Iraqi political parties
Following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and the disbanding of the Ba’ath party, two Shia parties returning from exile emerged as the dominant political forces in Iraq: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, with close ties to the Shia clergy and Iran, and the Islamic Dawa, which advocated for the modernisation of Iraq’s religious institutions.?There are now over 31 political parties.? ?Although parliamentary passed a new law in August 2015 banning political armed wings, many parties continue to wield strong militias. There are over 40 armed militias currently in operation.? ?
In 2010, large coalitions encompassing a wide spectrum of political groups – both secular and religious – were formed as a sense of national unity and hostility to foreign intervention grew to become key political themes. The main Shia parties united under the Iraqi National Alliance, while most Sunnis grouped together under the Iraqiyya alliance, and Kurds formed the Kurdistani Alliance. By 2014, fractions had appeared in all three and have further widened as the conflict has evolved.??
In 2014 elections, the Shia coalition had split in four: State of Law Coalition, National Reform Coalition, Citizens Alliance (Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), Coalition of the Free (Sadrist Trend). Two major Sunni coalitions were the United for Reform Coalition and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. Iraqi National Accord was the major secular coalition. The two main Kurdish political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan competed separately for the first time.?
The governing State of Law Coalition is led by the Dawa party. SLC has divided into supporters of current Prime Minister Abadi, whose stated aim is national unity, and former Prime Minister Maliki, who has aligned himself increasingly with pro-Shia, pro-Iranian political forces. Abadi’s first year in office was marked by close support from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, but recent indications suggest that confidence in Abadi’s abilities may be waning.??
The Sadrist Trend, a Shia Islamist party led by Muqtada al Sadr, and its allies won 34 seats in 2014 on a strong anti-corruption platform. Sadr has been an important proponent of anti-corruption reform, and was instrumental in denying Maliki a third term in 2014. The Sadrist Trend is closely aligned with popular demonstrators, who have amassed in many of Iraq’s cities almost every Friday since August 2015 to call for reform, giving it substantial political bargaining power.??
Al Muwatin, led by Ammar al Hakim, is another major Shia rival to the SLC. It won 29 seats in 2014.? A conservative Islamist political movement, it is closely tied with the Badr organisation whose armed wing is led by Hadi al Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq.?
Iraq’s Sunni minority has grown increasingly fractured between secular and religious lines, driving the demise of the Iraqqiyya alliance, which previously encompassed secular and religious Sunni, as well as Shia elements.? In 2014 elections, Sunni votes were split between the Iraqi Nationalism Party (al Watani), the United Party (al Muttahadun), and the Arab Party (al Arabiya).?
Kurdish political parties
Political power in the KR-I is contested by three main parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, the current President of the Kurdish Regional Government; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, former President of Iraq; and the Movement for Change (Gorran), led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, whose popularity has grown rapidly since 2009. The KDP and PUK contested 2014 national elections separately for the first time, having previously formed the Kurdistan Alliance.?
President Barzani’s term expired in August 2015, leaving KR-I in a political vacuum. While Barzani’s KDP has the most seats in the regional parliament, it does not hold a majority and has been unable to agree to a power sharing deal. Opposition parties are prepared to let Barzani remain in power until 2017 regional elections, but demand more parliamentary powers in return – a proposal the KDP has rejected. Political tensions are being aggravated by falling oil revenues, reducing the regional budget.? ??Four billion barrels of proven oil reserves are in territory under the control of the KR-l. Another 9 billion barrels are located in Kirkuk, large parts of which Peshmerga forces currently control. In 2015, KR-I received 17% of Iraq’s total budget in return for Erbil’s agreement to share oil revenues with Baghdad.?
Iraqi security forces (ISF)
ISF was decimated by mass defections and losses of advanced military hardware as Islamic State advanced. Before 2014, estimates numbered the ISF at 271,000, with defence spending at 7.25% of GDP.? As of early 2015, defections and losses had reduced the ISF to 48,000. Substantial hardware losses are also reported.? ISF are now simultaneously trying to rebuild and recapture lost territory.?
Islamic State (IS)
Islamic State in Iraq emerged in 2006 after Abu Musab al Zarqawi broke away from Al Qaeda in Iraq. Its profile remained low while the US troop surge in 2007 and the rise of Sunni tribal “awakening” councils – fighters opposed to Al Qaeda’s ideology and growing presence in Iraq’s Sunni areas – weakened Islamist activity in Iraq. Under the new leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who took charge in 2010, IS expanded its operations into Syria, eventually capturing Ar-Raqqa in 2014 and establishing the city as a base to advance into Iraq. Capitalising on growing Sunni discontent with the Shia dominated government in Iraq, IS collaborated with sympathetic tribes and Saddam Hussein loyalists to build up its presence in Anbar, claiming control of Falluja in December 2013. By mid-2014, IS had expanded its control, claiming Mosul and Tikrit with little resistance, and large areas in between. On 29 June 2014, IS announced a caliphate from Mosul and continued expanding, taking the Kurdish-controlled town of Sinjar in August. IS’ advance slowed in later 2014 and early 2015, as mounting evidence of its atrocities provoked international airstrikes against the group’s positions. Although it managed to seize Ramadi in May 2015, it has made few territorial gains since, and lost multiple key towns, including Ramadi, Tikrit and Sinjar.???
IS forces in Iraq and Syria are estimated at around 30,000, including both international and Iraqi fighters. It is unclear whether airstrikes and operations against the group since 2014 have reduced the size of IS’ fighting forces, as it has reportedly begun conscription in its areas of control.? IS developed booby traps and tunnels into strong defensive systems in key cities under their control to slow and halt counter-attacks. In 2015, IS lost key cities, including Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, and Ramadi, and lost 14% or 13,000 km2 of its total territory.? By March 2016, it had lost another 8% of territory.?As pressure mounts, IS has increasingly resorted to suicide attacks in 2016, including on Shia mosques, markets, and checkpoints.? As of April 2016, IS was reportedly only recruiting 200 new foreign fighters per month, compared to 2,000 per month in 2015 – a sign the group’s influence may be waning.?
IS derives substantial, but not unanimous support in Sunni Arab majority areas of Iraq, particularly in parts of Anbar and Ninewa province. The Albu Ajeel tribe, for example, has sided with IS. But loyalty to IS is reportedly evenly split within the Dulaim tribe, one of the largest Sunni tribes in Iraq comprising some 3 million people.?
Popular mobilisation forces
As rapid IS advances began to threaten Shia populations, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on popular mobilisation forces (PMF) to assemble.? PMF number between 100,000 and 120,000 and are predominantly, but not exclusively, made up of Shia militias, including Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al Haq, and Kitaeb Hezbollah – highly organised forces attached to Iraqi political groups and backed by Iran.? PMF maintain a heavy presence in the contested areas of Diyala and Salah al Din, and eastern Anbar.? ?They have played a crucial role in key battles, including the recapture of Tikrit from IS in March 2015.?
Sunni tribal fighters
Sunni tribal fighters opposed to IS have played limited but symbolically important roles in operations to recapture Tikrit and Ramadi. Their involvement is seen as a way to prevent Shia groups carrying out retribution against Sunni populations for sympathising with IS.?
The Peshmerga have evolved from tribal border protection guards in the 19th century to a modern day armed force defending the KR-I. Today, they are estimated to number between 115,000 and 190,000. Between the 1970s and 1990s, Peshmerga factions united to ward off the threat of Saddam Hussein’s regime, before tensions resurfaced between KDP and PUK elements and descended into civil war in the mid-1990s. Since reconciling in 1998, a more, but not completely, unified Peshmerga has become one of the most powerful armed forces in the region. Although internal divisions continue to hamper the Peshmerga’s operational effectiveness, they successfully stemmed IS’ advance in 2014, and have begun to recapture key territory including Sinjar. Peshmerga and ISF are currently aligned against the common threat of IS, but Peshmerga advances into Kirkuk have strained relations with Baghdad, who are concerned about Erbil claiming the oil rich region for the Kurds.?? ??
US forces deployed to the region on 15 June 2014 to assess and advise the ISF in the battle against IS.?On 7 August, after IS captured Sinjar and threatened to massacre the Yazidi population, the US launched airstrikes. Since then, airstrikes have continued and expanded, as have the number of countries (now 62) in the US-led coalition known as Operation Inherent Resolve.?? In addition, some 3,500 US troops are training Iraqi troops, and approximately 100 US Special Operations forces have been deployed to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture IS leaders.??