Iraq: Iraq after Saddam Hussein's Ouster

Iraq after Saddam Hussein's Ouster

Continued U.S.-British insistence on complete Iraqi cooperation with the UN inspections, and continued Iraqi resistance to doing so, led the United States and Britain to demand (Mar., 2003) that Hussein step down or face an invasion. On Mar. 19, 2003, the Anglo-American attack began with an air strike aimed at Hussein personally. Sizable ground forces began invading the following day, surging primarily toward Baghdad, the southern oil fields, and port facilities; a northern front was opened by Kurdish and Anglo-American forces late in March. After less than a month of fighting, Hussein's rule had collapsed, and U.S. and British forces were established in major urban areas.

Hussein survived the war and went into hiding, and guerrilla attacks by what were believed to be Ba'ath loyalists and Islamic militants became an ongoing problem in the following months, largely in Sunni-dominated central Iraq. The Kurdish-dominated north and Shiite-dominated south were generally calmer. L. Paul Bremer 3d was appointed as civilian head of the occupation. UN economic sanctions were lifted in May, 2003 (U.S. sanctions were not ended, however, until July, 2004), and in mid-July an interim Governing Council consisting of representatives of Iraqi opposition groups was established. Nonetheless, civil order and the economy were restored at a slow pace. The cost for rebuilding Iraq was estimated by Bremer in late 2003 to be as much as $100 billion over three years.

In Oct., 2003, the UN Security Council passed a British-American resolution calling for a timetable for self-rule in Iraq to be established by mid-December. Events, however, led the United States to speed up the process, and in November the Governing Council endorsed a U.S.-proposed plan that called for self-rule in mid-2004 under a transitional assembly, which would be elected by a system of caucuses. However, many Shiites objected to this because it would not involve elections; they feared a diminished voice in the government and greater U.S. influence if caucuses were used to choose the assembly. Hussein was finally captured by U.S. forces in Dec., 2003.

In Jan., 2004, U.S. arms inspectors reported that they had found no evidence of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons stockpiles prior to the U.S. invasion; the asserted existence of such stockpiles had been a main justification for the invasion. Subsequently, a Senate investigation criticized the CIA for providing faulty information and assessments concerning Iraq's weapons. In addition, U.S. inspectors concluded in Oct., 2004, that although Hussein never abandoned his goal of acquiring nuclear weapons, Iraq had halted its nuclear program after the first Persian Gulf War. U.S. quietly abandoned their search for weapons of mass destruction by the end of 2004.

An interim constitution was signed by the Governing Council in Mar., 2004, but many Shiites, including nearly all those on the council, objected to clauses that would restrict the power of the president and enable the Kurds potentially to veto a new constitution. At the end of March, Sunni insurgents in Falluja attacked a convoy of U.S. civilian security forces, killing four and desecrating the corpses, which prompted a U.S. crackdown on the town, a center of Sunni insurgency. The fighting there in April resulted in the most significant casualties since since the end of the invasion; the conflict ended with the insurgents largely in place. At about the same time, U.S. moves against the organization of a radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, led him to call for an uprising. There was unrest in a number of cities in S central and S Iraq, but by mid-April al-Sadr's forces were in control only in the area around An Najaf, a city holy to Shiites, and a cease-fire took effect in June.

Revelations in May of U.S. abuse and tormenting of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003 and early 2004 sparked widespread dismay and outrage in Iraq, the United States, and the world. The treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was termed “tantamount to torture” in some cases by the International Committee of the Red Cross in a report leaked in 2004, and in 2005 Amnesty International accused the U.S.-led forces of using torture in Iraq.

The president of the Governing Council was assassinated in May, 2004. In June, the United Nations endorsed the reestablishment of Iraqi sovereignty, and at the end of the month, Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, became prime minister and Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, a Sunni, president as the interim constitution took effect. Saddam Hussein and 11 other former high-ranking Iraqi officials were formally turned over to the new government and were arraigned. Two trials, involving atrocities against Shiites and Kurds, were brought against Hussein and others in 2005 and 2006, and in Nov., 2006, he was convicted in the first trial and sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, large-scale fighting with al-Sadr's militia occurred again in Aug., 2004, centered on An Najaf and, to a lesser degree, Sadr City, a Shiite section of Baghdad, but the militia subsequently abandoned An Najaf and fighting ceased. By October al-Sadr had shifted to converting his movement into a political force. Also in August, a 100-member National Council, responsible for overseeing the interim government and preparing for elections in 2005, was established. In central Iraq, where a number of Sunni urban areas had been all but ceded to insurgents, U.S. forces began operations to establish control in the fall of 2004. Although U.S. forces regained control of Falluja in November, the insurgents subsequently shifted their attacks elsewhere, including Mosul, which had been relatively peaceful. Shiite targets were also increasingly subject to attack. Estimates of the insurgents' numbers, including foreign guerrillas, ranged from 8,000 to 12,000; by the end of 2004 the most violent anti-U.S., anti–interim government fighters were Sunni forces, which were increasingly dominated by Islamic militants. The ongoing violence in Iraq continued to hamper reconstruction in the following, as a lack of security hindered rebuilding and security needs diverted money away from rebuilding; corruption was also a problem.

In the Jan., 2005, elections for the transitional National Assembly, which would write a new constitution, the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite coalition supported by Ayatollah Sistani, won nearly half the vote. The main Kurdish alliance took more than a quarter. Sunni participation in the vote was, in most areas, very low as a result of boycott and intimidation, leading some Sunni clerics to denounce the balloting as illegitimate. The main Shiite and Kurdish coalitions agreed to form an alliance, but it was not until early April that the choices for the top national leadership posts were finalized. A Sunni, Hajim al-Hassani, became speaker of the National Assembly; a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, became president; and a Shi'a, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was chosen as prime minister.

Hopes for the constitutional process strengthened in July when Sunni membership on the parliamentary committee drafting it was greatly expanded, but the draft that was adopted had only limited Sunni support. Many Sunnis particularly objected to provisions that would permit autonomous regions in the Kurdish north and Shiite south, which could limit national access to future oil revenues from those areas, and that would ban the Ba'ath party and could affect its former members. A referendum in Oct., 2005, however, approved the document. A simple majority was required for approval, unless three provinces rejected it by a two-thirds vote. The constitution was strongly endorsed by Shiites and Kurds and as strongly rejected by Sunnis, who voted in larger numbers this time. Three provinces voted against the constitution, but in one of the provinces the no vote was less than two thirds. Although there were concerns about possible irregularities in the vote after preliminary counts were completed, a partial audit of the vote uncovered no evidence of fraud.

Despite these mixed political successes, the insurgency remained largely undiminished, as foreign Islamic militants continued to infiltrate into Iraq. Ongoing U.S. attempts to eliminate insurgent strongholds were frustrated by the ability to the insurgents to regroup elsewhere and a lack of sufficient U.S. forces to maintain control throughout Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq. Prior to the referendum on the constitution coalition forces mounted several offensives against insurgents in Sunni-dominated W and NW Iraq in an attempt to diminish terror attacks prior to the vote.

In the Dec., 2005, elections for the National Assembly the Sunni turnout was again higher, but when initial results showed that the Shiite religious parties were unexpectedly successful in the Baghdad area, the Sunni alliance and the secular party alliance accused the Shiites and electoral authorities of fraud. Final results, released in Jan., 2006, gave a near majority of the seats to the Shiite religious parties, with the Kurdistan alliance and the Sunni alliance placing second and third. International monitors said there had been some irregularities and fraud, but they did not call into question the final overall result.

The formation of a government, however, became protracted, when Sunnis and Kurds objected to the Shiite religious parties' selection of Jaafari as prime minister. Finally, in Apr., 2006, Jaafari stepped aside, and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a long-time aide of Jaafari's, was chosen for the post. Meanwhile, the devastating Feb., 2006, terror bombing of a Shiite holy site in Samarra provoked a spasm of sectarian attacks, largely by Shiites against Sunnis, throughout Iraq. Maliki undertook a number of measures intended to reassert government control and pacify some urban areas, and moved to foster an end to the Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence generally by releasing prisoners, offering a limited amnesty, seeking to disarm militias, and other measures. The killing, in June, of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda–aligned foreign insurgents, was a notable success for U.S. forces, but did little to diminish the violence in Iraq. Some 1.2 million Iraqis were estimated to have fled the country by mid-2006, seeking refuge in Jordan, Syria, and other nations.

By late 2006, with roughly 3,000 Iraqis dying every month, worry over mounting sectarian violence and fear of civil war began to outweigh concerns over insurgents; Sunni-Shiite revenge attacks and clashes had become increasingly common in ethnically mixed Baghdad and urban areas N of Baghdad, while in Shiite-dominated S Iraq rival Shiite militias fought each other for control in some cities. There was increasing doubt on the part of the United States over the ability of Maliki's government to deal with the rising sectarian violence, and a strain in the relations between the governments of the two nations was evident publicly. In Oct., 2006, the parliament passed legislation establishing a process by which provinces could join together, beginning in 2008, to form autonomous regions; the law was opposed by the Sunni parties and Shiite parties based predominantly in central Iraq.

In Dec., 2006, the U.S. Iraq Study Group, established by the Congress to review the war, called the situation in Iraq grave and deteriorating, and recommended, among its many suggestions, seeking the aid of Syria and Iran in resolving the conflict and shifting the burden of the fighting to Iraqi government forces. The success of the plan, however, depending on the willingness of the Iraqi government to work toward national reconciliation, despite the fact that its Shiite leaders seemed increasingly focused on consolidating Shiite rule. At the end of Dec., 2006, Saddam Hussein was hanged for crimes against humanity; the undignified circumstances surrounding his execution provoked outrage from many Sunnis in Iraq and dismay from the U.S. and other nations. Two of his close aides were hanged on the same charges in Jan., 2007.

Also in January, U.S. President Bush announced that he would send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq, beginning that month, with the primary goals of bring security to Baghdad and establishing control in Anbar prov. (a major Sunni insurgent base in W Iraq). The operation in Baghdad in particular was to be conducted in conjunction with Iraqi government forces and was aimed at controlling sectarian forces and their attacks. The “surge,” which reached its plateau in June and also focused on Baquba and Diyala prov., appeared to have suppressed Sunni and Shiite death squads, but suicide bombings continued, aimed mainly at Shiite populations. Demonstrations in April by al-Sadr's supporters called for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, and his party subsequently withdrew from the cabinet. Other parties, however, generally rejected setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

In Aug., 2007, there was an outbreak of fighting between Shiite militias that was generally blamed on Moktada al-Sadr's Madhi Army; it was especially deadly in Karbala. Sadr's party withdrew from the governing coalition in September. Despite these events and other continuing violence, the overall level of violence decreased significantly in much of Iraq as the second half of 2007 progressed. The political and economic measures, however, that were intended to accompany the surge were largely unaccomplished at year's end.

Also in the second half of 2007, Turkey became increasingly confrontational in its calls for an end to the presence of Turkish Kurdish (PKK) rebel bases in N Iraq. The PKK forces, whose presence was, at a minimum, tolerated by Iraqi Kurds, had mounted increasing attacks in Turkey. Both the Iraqi and U.S. governments pressured Iraqi Kurds to close the bases; Turkey mounted raids and shelled N Iraq beginning in October, and mounted a more significant ground incursion in Feb., 2008.

In Mar., 2008, Maliki attempted to establish central government control over Basra by using Iraqi troops to disarm militias there. Sadr's militia resisted, and fighting erupted in Basra and spread to Sadr City in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq. Several hundred died in the strife before Sadr declared a cease-fire after mediation by Iran; the resolution of the conflict offered new evidence of Iran's influence among Shiites in Iraq. Control over Basra was established in April with U.S. and British help, and that month Iraqi and U.S. troops mounted a new effort to establish government control over Sadr City that ended successfully in May after a cease-fire agreement was reached.

The U.S. troop surge officially ended in July, although an increased number of support troops remained in Iraq. Violence had decreased, and the Iraqi army was proving increasingly effective and confident. In addition, the cease-fire by Sadr's militia (extended indefinitely in Aug., 2008) and increasing Sunni rejection of Al Qaeda contributed to improved security in many parts of Iraq. Also by July, U.S.-led coalition forces had turned over control of more than half Iraq's 18 provinces to the Iraqi government; additional provinces came under Iraqi control in the following months, and by the end of 2008 more than two thirds were under government control.

July was marked as well, however, by dissension over a new provincial election law because it treated the ethnic groups in Kirkuk's province equally for the purposes of interim governing. The Kurds objected that the law diminished their influence in the province compared to their numbers there, and President Talabani (a Kurd) and one of the country's two vice presidents vetoed the law. Not until September was an election law passed. The difficulties over the law were part of the increasing tensions between Kurds and the central government over the status of Kirkuk, control of the income from oil in the Kurdish region, and other issues.

An agreement concerning the terms under which U.S. forces would remain in Iraq after the end of 2008 was rejected by the Iraqi cabinet in Oct., 2008, but the cabinet approved the agreement with modifications the following month. In Dec., 2008, that agreement and one concerning allied troops in Iraq were finalized; under the agreements U.S. forces would be withdrawn by the end of 2011 and other foreign forces by mid-2009. (In Feb., 2009, U.S. President Obama said that most U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by Aug., 2010.) The agreements were seen as strengthening Prime Minister Maliki and further undermining Moktada al-Sadr, and in the Jan., 2009, provincial elections, Maliki's coalition emerged as the strongest political grouping.

Iraqi forces assumed responsibility for security in urban areas in June, 2009; the process had begun in Jan., 2009. The government in August postponed for a year the census planned for Oct., 2009, out of fear that it would inflame ethnic tensions. A parliamentary election law was finally approved in Dec., 2009, after much difficulty, including a veto by the Sunni vice president in order to secure greater representation for (the largely Sunni) Iraqi refugees.

The elections themselves, originally slated for Jan., 2010, were rescheduled for March; Allawi's secular coalition narrowly placed first, followed by Maliki's nominally secular nationalist coalition and Jaafari's Shiite coalition (with Sadr's party forming the principal component of the last); Maliki's grouping subsequently alleged that there had been significant irregularities. A large number of candidates were disqualified because of alleged links to the Ba'ath party, but in at least some instances those links were old and tenuous. Sunnis, who voted in much greater numbers than in 2005, largely supported Allawi's grouping; no coalition secured enough seats to rule alone. The Maliki and Jaafari groupings subsequently formed a coalition but remained short of an absolute majority. A new government was slow to be formed. In November, Talabani was reelected president, and not until Dec., 2010, was a broadly based government with Maliki as prime minister approved in parliament. In Aug., 2010, U.S. combat operations officially ended. Some 50,000 U.S. troops remained, but all U.S. forces were withdrawn by the end of 2011. In early 2011 Iraq, like other Arab nations, experienced large antigovernment demonstrations, as Iraqis in a number of cities protested against corruption and a lack of jobs.

In Dec., 2011, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, was accused by Maliki's government with having overseen a death squad involving his bodyguards that had targeted (2005–11) Shiite officials. Hashemi denied the charges and fled to the Kurdish north, where officials resisted turning him over to the central government. The allegations contributed to increased tensions between Maliki's government and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. A judicial panel investigation reaffirmed the charges in Feb., 2012; Hashemi said the charges were politically motivated and that his bodyguards had been tortured. Hashemi left Iraq in April, and subsequently was charged with murder. Divisions within the governing coalition and unhappiness with Maliki's dominance of the government led in June to an unsuccessful attempt to oust Maliki, but his opponents narrowly failed to secure a confidence vote. In September and October, Hashemi was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death on the death-squad and other charges. The end of the year saw increasing tensions between Maliki's government and both Sunnis, who accused Maliki of a political crackdown after raids and arrests involving the finance minister's staff, and Kurds.

Beginning in Dec., 2012, Sunnis mounted protests against perceived mistreatment; in a number of instances protesters were killed by government troops. As tensions escalated in 2013, aggravated in part by Shiite support for Syria's government and Sunni support for Syria's rebels, the number of deadly ethnic attacks and clashes increased; the year proved to be the most deadly in five years. Maliki's coalition won the largest number of seats in the April provincial elections but failed to win a majority in any province. In June, a law was passed transferring a number of powers from the central government to the provinces. The law and another allowing many former members of the Ba'ath party to serve in the government were enacted in response to Sunni protest demands, but Sunnis remain largely alienated by Maliki's government.

Clashes over the army's removal of a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi in late December led to a battle for Ramadi and the occupation of Falluja and other towns in Anbar prov. by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Sunni Islamist militants who were an outgrowth of Al Qaeda–aligned forces in Iraq; they subsequently fought in the Syrian civil war, where their reputation for brutality and their differences with Al Qaeda's leadership led to a break with Al Qaeda. Control of the region continued to be contested into 2014 as government forces moved slowly against the militants, but in June ISIL forces made rapid advances in other Sunni-dominated areas, taking Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities and contesting other locations.

In July ISIL renamed itself the Islamic State (IS) and declared the establishment of a caliphate in areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq. The collapse of many army units, weakened by incompetent commanders appointed by the government, forced the government to turn to Shiite militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards for forces. Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk and some areas neighboring Kurdistan when the army fled the region. The brutality of the Sunni militants, who often massacred opponents and civilians they regarded as infidels, led Shiites and non-Islamic minorities as well as Kurds to flee from areas the IS controlled and increased the sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq. Beginning in August, the United States and other nations militarily supported forces fighting against the IS, mainly through air strikes, and gains by the IS subsequently slowed or were reversed.

The Apr., 2014, parliamentary elections resulted in a plurality for Maliki's coalition, but it fell far short of a majority. In June, the Sunni militant successes increased Sunni and Kurdish demands for the replacement of Maliki by a new prime minister. Maliki, however, resisted stepping aside and agreement on an alternative was not reached in the early sessions of the new parliament; he remained in office as caretaker prime minister. A new president, moderate Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum, was elected in July, 2014. Massoum subsequently named Haider al-Abadi, a Dawa party member, as prime minister, and a new government was formed in September.

In Dec., 2014, the government and the Kurdish region reached an agreement on sharing the revenues from oil in areas controlled by the Kurds; the government also agreed to allow Kurdish forces to be resupplied with weapons. By Apr., 2015, government forces, supported by Shiite militias with Iranian advisers and combat forces and by air strikes by and aid from the United States, Iran, NATO, and others had made some significant gains in some areas, including recapturing Tikrit, against the IS. In May, IS forces captured Ramadi, but the government regained it at the end of 2015. Kurdish forces also made gains against the IS in N Iraq in late 2015. Both Shiite and Kurdish militias were accused of carrying out retribution against Sunnis in areas where the IS was forced out.

Beginning in late 2015, anticorruption reforms became a source of tensions in the parliament. In December, parliament barred Abadi from unilaterally instituting changes, and in early 2016 parliamentary factions split over a new government, with some parties calling for an anticorruption cabinet of technocrats and others supporting a cabinet with ministries controlled by party officials. Sadr and his followers mounted large protests for a technocratic cabinet, government reforms, and an end to cronyism and corruption; a number of new cabinet ministers were approved in August.

In mid-2016 Iraqi forces retook Falluja, which the IS had seized in 2014, and in late 2016 they began moving against Mosul, recapturing Mosul by mid-2017. Iraqi forces subsequently continued to make gains against the IS, which increased its mounting of deadly suicide bombings beginning in 2016. Legislation in Nov., 2016, established a popular mobilization force, consisting mainly of existing Shiite militias, under the control of the prime minister; the move was opposed by Sunni Arab politicians. (The force was formally incorporated into Iraq's security forces in 2018.) Also in 2016 the presence of Turkish troops in N Iraq, where they were allied with Iraqi Kurds, was denounced by Iraq's government, and strained Iraqi-Turkish relations.

In Sept., 2017, Iraqi Kurds conducted a nonbinding referendum that voted for independence; the vote had been declared illegal by the national government and denounced by Turkey, Iran, the United States, and other nations. In October, government forces took control of Kirkuk and Kurdish-held areas outside the autonomous region; relations between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish region improved in 2018. Iraqi forces captured the last town controlled by the IS in Nov., 2017, but the fighting left many urban areas in Iraq devastated. The government estimated that 18,000 had died in the war with the IS, but other tallies estimated the death toll to be four or more times that. The IS, which had not been eradicated, mounted guerrilla terror attacks from bases in N Iraq, and many Sunnis accused the government and Shiite paramilitary forces of an indiscriminate and brutal crackdown against them.

In the May, 2018, parliamentary elections, Sadr and his allies, whose coalition had run as nationalist and anti-Iranian, won the largest bloc of seats. The Fatah Alliance, an Iranian-aligned coalition, placed second, and Abadi's coalition placed third. Concerns over alleged irregularities in the voting led to a manual recount beginning in July, but the count was little changed when it was certified in August. In October, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an independent and former oil and finance minister, was chosen as prime minister, and Barham Salih was elected president, but a number of important cabinet positions were slow to be filled.

In 2019 drone attacks, generally believed to be by Israel, on facilities of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias raised tensions in Iraq. In October, frustration over the poor economic situation and corruption led to protests in a number of cities that became more confrontational after heavy-handed responses from government forces. Over the next several months several hundred died and thousands were injured, and the protests became increasingly anti-Iranian. In December, Abdul-Mahdi resigned, but agreement on a new prime minister proved difficult; parliament did pass electoral reforms sought by the protesters.

Tensions and violence increased in December between pro-Iranian militias and U.S. forces, and in Jan., 2020, a U.S. drone attack killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani as he arrived in Baghdad. In the aftermath, Iraq's parliament demanded that U.S. forces be withdrawn; the U.S. government refused to do so, but it subsequently consolidated its forces on fewer bases. The antigovernment protests were largely crushed by Feb., 2020, after Sadr withdrew his support for them and called on his supporters to help end them. Negotiations over a new prime minister continued into 2020; in May, a new government was formed with former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister. In November a new election law enacted that was designed to give independent politicians a greater chance of being elected to parliament. In Oct. 2021, parliamentary elections were held giving Muqtada al-Sadr's party control of the government; although the elections were disputed, in late Dec. the country's Federal Supreme Court certified the vote, allowing al-Sadr to form a new government as prime minister.

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