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Definition: Iraq from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

country SW

Asia in Mesopotamia; a republic since 1958, formerly a kingdom ✽ Baghdad area 168,927 sq mi (437,521 sq km), pop 31,500,000

Iraqi \-॑rä-kē, -॑ra-\ adj or n

Summary Article: Iraq
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Country in southwest Asia, bounded north by Turkey, east by Iran, southeast by the Gulf and Kuwait, south by Saudi Arabia, and west by Jordan and Syria.

Government Under the 2005 constitution, Iraq is an emerging parliamentary democratic republic with an evolving federal structure. The legislature, the Council of Representatives (Majlis an-Nuwwab) comprises 328 members elected for a four year term under a proportional representation party list system, but with the requirement that women occupy at least 25% of the seats. The Council elects the president of the republic, with a two-thirds majority vote required, and there is a limitation of two four-year terms. The president is largely a ceremonial figure but selects the prime minister from the majority coalition in the Council. Executive power is held by the prime minister and the cabinet, with Council approval required for each cabinet appointment. Under the Unity government arrangements, the president is a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia Muslim, and the speaker a Sunni Muslim. The federal government has exclusive power over foreign and defence policy, budget and financial policies, and welfare programmes. There is an independent judicial branch of government, including a Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees election results and rules in cases of accusations against the president or prime minister. The constitution describes Iraq as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state and recognizes the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and Arabic and Kurdish as official languages. It describes Islam as the religion of the state and a ‘main’ or ‘fundamental’ source of legislation, but that there is freedom of religion. It also stipulates that oil revenues be fairly distributed throughout the country according to each region's population, and bans the Saddamist Ba'ath Party and parties or other bodies that advocate or instigate terrorism, racism or ‘sectarian cleansing’.

History The area now occupied by Iraq was formerly ancient Mesopotamia and was the centre of the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian civilizations 6000 BCAD 100. It was conquered in 114 by the Romans and was ruled 266–632 by the native Sassanians before being invaded in 633 by the Arabs.

In 1065 the country was taken over by the Turks and was invaded by the Mongols in 1258; Baghdad was destroyed in 1401 by Tamerlane. Annexed by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1533, Iraq became part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1638, as the separate vilayets (regions) of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul.

Independent kingdom Occupied by Britain in World War I, Iraq was placed under British administration by the League of Nations in 1920. In 1932 Iraq became a fully independent kingdom, but until World War II Iraq's increasing formal autonomy masked a continued political and military control by Britain. In 1933 the reigning king, Faisal I, died and was succeeded by his son Ghazi; the leading figure behind the throne was the strongly pro-Western general Nuri el-Said, who was prime minister 1930–58. In 1939 King Ghazi was killed in an accident, and Faisal II became king at the age of three. His uncle Prince Abd al-Ilah acted as regent until 1953 when the king assumed full powers.

In 1955 Iraq signed the Baghdad Pact, a regional collective security agreement, with the USSR seen as the main potential threat, and in 1958 joined Jordan in an Arab Federation, with King Faisal as head of state. In July of that year, a revolution overthrew the monarchy, and King Faisal, Prince Abd al-Ilah, and Gen Nuri were all killed.

Republic The constitution was suspended, and Iraq was declared a republic, with Brig Abdul Karim Kassem as head of a left-wing military regime. He withdrew from the Baghdad Pact in 1959 and was killed in 1963 in a coup led by Col Salem Arif, who established a new government, ended martial law, and within two years had introduced a civilian administration. He died in a helicopter crash in 1966, and his brother, who succeeded him, was ousted in 1968 and replaced by Maj-Gen Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. He concentrated power in the hands of a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and made himself head of state, head of government, and chair of the RCC. With the Ba'ath government giving priority to agriculture and industry, the 1970s brought strong economic growth and the emergence of a new young technocratic elite and, in retrospect, was a high-point in Iraq's modern history. In 1979 Saddam Hussein, who for several years had been the real power in Iraq, replaced al-Bakr as RCC chair and state president. In 1980 he introduced a National Charter, reaffirming a policy of non-alignment and a new constitution, with national assembly elections following in the 1980s. However, under Saddam Hussein, human rights and dissent were suppressed by force and the economy was devastated by Saddam's efforts to expand Iraq territorially. Iraq became involved in an inconclusive and costly eight-year war with Iran, followed by a devastating military defeat in 1991 by a US-led international alliance, after Iraq's unilateral invasion of Kuwait, and then a decade of trade embargoes as the international community put pressure on Iraq to remove the weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons which Hussein had used against Iran in 1988.

Iran–Iraq War 1980–1988 Relations between Iraq and Iran had been tense for some years, with disagreement over their shared border, which runs down the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. The 1979 Iranian revolution, which brought to power a fundamentalist Shia Muslim theocracy, made Iraq, which had a Shia Muslim majority population but which was dominated politically and militarily by its Sunni Muslim and secularists under the Ba'athists, more suspicious of Iran's intentions, and in 1980 a full-scale war broke out. Despite Iraq's inferior military strength, Iran gained little territory, and by 1986 it seemed as if a stalemate might have been reached. The fighting intensified again early in 1987, by which time hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost on both sides and incalculable damage to industry and property sustained. Following Iranian acceptance of United Nations ceasefire provisions, the war came to an end in 1988. Hussein took advantage of the end of hostilities to turn his combat-hardened army against Kurds, who were the majority community in northern Iraq and were in rebellion, demanding a separate state, and many of whom had sided with Iran. In the 1988 Anfal campaign, at least 100,000 Kurds were massacred, mainly from around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and many more fled. Saddam also moved to support Christian forces in Lebanon against Syrian- and Iranian-backed Muslims. The launch of a ballistic missile on a successful test caused concern about Iraq's suspected nuclear-weapons development. In 1989 an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Saddam Hussein was reported.

Gulf War In the early months of 1990 Saddam reopened a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Kuwait, claiming it held land and oil reserves belonging to Iraq. Following increasing diplomatic pressure, Iraqi troops invaded and annexed Kuwait on 2 August 1990, installing a puppet government and declaring it part of Iraq. As Iraqi troops massed on his borders, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia requested help from the USA and the UK, and a rapid build-up of US ground and air power and British aircraft began. Meanwhile on 6 August 1990 the UN Security Council condemned the invasion, demanded Iraq's withdrawal, and adopted Resolution 661, which imposed comprehensive sanctions, including a full trade embargo, excluding medical supplies and food for humanitarian purposes. To ensure the safety of his border, President Saddam Hussein hastily concluded a permanent peace treaty with Iran, under which he conceded virtually everything for which he had fought the Iran-Iraq War and both countries agreed to release all prisoners of war. Iraqi troops were not removed from Kuwait by a UN Security Council deadline of 15 January 1991 and on the following day US-led Allied forces began an aerial bombardment of Baghdad. A last-minute peace initiative by the USSR to avoid a land battle failed, and on 23 February 1991 the Allied land offensive, known as Operation Desert Storm, began. On 28 February 1991, after 100 hours of ground fighting, Iraqi forces capitulated and agreed to a ceasefire and withdrawal from Kuwait. The total number of Iraqis killed in the war was estimated at around 200,000. In April 2001 Iraq agreed to UN terms for a permanent ceasefire, and strict conditions were imposed, including Iraq agreeing to disclose and destroy all stockpiles of weapons.

Kurds and Shias revolt Following Iraq's defeat, various factions within the country began uprisings against the government. Shias revolted in the south and, in the north, Kurds briefly gained control of many cities. The ferocity of the Iraqi counterattack and suppression in the north forced more than 1 million Kurds to flee to mountainous regions on the borders with Turkey and Iran, where thousands died from exposure, hunger, and related diseases. In response to public outcry at their plight, Allied forces were stationed in the region and a ‘safe zone’ set up, within which humanitarian aid was provided. In September 1996 the Iraqi government moved troops into Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and the USA retaliated with a full-scale air campaign.

In August 1992 the UN Security Council imposed a ‘no-fly zone’ over northern and southern Iraq to protect the Kurd and Shia communities and to be enforced by the USA, UK, and France. Following alleged Iraqi infringements of the zone and incursions into the demilitarized zone of Kuwait, US-led forces carried out a number of air strikes against Iraqi missile and radar sites in January 1993. In June 1993 Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad were hit by US missiles, in an action which the USA claimed was carried out in retaliation for an alleged plot against former president George Bush. Iraqi persecution of the Shias continued, however, despite the UN-imposed ‘no-fly zone’.

Sanctions and their effects Under Resolution 687, after the Gulf War the UN Security Council kept in force the economic sanctions imposed in August 1990 on Iraq. In June 1991, the UN Special Commission (Unscom) carried out its first chemical weapons inspection in Iraq under this resolution. In October 1991 the UN Security Council voted to prohibit Iraq from all nuclear activities. In December 1994 Saddam publicly renounced his claim to Kuwait, fulfilling one of the conditions required for the lifting of UN sanctions. Dismantling of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and fair treatment of its minorities were among the other conditions stipulated by the UN, and since these had not been met, the sanctions were extended in January 1995.

With the economy collapsing and several key associates defecting, including two of his sons-in-law, who fled to Jordan and were shot dead on their return to Baghdad in 1996, Saddam fell back increasingly on the support of his older son Udai and younger son Qusai, who became vice-presidents in 1995. In 2000 Qusai was made superior minister and heir to Saddam Hussein In December 1996, the UN approved, under Resolution 986, an ‘oil for food’ programme under which impoverished Iraq was allowed to resume limited (US$2 billion each six months initially and US$5.2 billion from 1998) exports of oil to world markets for the first time since 1990 and use the proceeds to buy food and medical supplies. However, in November 1997 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to toughen sanctions on Iraq after Saddam Hussein refused to comply with Unscom inspectors overseeing the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction. Iraq had accused the U-2 surveillance planes working for Unscom of spying for the USA. The UN resolution also warned of unspecified ‘further measures’ if Iraq persisted in its defiance.

In early 1998 the threat of an Anglo-American military attack over non-compliance with Unscom developed, with US and UK forces assembling in the Gulf. But other UN Security Council members did not favour military action and in February 1998 UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, reached an agreement with Iraqi prime minister, Tariq Aziz, to allow UN weapons inspection to go ahead. The UN Security Council ratified this agreement in March 1998. In April 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared Iraq free of nuclear weapons and UN weapons experts left Baghdad after inspecting eight sites where they believed Iraq might have concealed chemical weapons. Their report showed that Iraq had failed to meet UN requirements on the destruction of nerve gas and other weapons of mass destruction. However, in November 1998 the Unscom team withdrew from Iraq because of a lack of cooperation and on 16 December 1998 US and UK forces launched Operation Desert Fox, four days of air strikes on Iraqi air defences, airfields, and communications centres which was aimed at smashing Saddam's military infrastructure and weakening his hold on power. Russia, France, and China condemned the attacks, but the Pentagon claimed the operation had delayed Iraq's missile programme by a year.

Humanitarian concerns The consequence of sanctions preventing Iraq from selling its oil until 1996, and thereafter only through the oil-for-food plan, was deteriorating public health and nutrition. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that between 1990 and 1998 a tripling, to 12%, in the number of babies in Iraq who died before they were 12 months old and a UNICEF survey in 1997 found that a quarter of children under five were not getting enough to eat. Only in the north, where Kurds now enjoyed autonomy was child health stable or improving. In 1998, seven years after the end of the Gulf War, an ‘epidemic’ of leukaemia and stomach cancer was claiming the lives of thousands of Iraqi civilians who lived near the war zone, including children, and Iraqi doctors in the southern city of Basra had recorded a four-fold increase in cancer – especially among young children – since 1991, leading to concern that farms had been contaminated by depleted uranium shells used by the Allies during battles of the war. There were humanitarian flights to Iraq, carrying medical supplied, from Russia, France, Syria and Jordan during 2000, and in February 2001 Iraq's national airline resumed scheduled international flights in defiance of UN sanctions. In November 2001 the Iraq–Syria border was re-opened and Iraq began pumping oil to Syria in violation of the UN-approved oil-for-food programme as Arab states began questioning the UN air embargo on Baghdad. By March 2001 contracts worth US$20 billion had been approved under the oil-for-food programme since its instigation, but only US$7 billion of food and US$1.2 billion of health supplies had been delivered to Iraq.

The run-up to war In February 2000, in an attempt to offset diplomatic paralysis with Iraq, the UN created a new agency. The UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (Unmovic) was headed by Hans Blix, the Swedish former head of the IAEA, and was formed to inspect weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But Iraq refused to allow the return of UN weapons inspectors. Air strikes by US and British war planes of Iraqi air defence installations continued between 2000 and 2002 as well as skirmishes in the northern and southern no-fly zones, with some strikes claiming Iraqi civilian casualties.

The US stance on Iraq hardened from 2001 with the coming to power of the neo-conservative Republican President George W Bush and particularly after the September 2001 dramatic terrorist attacks on New York orchestrated by Islamic fundamentalist al-Qaeda. The Bush administration considered that Saddam Hussein was a sponsor of international terrorism, making him a key target in the USA's new global war on terror.

In March 2002 Iraq once again rejected the return of UN weapons inspectors, despite warnings by the Bush administration that refusal would threaten military action against Iraq, and in May 2002 the UN Security Council agreed to implement ‘smart’ sanctions, targeted at military and dual-use equipment. But in November 2002, faced with the increasing threat of military intervention by the USA, which now accused Iraq of harbouring al-Qaeda terrorists, and following UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which held Iraq to be in ‘material breach’ of its disarmament obligations and gave it ‘a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations’ or face ‘serious consequences’.

In response, Saddam Hussein finally allowed UN weapons inspectors to resume their work in Iraq, after a four-year absence. Iraq supplied Unmovic with a 12,000-page weapons declaration but in December 2002 Hans Blix reported to the UN Security Council that it failed to account for all of Iraq's chemical and biological agents. In late January 2003 Blix reported some progress in access to facilities, but expressed concern that Unmovic was unable to interview Iraqi scientists and deploy aerial surveillance and that some weapons material appeared undeclared.

In October 2002 the US Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the use of US military force against Iraq and on 5 February 2003 the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, addressed the UN and presented the US case for war against Iraq on the grounds of non-compliance with weapons inspections, suspected continuing production of weapons of mass destruction and alleged links with al-Qaeda.

On 14 February 2003 (and again on 7 March 2003) Hans Blix reported to the UN Security Council that Iraq had started to cooperate well with the UN weapons inspectors and that no weapons of mass destruction had been found, but some banned weapons believed to be still held by Iraq remained unaccounted for. Across the world, there were many demonstrations against a war in Iraq and the UN Security council was split, with France, Germany and Russia advocating further inspections and peaceful disarmament. On 1 March 2003 Iraq began destroying its al-Samoud 2 long-range missiles, which violated UN resolutions.

The 2003 Iraq War and its violent aftermath On 17 March 2003 US president George W Bush announced on US television that Saddam Hussein had 48 hours to flee into exile or face war. On 18 March, Saddam Hussein rejected the exile option and on 20 March, the USA and UK launched controversial military action against Iraq (see Iraq War), nominally to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction but also to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Following a rapid military advance through Iraq, US ground forces took control of Baghdad on 9 April 2003. Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed, his sons Uday and Qusay were shot dead by US troops in July 2003, and widespread looting by Iraqi civilians followed. Saddam went into hiding, but was captured alive by US troops near his birthplace Tikrit on 13 December 2003. He went on trial before the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal in October 2005 on charges of responsibility for massacres of civilians during his period in rule, but used disruptive tactics in an effort to have the trial moved to an international court outside Iraq and where punishment would not be the death penalty.

On 1 May 2003 President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq and on 22 May 2003, in Resolution 1483, the UN Security Council voted to give the United States and Britain the power to govern Iraq and use its oil resources to rebuild the country. The resolution also ended 13 years of economic sanctions against Iraq. The US and British forces established a military occupation, run by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed initially by Jay Garner and then from May 2003 to April 2004 by US diplomat Paul Bremer. The CPA was tasked with managing the country until sovereignty could be returned to an Iraqi government.

However, the collapse of the Ba'athist regime led to a power vacuum, lawlessness and increasing violence, with the development of an insurgency by different groups, including militia formed by former secret police, soldiers of the Ba'athist regime, and Islamic fundamentalist extremists, some with external support, including from Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist with connections to al-Qaeda. There were suicide bombs, car bombs and gun attacks on the US-led Allied occupying force, but also by militia from the formerly dominant Sunni minority against civilians from the Shia majority, leading to reprisal attacks. The Kurdish north, with its own semi-autonomous government, and the predominantly Shia south, in the UK zone of military control were comparatively peaceful. But the insurgency was strong in Sunni Muslim areas to the north and west of Baghdad.

In April 2004 US forces carried out assaults on rebels based in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim stronghold west of Baghdad, and Najaf, an important holy centre south of Baghdad where militia forces were loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In Fallujah US troops claimed 600 insurgents at the loss of 40 American lives, but these events inflamed the situation and the level of insurgency increased in summer 2004. A further, even bloodier, US assault on the militant stronghold of Fallujah in November 2004 claimed 51 American and over 2,000 insurgent lives. But the insurgency continued, with an average of 50 insurgent attacks a day. The violence escalated in May 2005, with Shia civilian gatherings being targeted by Sunni rebels. Over 700 Iraqis died in this month, and in February 2006 the fourth holiest Shia shrine in Iraq (the Askariya mosque in Samarra) was severely damaged in a bomb attack.

By March 2006 over 2,300 US troops and 200 UK and other nationality troops had been killed in Iraq and 18,000 wounded, with around 150 of these deaths were during the March-April 2003 war and the rest since April 2003. Between 15,000 and 30,000 Iraqi soldiers may have been killed during the war and there may have been around 35,000 Iraqi civilian casualties during 2003, US Defence Department figures indicated that 26,000 Iraqis were killed or wounded between January 2004 and September 2005 and that over 4,700 Iraqi civilians and 2,200 Iraqi military/police had lost their lives during the first 10 months of 2005. However, a World Health Organization survey carried out in 2008 estimated that over 150,000 Iraqi civilians died from violence between the invasion in 2003 and June 2006.

Efforts at political and economic reconstruction Between April 2003 and June 2004 Iraq was under military occupation of 138,000 US troops, supported by 12,000 troops from the UK, with a similar number from around 20 other countries, and tens of thousands of private security personnel protecting infrastructure and facilities. Troops from Spain withdrew in April 2004. The USA pledged $20 billion of investment to help reconstruct Iraq's ruined infrastructure in the form of a credit against Iraq's future oil revenues and US and international firms were awarded construction and utility contracts. However, the surrounding violence hampered reconstruction efforts. In 2003 Iraq's GDP declined by 30%. By spring 2004, despite insurgent attacks on pipelines, Iraq's oil production had returned to pre-war levels, but Baghdad and other cities faced shortages of electricity and clean water. Unemployment stood between 25% and 50% in 2005.

In July 2003 the CPA appointed and granted limited powers to a 25-member Iraqi Interim Governing Council, representing a cross section of the country's religious and ethnic groups and with a monthly rotating interim presidency. On 28 June 2004 the Allied occupation officially ended when sovereignty was transferred to a transitional Iraqi government. This was headed by Ayad Allawi, a former Ba'athist who had been an opponent of Saddam Hussein, who became interim prime minister, while Ghazi Yawer, a Sunni, became interim president. UN Security Council Resolution 1546 recognized this end of occupation and the UN established diplomatic relations with the Interim Government. However, the US and UK troops remained in Iraq and, with the continuing disorder, appeared set to remain there for several years until a reliable Iraqi defence force could take its place.

The transitional government operated under a transitional constitution, involving a three-person presidential council, to ensure that all three of Iraq's major ethnic groups were represented, and freedoms of religion, speech and assembly, with many new independent newspapers starting up. The government's role was to prepare for elections in January 2005, but its authority was weak, with parts of the country under the control of local militia. Relations between the coalition forces and the Iraqi people were also undermined from April 2004 onwards by revelations of systematic torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US and UK troops in the Abu Ghraib detention centre outside Baghdad (which led to subsequent court-martial proceedings).

National elections went ahead as planned on 30 January 2005. Voter turnout was nearly 60%, in defiance of violence and intimidation, but many Sunnis boycotted the poll. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) of Shia Muslim-led parties won a comprehensive victory, with 48% of the popular vote, followed by a coalition of the two main Kurdish factions, with 26% vote share, and the secularist Iraqi List, headed by Allawi, with 14%. Other parties, including disaffected Sunni groups, collectively took 12%, reflecting their political marginalization. In April 2005, after months of bargaining, the new Iraqi National Assembly appointed Jalal Talabani, a prominent Kurdish leader, as president, with Ghazi Yawer and Adel Abdul Mehd, a Shia, as vice presidents. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shia from the UIA, was appointed prime minister.

New constitution and elections The new assembly drafted a constitution which was approved in an October 2005 national referendum by a large majority of 78% of those voting, but the constitution would have been defeated if the level of rejection the Sunni-dominated province of Nineveh had been 12% higher. Further elections were held in December 2005, for a new permanent government. Turnout increased to 70%, with Sunni participation much higher, but the UIA again dominated, winning 128 of the 275 seats (with 41% of the vote), followed by the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan with 53 seats (and 22% of the vote). The Sunni Iraqi Accord Front and Iraqi National Dialogue Front won 55 seats between them, with 19% of the vote, but secular parties fared poorly, with Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List winning only 25 seats and 8% of the vote.

Under the terms of the constitution, the president and prime minister required the support of two-thirds of the legislature. This, and pressure from the US which wanted a government of national unity, meant that al-Jaafari remained in power, despite an ineffective performance during 2005. Al-Jaafari bowed out as prime minister early in 2006, to be replaced, after months of deadlock, by his ally Nouri al-Maliki (also sometimes called Jawad al-Maliki) in April 2006.

Al-Maliki, who had once commanded Shia forces against Saddam Hussein's regime from exile in Syria, pledged to form a broad-based inclusive government. But like al-Jaafari, his government was unable to curb the escalating Sunni insurgency and sectarian killings. Sunni feelings were inflamed further by the trial of Saddam Hussein, which began in October 2005 and ended in Saddam's execution on 30 December 2006, after he was found guilty of crimes against humanity.

The US ‘troop surge’ in Iraq In January 2007, to assist the Iraqi army in fighting insurgents, US President Bush announced that the USA would deploy over 30,000 extra troops in Iraq. This new ‘troop surge’ strategy was intended to crack the insurgency and buttress the al-Maliki government. It was supported by Iraq's government, but went against the December 2006 advice of a US bipartisan review, the Iraq Study Group, which had recommended a staged US troop reduction by 2008 and dialogue with Iran and Syria.

By 2008 the ‘troop surge’ strategy was showing some signs of reducing the insurgency in Baghdad especially. In the first ten months of 2007 around 18,000 Iraqi security forces and civilians were killed and 893 coalition (mainly US) troops, and US military deaths fell by two-thirds in 2008. In March 2008 al-Maliki sent 30,000 Iraqi troops, mentored by US marines, to clean out Shia militias who had gained an upper hand in the city since 2006. In September 2008 the US military was able hand over to the Iraqi government security control over Anbar province, the heartland of the al-Qaeda led Sunni insurgency. It meant that 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces were under Iraqi control. Nevertheless, the country remained riven by ethnic divisions and during 2007–08 radical Shias and key Sunni groups withdrew from the national unity government.

New US strategy and timetable for troop withdrawal In November 2008, during the final months of the Bush presidency, Iraq's parliament approved an Iraq–US long-term security pact. This provided for a gradual US military withdrawal from Iraq, starting with withdrawal of troops from cities, towns, and villages by July 2009, followed by the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraqi territory, water, and airspace by the end of 2011. It set new rules under which US forces would operate, placing all 145,700 US troops in Iraq under the authority of the Iraqi government from January 2009. Henceforth, US troops could not arrest an Iraqi on search premises without an Iraqi judicial order. Provincial elections were held in Iraq in January 2009 and the al-Maliki aligned State Law Coalition polled strongly. In the same month the protected ‘Green Zone’ in central Baghdad, which included the Republican Palace, which had been the headquarters of the US government, was passed to Iraqi control.

In January 2009 the Democrat Barack Obama replaced George W Bush as US president, and in March 2009 he announced an accelerated US exit plan from Iraq. He said that in June 2009 US troops would withdraw from Iraq's towns and that around 100,000 US combat troops would be pulled out of Iraq by September 2010. This would leave a ‘transitional force’ of up to 50,000 troops to remain until the end of 2011, to train and advise the Iraqi security forces but not participate in major combat missions.

Inconclusive 2010 parliamentary elections and US troop withdrawal In the run up to parliamentary elections in March 2010 the al-Qaeda linked ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ carried out a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad that claimed over 400 lives between August and December 2009. The elections produced an inconclusive outcome, with the Sunni Al-Iraqiya alliance of former prime minister Ayad Allawi finishing first ahead of al-Maliki's Shia-backed State of Law coalition. It took until November 2010 for parliament to agree to reappoint as state president and prime minister Talabani and al-Maliki, who headed a fractious power-sharing Unity government including the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish blocks.

Despite an escalation in violence in the country in August 2011, the US completed its troop withdrawal in December 2011. Iraq's economy showed some improvement in 2012, with GDP growing by 9% and oil exports and construction activity picking up. But throughout 2012 there were outbreaks of sectarian conflict, with bomb and gun attacks targeting Shia areas and fears of growing Iranian influence in the region. In January nearly 200 people were killed and in July 113 people in a single day. And the Unity government failed to unite the country's communities. It became too pro-Shia and was weakened by Sunni boycotts of parliament and cabinet after an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni politician, vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, who had fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region after being accused of allegedly running a sectarian death squad.

In 2013 the level of sectarian violence returned to 2008 levels: the UN estimated that over 7,000 civilians were killed (up from 3,238 in 2012) as an extreme Sunni rebellion erupted in mainly-Sunni Anbar province in the west.

IS takes over western and northern Iraq In April 2014 parliamentary elections, prime minister al-Maliki's State of Law coalition finished first, with 24% of the vote and 92 of the 238 seats. But pressure within and from outside Iraq to replace al-Maliki as prime minister grew from June 2014, when Sunni rebels, led by the fundamentalist and jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), surged out of Anbar Province into the Sunni heartland of northern Iraq to take control over the country's second city Mosul, as well as Tikrit and the oil hub of Kirkuk.

ISIS also controlled large parts of northern and eastern Syria and in June 2014 had an estimated 15,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. A third of these were foreigners from Chechnya and Europe. By September 2014 its forces had doubled. The aim of ISIS was to establish an Islamic state in the Sunni-majority regions of Iraq and Syria, under the rule of a caliph (supreme religious leader) under Islamic law. It proclaimed this caliphate on 29 June 2014 with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (know to his supporters as Amīr al-Mu'minīn) as caliph and changed its name to the Islamic State (IS).

The speed of the ISIS advance highlighted weakness and lack of resolve in Iraq's army, with many deserting, and also that Iraq's Sunnis felt disenchanted with what they saw as a discriminatory al-Maliki government. However, ISIS was so brutal that al-Qaeda broke off links with it in February 2014 and ISIS's advance in Iraq was accompanied by massacres of Christians and Yazidis and torture to force conversion to Islam, and by a wave of refugees.

In August 2014 IS extended its offensive into Kurdish-held territory in north Iraq, capturing the town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to take refuge on Mount Sinjar. In response, the USA began to launch air-strikes against IS forces from 8 August, and gained wider international support for this approach. Kurdish Peshmerga forces fought resolutely, receiving arms from France and the USA, while Iran also provided military aid to Iraqi forces and launched air strikes against IS positions. Meanwhile, in July 2014 the Kurdish region president, Massoud Barzani, announced plans for an independence referendum later in the year.

Al-Abadi becomes prime minister In June 2014 the USA called for al-Maliki to stand down, as he had lost support and influence. Al-Maliki resisted until August, when he finally resigned and was replaced by Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Shia and party colleague. Al-Abadi worked alongside Fuad Masum, a Kurd, who had been chosen as president by parliament in July 2014, and put together a more inclusive government. He faced the challenge of pushing back the IS, which controlled much of northern Iraq, and of the Kurdish push for independence.

In December 2014 the al-Abadi government signed an agreement with the Kurdish Region leadership on the sharing of Iraq's oil wealth and military resources. The Kurdish leadership also agreed to put on hold the calling of an independence referendum.

Turning the military tide on IS From 2015 to 2017 the Iraqi army and Kurds focused on military campaigns, supported by US air strikes, to turn the tide against IS. This bore fruit with the recapturing of Tikrit in April 2015, Ramadi in December 2015, and Falluja in central Anbar province in June 2016. From October 2016 a battle of attrition took place to seek to prise back control over Mosul, a strategic city in northern Iraq which IS had held since June 2014.

Despite these military successes, there was public discontent with the al-Abadi government's domestic performance. Frequent power cuts alongside corruption and inefficiency arising from sectarian job quotas led to riots and demonstrations in August 2015, and February and April 2016. Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shia cleric and militia leader, played a key role in mobilizing these protests.


Bush, George: War with Iraq


oil pumping station in Iraq

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