Iraq Geopolitics

By | December 19, 2021

Iraq, which seemed to have recovered a certain internal stability after years of conflict, has again plunged into a military and political crisis which, inserted in an arc of regional crisis, has come to shatter the very territorial integrity of the state.

In the eighties, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, the ‘Land of Two Rivers’ was one of the regional powers and could count not only on huge reserves of hydrocarbons, but also on a solid and avant-garde military apparatus compared to the other regional powers.. With the rise of Khomeini in Iran, and the consequent shift in American regional politics, Iraq had seen new scenarios open up. Saddam quickly became the ally of the West in an anti-Iranian key, as well as a fundamental pillar of Washington’s Middle Eastern strategy, as evidenced by the support of the United States and the Gulf monarchies in the conflict against Tehran (1980-88). In the decade following, excessive military force and aggressive policies of Saddam Hussein led to the international isolation of Baghdad: in response to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, in January 1991 an international coalition led by the US led a military campaign liberation that destroyed Iraqi military projection capability. After a decade of no-fly zones, embargoes and occasional air raids, Operation Iraqi Freedom, in March 2003, marked the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The new ‘liberated’ Iraq, however, turned out to be very different from what the neocon administration envisioned by George W. Bush. The post-regime power vacuum, combined with the disastrous management of Paul Bremer ‘s Coalition Provisional Authority (Cpa) and successive Iraqi governments – dominated by the strongman of national politics Nouri al-Maliki – have in fact exacerbated the sectarian divisions that exist in the country, dragging Iraq into a bloody civil conflict between 2006 and 2007. A new American strategy (the so-called surge), combined with greater inter-sectarian political participation has allowed the decrease in violence in the country. However, ethnic tensions remained consistent and the definitive withdrawal of US troops(2011) increased the power of Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki who, backed by Iran, has again made use of sectarian politics as an instrument of power, waging a tough battle with leading Sunni politicians. All this catalyzed the widespread discontent in the Sunni community: also stimulated by the progressive spillover of the Syrian crisis, the latent Iraqi inter-ethnic fractures definitively exploded in June 2014, when the radical Islamic movement of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), already active in the gray area of ​​the border with Syria, has taken over the second center of the country, Mosul – also thanks to the support of the local population, almost totally Sunni. The I sis(later self-appointed only IS, Islamic State) is strong in a network that from the east of Syria expands into the Sunni majority areas of northern and western Iraq, covering about a third of the country. Thanks to the financial support of Gulf donors and the huge oil, financial and military resources accumulated in the taking of Mosul, IS has gradually consolidated its positions, arriving at the gates of Baghdad and threatening the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the summer of 2014. Internal and international pressure led to the resignation of al-Maliki who, despite having re-imposed in the April 2014 elections, was replaced by Haider al-Abadi in the following August. For Iraq political system, please check

As regards the institutional order, Iraq has a federal structure which – without prejudice to the pre-eminence of the central government – provides for significant forms of autonomy, especially in the case of the regional government of Kurdistan (Krg), with its own executive, parliament and its own armed forces, known as Peshmerga. Although not set up according to a formally consociative model, the Iraqi political system is strongly marked by ethnic-religious divisions. Precisely for this reason, since 2005, the highest positions in the state have been assigned taking into account the composition of the Iraqi social fabric. The office of president of the republic has always been assigned to a Kurdish exponent (since June 2014 Fouad Masum, who succeeded the elderly leader Jalal Talabani), that of prime minister to a Shiite Arab (al-Abadi) and that of president of the parliament to a Sunni Arab (Selim al-Jabouri). The same dynamics have also been proposed for the major dicasteries. Despite (or perhaps also because of) this setting.


Iraq presents itself as a composite country in terms of ethnic-religious affiliation. According to the latest estimates (the veracity of which is difficult to prove since the last census conducted on the entire national territory took place in 1987), 97% of the residents are Muslims. But underneath this apparent homogeneity lies the split between Shiites (almost 60% of the population) and Sunnis (around 38%). Minorities include Christians, who are less and less significant due to the tens of thousands of victims caused by the repeated escalation of violence and the continuous exodus. There are also lesser known confessions, such as the Shabak, the Yazidis (the latter severely persecuted by Is) and the mandeans. The particular ethnic-religious conformation of Iraq has meant that it was considered the Middle Eastern country between Sunnism and Shiism, as well as between the Arab and Persian world. Although it is difficult to place the different communities in space, which often coexist in ‘mixed’ territories (especially in large cities), the Shiite component is concentrated in the south and south-east, pushing north to Baghdad and Diyala, while in the rest communities with a Sunni majority are distributed throughout the country. Equally complex is the ethnic composition of Iraq. About three quarters of the residents are Arabs, but there is also a substantial minority of Kurds (15-20% of the population), concentrated in the northern regions and along part of the borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Economy and energy

A state with vast reserves of hydrocarbons, Iraq suffered from the unsuccessful wars of expansion waged at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s and a long period of ostracism by the international community. The international sanctions following the Gulf War brought the system to collapse. Only with the launch in 1996 of the controversial ‘Oil for food’ program of the UN, Iraq was able to count on the recovery of oil revenues, intended, in the intentions, for the purchase of foodstuffs and basic necessities to improve the terrible living conditions of the population. Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003 failed to transform the country into the model of democracy and free market proposed by the circles American neocons. Only in the last few years has oil production registered a rapid growth which led Baghdad, in 2012, to become the second largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia. According to government plans, the current level of production (around 3 million barrels per day) is expected to triple by 2020, serving as a driving force for the development of the entire country. The crisis in the north has not yet significantly affected the production of crude oil (localized in the more stable Shi’ite south), while allowing the I s mastering some energy resources and make huge profits. Although it does not have significant gas reserves, the development of the sector could, on the one hand, allow for a rebalancing of energy mix still too unbalanced in favor of crude oil and on the other favoring the development of the Kurdish region, in which about 60% of Iraqi production is concentrated. Nonetheless, the lack of a network of gas pipelines or gas liquefaction plants means that production is still destined to satisfy only limited internal consumption.

The economic problem remains the strong internal instability, given that in 2015 the growth rate following the conflict with Is was equal to 0%, after reaching almost 10% in 2013. Inflation, which until 2006 exceeded 50% per annum, fell to acceptable levels (1.9%). The problem of the strong dependence of the economy on oil production is flanked by the high level of corruption and an unemployment rate that is around 16% of the active population, even if the official data probably fails to take into account the enormous problems related to safety.

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)