Iraq: the Ethnic Divide

A look at the three main ethnic groups in Iraq and what they want.

Note: the facts below, particularly on political leadership, are a snapshot from 2006. Read this Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder for a look at the major political players in early 2009.


  • 60% of the population

  • Basics: Under Saddam’s rule, the Shia were the low men on the totem pole (although not as low as the Kurds). Part of their disfavor came from the fact that they share the same faith as Iranians, Iraq’s main historical nemesis. With Saddam gone, they now rule the roost and are the group the US has bet on to keep things together in Iraq.

  • Leaders/factions/militias: At first thought – or hoped - to be a largely cohesive and moderate group that would lead the way toward stability, Shia political leaders have since split into distinct – and increasingly feuding – camps.

    • Al Sistani is the Shia religious leader who, while never getting directly involved in politics, has been a strong moderating voice. He still may have the most moral sway over Shia Iraqis, but he’s lost a lot of his power of persuasion and so plays a diminished role.

    • Al Sadr came on to the scene early as a radical leader of the Mahdi army, who have had their share of run-ins with the US military. The Iraqi government and US forces have alternatively gone head to head with Sadr and tried to co-opt him into the government. Sometimes they do a little of both: Sadr’s militia has controlled a number of Iraq’s ministries while at the same time skirmishing with the Badr Brigade (the other quasi governmental militia). The Mahdi army is thought to be 60,000 strong.

    • Al-Hakim, the Badr Brigade & SCIRI. The strongest Shia political party is SCIRI, many of whose leaders have close connections to Iran. Like Sadr’s group, they operate both in the government and outside. Their militia wing – the Badr Brigade – was integrated into the Iraqi police, but doesn’t always act police-ly.

    • Maliki. The prime minister of Iraq, Maliki, is a Shia who got into power really as a compromise figure between Al Sadr’s Mahdi army and Al-Hakim’s SCIRI. He owes some of his power to Al Sadr.

  • What they want: The Shia are pretty unified in wanting to stay as the dominant power in Iraq and in getting the benefit of the fact that most of the oil in Iraq is in their back yards. They are also happy to see Iraq look more like a federation, where separate states have limited independence within a larger Iraq. Their leaders see less eye to eye on how much to work with US forces to keep security (as opposed to fighting as free agents) and, increasingly, who’s got the upper hand among Shia political forces.


  • 20% of the population

  • Basics: Although a minority, the Sunni were the political top dogs in Iraq up until Saddam’s fall. Saddam was a Sunni, as were the Baathists who supported him. The insurgent groups and al Qaeda related groups are also Sunni.

  • Leaders/factions: Far more so than with the Shia or Kurds, it’s really unclear who – if anyone – is in charge.

    • The Insurgency, thought to be made up of ex-Saddam “Baathists” and other Sunnis set on the US leaving, has no apparent leader.

    • In the government, Al-Hashimi heads up the Iraqi Islamic Party and is one of the Vice Presidents. While he has some clout, in general Sunni politicians don’t really represent the Sunnis in Iraq, in part because Sunnis boycotted the 2005 elections and simply because most Sunnis are down on the government in general (they mostly voted against the Constitution).

    • Al-Dhari, as the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, the most cohesive Sunni political organization, has influence both with insurgents and Sunnis in the government. All the Iraq Study Group says about them is that they’re against the US presence and have spoken against the Iraqi government.

  • What they want: The Sunni are probably the most schizophrenic group in Iraq. It’s the Sunnis who are fueling the insurgency to kick out the US. At the same time, it’s the Sunni’s who’ll lose the most if Iraq disintegrates – being both outnumbered by Shia and having access to the least amount of oil. So while some are fighting the government, others are pushing to create a stronger central government, one that’s free of Shia militias, where they’ll be assured better access to oil revenue.

The Kurds

  • 20% of the population

  • Basics: The main non-Arab group in the country, Kurds got the shortest end of the stick under Saddam’s regime, most notably as the victims of mass gassings. Relatively isolated in the north, the Kurds have already won a degree of independence in their own “autonomous region” within Iraq.

  • Leaders/factions/militias: Unlike the Shia and Sunni, the Kurds have their political act mostly together. While there are competing political forces among the Kurds, they’ve managed so far to bury all hatchets to work to gether:

    • Barzani heads up the Kurdistan Democratic Party and is president of the Kurdish regional government.

    • Talibani is the president of Iraq and the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

    • The Kurds have their own militia - the peshmerga - which is about 100,000 strong.

  • What they want: Kurdish leaders are happy with their relative independence within a federated Iraq, but Kurds on the street also favor an entirely independent Kurdistan. A complicating factor is Kirkuk, a mixed Kurd, Arab and Turkmen province, that is slated to have a referendum by the end of 2007 to decide whether it will become part of the greater Kurd region.

next > the political puzzle

Posted January 16, 2007

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