Iraq: Conflict profile

Modern Iraq was created after the First World War. Under the auspices of the League of Nations, the British Empire installed King Faisal as the head of a monarchy, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq. A series of coups from 1958 to 1968 overthrew the monarchy and eventually led to the Ba’ath Party’s control of the country under Saddam Hussein in 1979. Long standing regional rivalry and the 1979 revolution led Saddam Hussein to invade Iraq's eastern neighbour Iran in 1980. The ensuing Iran-Iraq War lasted for eight years, left a million people dead and Iraq's economy in tatters. The United States supported Saddam Hussein's regime against Iran for much of the war, as well as secretly supplying weapons to the Iranians; now known as the Iran-Contra Scandal.

The Iraqi regime incurred significant debts to the Gulf States, including Kuwait, as a result of the war. Saddam Hussein also accused the Kuwaiti government of keeping oil prices low in order to deprive Iraq of much needed revenue. After refusing to forgive Iraq's debt, Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. As a result, an international coalition led by the US launched an attack on Iraqi forces in Kuwait in order to force them back across the border. Coalition forces quickly expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait but stopped short of deposing Saddam Hussein.

One of the most significant results of what became known as "the First Gulf War" was the imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iraq. In place until the 2003 invasion, many estimate that these sanctions created a humanitarian crisis that led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 children.

The path to invasion

Ostensibly, the administration of US President George W. Bush initiated the invasion of Iraq over the threat of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and Saddam Hussein's failure to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors. However, many have question this and the legality of the invasion. In 2004, then United Nations Secretary General, Koffi Annan, called the US led invasion “illegal” and in contravention of the UN Charter.

The Iraqi government had used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War and again against Kurdish civilians in Halabjah in 1988. In the former case, the US government was aware and even provided intelligence on Iranian targets. The UN Special Commission to Oversee the Destruction of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (UNSCOM) was put in place after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In 1998 Iraq ended cooperation with the UNSCOM inspectors. This 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.

US 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 followed before UNMOVIC were able to begin inspecting sites in November 2002. Then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke in front of the UN Security Council in February 2003 to present the Bush administration's evidence of WMDs in Iraq. However, the intelligence upon which his testimony was based was fabricated and US and British intelligence agencies were likely aware that Hussein's government possessed no WMDs.

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. After quickly defeating the Iraqi army and ousting the Ba'athist government, US President George W. Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq on May 1, 2003. No chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons were ever found.


Despite Bush declaring an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003, US and allied forces remained in Iraq until December 2011. The invasion set off a Sunni-led insurgency that attacked the coalition forces and their supporters. Composed of Ba'athists, ex-military, and nationalists, the insurgents resisted foreign occupation of their country. In addition to Sunni groups, the invasion precipitated a rise in Shiite militias as well, such as the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada al-Sadr. Shiite and Sunni militias began to clash and carry 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. Iraqi Christians, for example, have suffered high levels of threats and violence since the 2003 invasion. 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 and Syria (ISIS) organisation.

By 2006, the combination of foreign occupying forces, Sunni and Shiite militias, and groups such as Al Qaeda plunged the country into civil war. The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite sites, in mid-2006 is linked to an escalation in violence that particularly hit civilians. US officials have claimed that the "surge" of 2007 reduced overall levels of violence, although others question the accuracy and legitimacy of such claims. Unfortunately, recent months have seen a resurgence in levels of violence not seen since 2008.


The US led invasion and its ensuing chaos and violence created one of the world's largest refugee and displaced persons crises. UNHCR estimates that in mid-2013 there were still over 400,000 refugees originating from Iraq and nearly 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within its borders. As many as 10,000 Iraqis who fled to Syria after the 2003 invasion have now returned as a result of the on-going Syrian civil war. No official body tracks civilian deaths, but the often cited Iraq Body Count puts deaths at over 120,000 and a recent survey put the figure at over 460,000.

Nuri al Maliki_Nancy Pelosi Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki (r), pictured here with former US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (l), will be contesting the Iraqi general elections in April. Image credit: Nancy Pelosi

The US-led forces have now left Iraq and numerous obstacles remain 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. A March 2013 report prepared by the Special Inspector General Iraqi Reconstruction contains sharp criticism from many Iraqi government officials, including the Prime Minister, on the use and misuse of $60 billion in reconstruction funds spent by the US government.

Further hampering reconstruction efforts was the failure to produce a workable government after parliamentary elections in March 2010. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's party won 27.4 per cent of the seats in the Iraqi Parliament but no party won an overall majority. It took nine months of negotiations for the parliament to approve a new government again headed by Nuri al-Maliki in December 2010. Al-Maliki will run for a third term in the April 30th elections.

Continued violence and discontent with al-Maliki's government amongst segments of the country raise concern that the country is headed toward civil war once again. In December 2013, al-Maliki ordered government forces to confront Sunni militia forces affiliated with the ISIS in Anbar Province so far leaving hundreds dead as fighting continues.

Last updated: December 2010