Iraq: Conflict Profile
After decades of authoritarian rule under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was invaded in 2003 by a US-led ‘coalition of the willing’. Ostensibly the invasion was initiated over the threat of Iraqi WMDs and Saddam’s failure to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, there are however many who question both the truth of this justification and the legality of the invasion as it occurred. Although the US-led coalition was reasonably successful in their initial aim of defeating the Baath party and the Iraqi army, the invasion triggered an insurgency that has caused continuing problems for the country.
The path to invasion
There had been concerns over Iraq’s possession, use and potential use of WMDs for some time before the 2003 invasion. The Iraqi government was accused of using chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabjah in 1988, and in 1998 Iraq ended cooperation with the UN Special Commission to Oversee the Destruction of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (UNSCOM). This withdrawal of cooperation prompted ‘Operation Desert Fox’; a US and UK bombing campaign to destroy Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programme. This was followed in 1999 by a UN resolution to replace UNSCOM (with UNMOVIC), which was rejected by Iraq, and further US and UK bombings in 2001 to try to disable Iraq’s air defence network. Public awareness of the issue was raised after President George W Bush listed Iraq in his ‘axis of evil’. Repeated negotiations over Iraqi cooperation with UN weapons inspections teams were to follow before UNMOVIC were able to begin inspecting sites in November 2002. In March 2003 the US and Britain called on the Security Council to authorise military action against Iraq, but were met with stiff opposition from France, Russia, Germany and several Arab countries. Despite this, on 17 March President Bush gave Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war. Saddam did not comply and the invasion began on 19 March.
The invasion set off a Sunni-led insurgency that attacked the coalition forces and their supporters. The disbandment of the Iraqi army, leaving many men jobless, and the installation of a Shiite dominated government is considered to have contributed to the growth of this insurgency, and its sectarian nature. Shiite and Sunni militias began carrying out revenge attacks and many Iraqis fled their homes as neighbourhoods became increasingly segregated. The insurgency has resulted in a polarisation of ethnic identities that is even more complex than the Sunni-Shiite-Kurd distinctions that are normally recognised. The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara, one of the holiest Shiite sites, in mid-2006 is linked to an escalation in violence that particularly hit civilians. The US surge of the following year has been linked by some with a fall in levels of violence, although others question the accuracy and legitimacy of such claims. As well as the numerous ethnic and tribal divisions in Iraq, Al Qaeda is believed to retain a presence in the country through the Islamic State of Iraq organisation.
As the US-led forces prepare to leave, power is gradually being passed over to the newly established and coalition trained Iraqi security forces, yet there are numerous obstacles ahead in the country’s path to reconstruction. These include the society’s deep divisions, problems of corruption and oil smuggling, and unanswered questions over the division of power. There are also problems relating to IDPs and refugees from Iraq; the IDMC estimates that around 2.8 million remain internally displaced, while a further 2 million are estimated to have found refuge outside the country. Estimates for the overall civilian death toll vary widely; between 100,000 and 1 million, and no official body has been set up to monitor this.
Further hampering reconstruction efforts is the failure to produce a workable government after parliamentary elections in March 2010. No party won an overall majority, and it took until 11 November for the parties to agree a power-sharing government. However, there are concerns over how durable a solution it will prove to be.
Last updated: March 2013