may bear little resemblance to its former moniker of ‘City of Peace’, but Iraqis are far from acquiescent. Mass protests in 2019-2020 saw frustrated citizens – mostly youths – calling for better services, an end to corruption and an overhaul of a political system viewed as serving the elite alone. Whether or not the resulting elections, held in October 2021, will fulfil any of their demands is questionable, with many activists calling for a boycott and a voter turnout of just 41 per cent – the lowest on post-invasion record. Yet even the vocal rejection of Iraq’s venal and exogenous structures of power is itself a marker of agency and the ongoing appetite for change.

A man serves tea inside a shop. Another man sits on a chair.
A man serves tea inside one of the first reopened shops following the Mosul Offensive in 2018. Credit: Alexandra Rose Howland

LEADER: Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhim.

ECONOMY: GNI per capita: $9,660 (Jordan $10,320, UK $47,620).

Monetary unit: Iraqi Dinar (1 IQD = $0.0006).

Main exports: Iraq is the world’s seventh biggest producer and exporter of oil. Plus gold and other precious gems, minerals, fruit and nuts, machinery and chemical products.

POPULATION: 40.6 million. Annual population growth: 2.4%. Population density: 95 people per square kilometre (Jordan 115, UK 281).

HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate: 22 per 1,000 live births (Jordan 14, UK 4). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 79 (Jordan: 30, UK 7). Many Iraqis, particularly in rural and displaced communities, lack access to drinking water and sanitation.

ENVIRONMENT: Iraq’s geography is characterized by arid lowlands and deserts in the centre and south, and the damper mountainous north. Much of its once-rich biodiversity – notably marshlands and palms – and agriculture has been decimated by conflict and poor environmental management. Climate change poses a particular threat, with drought and desertification accelerating alongside rising temperatures.

CULTURE: Iraq has one of the longest and most influential cultural histories, peopled by diverse ethnic groups. Today, its population is majority Arab (around 75%), with a sizeable Kurdish minority (around 17%) and smaller Turkmen, Assyrian, Persian and others communities.

RELIGION: Iraq is a predominantly Muslim nation (around 97%), with a Shi’a majority (upwards of 60% though estimates are contested), alongside Sunnis and smaller communities of Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and others. Iraq was once home to a large Jewish population, virtually all of whom left during the 20th century.

LANGUAGE: Arabic and Kurdish (official), plus Aramaic, Turkic, Armenian and Persian-speaking minorities.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.674 (Jordan 0.729, UK 0.932), rank 123 of 189 countries.

Two women walking, one carries a small child. Behind them two young men walk with their arms around each other. Behind them more peple are walking. Destroyed buildings are next to them.
Civilians flee Islamic State territory in Al Zenjili district, West Mosul in 2017. Credit: Alexandra Rose Howland

Income distribution ★✩✩✩✩

Iraq’s oil-dependent economy plummeted further during Covid-19, with poverty rising to over 30%. As many Iraqis see it, the country has two classes: rich and poor.

Literacy ★★★✩✩

Literacy in Iraq has progressed to 85% (females 79% and males 91%), above its pre-conflict levels and in line with global averages. But education in Iraq is a woeful shadow of the once world-class system that saw female literacy exceed rates of neighbouring countries in the 1980s.

Life expectancy ★★★✩✩

At just over 70 years (Jordan 75, UK 81), life expectancy in Iraq has climbed from a slump of less than 60 during the 1980s war towards the current global average of 73.

Position of Women ★✩✩✩✩

Iraqi women’s status has deteriorated since the first Gulf War. Women require the consent of a male guardian for many administrative functions and a parliamentary quota of 25% is undermined by intimidation. Honour killings are frequent, there is no federal domestic violence law and abortion remains prohibited.

FREEDOM ★✩✩✩✩

Religious minorities are often violently persecuted and displaced by extremists. Iraq’s seemingly vibrant media is wrought with political bias and self-censorship and violent intimidation. Those exercising their formal right to freedom of assembly risk arrest or fatal violence, with more than 600 killed in a security crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in 2019.

SEXUAL MINORITIES ★✩✩✩✩

Although Iraqi law does not prohibit consensual same-sex relations, mounting religious extremism post-2003 has seen dozens of LGBTQI+ individuals kidnapped, jailed, tortured and murdered.

POLITICS ★✩✩✩✩

Forced to resign and stage early elections following a wave of protests from 2019, Iraq’s government looks new but little improved. Despite the democratic trappings of the post-Saddam electoral system, Iraqi politics under its Shi’a dominated parliament remains wrought by sectarianism and foreign interference.