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Instability in Iraq

Updated May 24, 2023
A member loyal to the Islamic State waves an Islamic State flag in Raqqa on June 29, 2014.
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border on August 11, 2014.
Rodi Said/Reuters
A member of militias known as Hashid Shaabi walks with his weapon in the town of al-Alam on March 10, 2015.
Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Kurdish people attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25 independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq on September 16, 2017.
Ari Jalal/Reuters
Iraqis demonstrate in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad against corruption and lack of services on September 7, 2018.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has undergone a long period of instability, allowing actors like the Islamic State to fill the power vacuum. In 2014, the Islamic State advanced into Iraq from Syria and took over parts of Anbar province, eventually expanding control in the northern part of the country and capturing Mosul in June 2014. Former President Barack Obama authorized targeted air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and the United States formed an international coalition of nearly eighty countries to counter the Islamic State. Regional forces—including as many as thirty thousand Iranian troops—joined the Iraqi army, local tribes, and the Kurdish Peshmerga in operations to begin retaking territory from the group, eventually recapturing Tikrit in April 2015, Ramadi in December 2015, Fallujah in June 2016, and Mosul in July 2017.

The Trump administration sharply escalated the U.S. presence in Iraq in early 2017 to bring a swifter end to the Islamic State, and the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State in December 2017. Since then, most foreign troops have withdrawn from Iraq, except for a small U.S. presence.

In late April 2018, the U.S. military officially disbanded the command overseeing the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq, declaring an end to major combat operations against the group. Roughly 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq as part of a mission to train, advise, and assist the Iraqi military. The troops remain in Iraq on an invitation from the Iraqi government, as the United States seeks to help Iraq combat terrorism within its borders.

The fight to dislodge the Islamic State was exacerbated by underlying sectarian tensions in Iraq among Sunni and Shiite groups, as well as tensions between Kurdish groups in the north and the government in Baghdad, which intensified after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. These tensions now threaten the stability of the new Iraqi government as it looks to rebuild the country and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State.

Iraq faces significant challenges in its recovery from the war against the Islamic State. Over one million people remain internally displaced, and 6.5 million people need humanitarian assistance following the nearly four-year-long war. Reconstruction is projected to cost at least $88 billion. In addition to reintegrating liberated Sunni communities into the political system, the new government has dealt with the demobilization and integration of powerful Shiite militias that formed during the fight against the Islamic State into the Iraqi security forces. The government also faces ongoing tensions with Kurdish groups pressing for greater autonomy in the north following a failed independence referendum in October 2017.


After leading an international coalition to regain territory taken by the Islamic State, the United States has an interest in preventing a resurgence of the militant group and supporting a stable government in Iraq. There remains a larger concern that the aftermath of the conflict and challenges of reconstruction and reintegration will lead to the breakup of Iraq and that sectarian tension will plague the region for years to come, possibly expanding into a proxy conflict among various international groups. Additionally, after losing control of territory in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has reverted to its insurgency roots and refocused on orchestrating a hit-and-run campaign

Recent Developments

A coalition of parties led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won a surprise victory in Iraq’s May 2018 parliamentary election. This raised questions about continued Iranian influence in Baghdad, as al-Sadr’s Shiite bloc has remained historically at odds with Iranian-backed groups in Iraq. Following the 2021 election, which saw increased representation for minority groups, the newly elected parliament could not form a coalition government, precipitating a political crisis.

The assassination attempt of Prime Minister Khadhimi in November 2021 led to armed clashes between the Iraqi government and Iran-backed militias accused of orchestrating the attack. Amid the political crisis, the entirety of al-Sadr’s political bloc resigned from parliament in a gamble aimed at pressuring the government to elect a president. This largely backfired as al-Sadr’s bloc was quickly replaced, allowing the Shiite groups backed by Iran to assume a majority in parliament. Al-Sadr retired from politics in August 2022, leaving control of the Iraqi government to his Iranian-backed rivals.

Abdul Latif Rashid was elected president in October 2022, promising to return the country to normalcy. The premiership was ultimately handed to Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, a long-time ally of Iran. His pro-Iran government now includes ministers with ties to several U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, including Kataib Hezbollah. However, al-Sudani has taken a measured approach by expressing a desire to keep U.S. forces in Iraq while continuing his predecessor’s “balance and openness” policy.

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