ATbar Iraq – Primary Threats to Reconstruction- Part 1 – Regional Overview
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Iraq – Primary Threats to Reconstruction- Part 1 – Regional Overview

30/12/2004 | by Multiple Authors  
By Eitan Joffe and Amir Steinhart

The Republic of Iraq (Al Jumhuriyah al Iraqiyah) has, since its 1932 independence, been divided to 18 governorates or provinces (muhafazat, singular muhafazah):[1]

  • Al Anbar
  • Baghdad
  • Al Basrah
  • Dahuk
  • Al Muthanna
  • Dhi Qar
  • Al Qadisiyah
  • Diyala
  • An Najaf
  • Karbala
  • Arbil
  • Maysan
  • As Sulamaniyah
  • Ninawa
  • At Ta’mim
  • Salah ad Din
  • Babil
  • Wasit

For our purposes, we will group these eighteen provinces, as is commonly done, into four regions: Baghdad, Kurdish Areas, Sunni Areas, and Mid-Euphrates. Understanding the nature of these regions and their demographics holds the key to understanding Iraq’s current reality, and predicting future developments within her borders.

Iraq, with the population of 25,374,691 (July 2004 est.)[2] , has a predominant Arab majority (75%-80%). The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority (15%-20%), while the Turkoman, Assyrian and other communities amount to about 5% of the population.[3] Iraq’s population is almost entirely Muslim (97%), with a regional division between Sunnis (32%-37%) and Shiites (60%-65%), (See graph 1).[4] 67% of the population lives in urban centers, suggesting that a third of Iraqis live rurally, (See map 1).[5] More specifically, it could be said that Baghdad holds slightly more than a quarter of the Iraqi population, while the Northern Kurdish Areas account of about 15%. In the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, just South of this region, reside slightly more than a tenth of Iraqis, and the rest of the Sunni Areas have about 14%. The Mid-Euphrates region, populated mostly by Shiites, accounts for slightly less than a quarter of the population, and the rest of the population is spread around the South of the nation, where the population is a mix of Sunnis and Shiites.[6] Iraqis of different ethnic groups and religious affiliations tend to be largely separated geographically. As a result of this we see that different regions tend to display different political tendencies and characteristics in accordance with the ethnicities and religions of their residents. In the following summary, the characteristics of the different regions will first be studied. Then, the political tendencies as observed through opinion polls and actual events will be presented.

Kurdish Areas

As was aforementioned, the Kurds are Iraq’s largest minority group, accounting for anywhere between 15-20% of the population. Accordingly, the region that is hereby identified as the Kurdish Areas, accounts for about a similar percentage of total of Iraqi inhabitants.[7] This region roughly includes the governates of As Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk, and Arbil, and has enjoyed de-facto independence from the central government since the U.S. has imposed no-fly zones over most of its territory following the Golf War of 1991. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some suggestions were made that Turkey was meaning to invade the region, but as that never occurred, the future of the region remains unclear. Most (56%) Sunni Kurds of the region expressed interest in Iraq becoming a collection of regional states with a federal government,[8] and when asked if they think Iraq today is generally headed in the right or wrong direction, the Kurdish region, more than any other, expressed optimism and faith in the future of a democratic Iraq. In a survey of Iraqi public opinion, 72.20% of residents of the Kurdish areas, in 9/24-10/4, expressed trust in the direction in which Iraq was going, and 88.60% of them showed intention to vote when elections are held. It should also be mentioned that only 10.50% of them reported of their household being directly affected by violence in terms of death, handicap, or significant monetary loss, the lowest of any region in Iraq.[9]

In the Kurdish areas, there is a great deal of pro-American sentiment and an almost unanimous distaste for anti-coalition violence. Politically, the region is split between two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), and Patriotic Union of Kurdistant (PUK), which dominated the parliament that was elected in 1992, but that has not met since 1995. While post-war Iraq gave birth to over 25 political parties, few were able to gather more than minimal support (1 percent). The Kurdish political parties, and the Islamic political parties, are the only political bodies which were able to gather noteworthy support. In a survey held by ABC News, it appears that the PDK has 11% of Iraqi support, while the PUK has 10%.[10] It should be noted that even within this region there is a geographical-political distinction, as the PDK draws its support mostly on the North-Western part of the Kurdish zone, while the stronghold of the PUK lays mostly along border with Iran, in the Eastern-Southern part of the region. The Kurds of Northern Iraq hope for their own unified and ethnically-defined region, which will have considerable control over its future and its natural resources, but so far such a proposition has being strongly opposed by Iraqi Arabs.[11]

Sunni Region

Although Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims worldwide (above 90%), Sunni Muslims are a religious minority in Iraq, accounting for, like the Kurds, roughly twenty percent.[12] The Iraqi Sunni region includes the governorates of Al Anbar, Salah ad Din, Southern portion of Ninawa and encompasses the majority of the Sunni triangle. The region is of a tribal nature, and includes Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, which has received much attention from the Ba’ath regime in the past half decade. While the Shiite and Kurdish communities were suppressed during Saddam’s rule, the Sunni region has experienced nothing of the sort, and accordingly, opposes most vehemently American invasion. Not surprisingly, therefore, when asked if Iraq is going in the right direction, only 14.6% of Sunnis answered positively—the lowest percentage out of all regions of Iraq.[13] The survey also shows that the intention of voting in this region is the lowest of all regions, with only 72.8% of the population intending to participate in the upcoming elections.[14] Moreover, most Sunni Arabs believe that at this point, Iraq needs “a single strong leader” (85%), and not Iraqi democracy (76%), while in the long run, the same amount of Sunnis (35%) would like to see an Iraqi democracy, as a dictatorship. Only 15% of Sunnis crave a religious theocracy, according to an ABC poll.[15]

The Sunni region is a source of great resistance to the American occupation. This region alone has been responsible for over half of the coalition casualties in Iraq from hostile causes. In the main cities of this region alone—Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Sammara—over 170 American casualties occurred, nearly 20% of all hostile coalition casualties in Iraq since the beginning of the war.[16] Of all regions, it appears that the Sunni areas have been impacted most heavily by violence during the recent war and the occupation that followed. Survey shows that out of the 22% of Iraqi households which have been directly affected by violence over the past year, over 33% came from the Sunni region and another 33% from Baghdad which also includes many Sunni Arabs.[17] Sunni resistance, fuelled among others by the fear of becoming a persecuted minority, now that the supportive Ba’athist regime is out of power, has complicated the situation for the occupation forces. And while 90% of Arabs (Sunni and Shiite) are reportedly supportive of having Iraq become a unified nation with a central government in Baghdad,[18] it could be expected that the challenge will not seize to exist as the elections near.


The area between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, anciently called Mesopotamia, is the home of many Iraqi Shiites, who live in such cities as Najef, Kufa, and Karbala. They compose the great religious majority of the nation (65%), but since the Baath party took control of Iraq in the 1960s, they have had little say in Iraqi affairs and were often discriminated and persecuted. The Shiite community can be essentially divided in two: Those in the Mid-Euphrates region (the South), which is composed largely of Shiites, and those outside of it, in territories West of the region, which also include a Sunni minority, (See map 4). 63% of Iraqi Shiites live in this region, which includes the provinces of Al Qadisyah, Al Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Al Muthanna. In the city of Karbala, as many as 92% of the residents are Shiites.[19] For our purposes we will address the Shiite community as one, but point out the differences in opinions between the inhabitants of this region and others when they become relevant.

Since they were often persecuted under the Ba’ath regime, many Shiites were supportive of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and in fact, over half believed that “the U.S.-led invasion was right.” This claim was supported particularly among Shiites in the Mid-Euphrates region (56%), compared to Shiites elsewhere (44%).[20] On the question of whether the invasion liberated Iraq or humiliated it, again we see that this region shows more sympathy with the American administration, as 49% of Shiites declare that the war was a liberating one, while only 27% say it humiliated their nation. Among Shiites outside of this region, the support levels were significantly lower (34%).[21] While many Shiites were supportive of the invasion, many more are unsatisfied with the occupation. Support for the Shiite Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has led the fighting against the U.S. forces in Najef, one of the holiest cities for Shiites, has increased dramatically over the passing months.[22] Interestingly, however, Sadr’s support varies by region, and while he reportedly has the support of only 10% of Shiites in the area of Najef, outside of the Mid-Euphrates region, his support level are allegedly higher, up to 50% in the Shiite community of Baghdad.[23] Other Shiite leaders, like the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, preach more moderate behavior in their communities, and therefore violence and resistence among the Shiite community, especially in the Mid-Euphrates region has been comparably lessened.

The great majority of Shiite Arabs (91%) said that what Iraq needed at this time was a democracy.[24] Interestingly, however, in the Mid-Euphrates region, only 39% of Shiites reported that they perfer a democratic government, while elsewhere, 41% of Shiites expressed the same desire. [25] Roughly 30% of the inhabitants of the region hope for an Islamic state, almost twice as many as Shiites elsewhere, and over half (57%) expressed confidence in the new Iraqi army, and even more so in the new Iraqi police (69%). However, they also display pessmistic views, as residents of the Mid-Euphrates region showed a decline in their belief that Iraq is heading in the right direction, from around 65% (including the Southern region) to about 48% over the last few months.[26] More than Iraqis in any other region (93.90%), Shiites in the Southern Mid-Euphrates region expressed the desire to vote, and only 18% reported being directly influenced by the violence.[27]

Coming next week: Part 2 - Iraq's Primary Shiite Groups & Individuals.


1. CIA World Factbook, October 19, 2004, 
2. ibid
3. ibid
4. CIA World Factbook.
5. Nation Master Iraq Demographics, 
6. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, International Republican Institute, September 24- October 4, 2004.
7. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, IRI.
8. While Ambivalent About the War, Most Iraqis Report a Better Life ABC NEWS POLL: IRAQ – WHERE THINGS STAND, Monday, March 15, 2004. 
9. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, IRI
10. While Ambivalent about war, ABC NEWS.
11. Iraq’s Kurds: Toward Historic Compromise? International Crisis Group (ICG), ICG Middle East Report No.26, Amman/Brussels. 4/8/2003
12. CIA World Factbook
13. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, IRI
14. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, IRI
15. Most Shia Arabs Oppose Attacks; Islamic State is not Preferred. ABC News Pole, April 5, 2004. 
16. Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 
17. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, IRI
18. While Ambivalent about war, ABC NEWS
19. Most Shia Arabs Oppose Attacks; ABC Poll
20. ibid.
21. ibid.
22. Wikipedia, 
23. ibid.
24. Most Shia Arabs Oppose Attacks; ABC Poll
25. ibid.
26. Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, IRI.
27. Ibid.