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Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights

Kenneth Katzman

Congressional Research Service Report RS 21968

Nearly three years after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, sectarian divisions and the Sunni-led uprising in neighboring Syria have fueled a revival of radical Islamist Sunni Muslim insurgent groups that are attempting to undermine Iraq’s stability. Iraq’s Sunni Arab Muslims resent the Shiite political domination and perceived discrimination by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Iraq’s Kurds are embroiled in separate political disputes with the Baghdad government over territorial, political, and economic issues.

The rifts caused a significant uprising led by the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq, now also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that began December 26, 2013 and gained control of several cities in Anbar Province. Earlier, unrest delayed some provincial elections during April-June 2013 and the latest uprising could affect the legitimacy of national elections for a new parliament and government set for April 30, 2014. Maliki is widely expected to seek to retain his post after that vote. The latest violence has exposed weaknesses in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the absence of direct U.S. military involvement in Iraq. To date, the 800,000-person ISF has countered the escalating violence by itself, but the violence killed nearly 9,000 Iraqis in 2013—more than double the figure for all of 2012. Informal security structures put in place during the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003-2011 have fractured or faltered in the late 2013-early 2014 ISIL challenge. And there are a growing number of reports that some Shiite militias have reactivated to retaliate for violence against Shiites.

The American Administration and Congress continue to cultivate Iraq as an ally in part to preserve the legacy of the U.S intervention and to prevent Iraq from falling under the sway of Iran. Asserting that the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria is emboldening Iraqi Sunnis, Maliki has not joined U.S. and other Arab state calls for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to leave office and Iraq has not consistently sought to prevent Iranian overflights of arms deliveries to Syria. Still, the legacy of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Arab and Persian differences, and Iraq’s efforts to reestablish its place in the Arab world limit Iranian influence over the Baghdad government.