Political organisations at work in the Iraqi civil war

Since 2003, the main reason for the extreme violence experienced in Iraq has been the part played by political organisations which have been continuously fuelling a dynamic of civil war by confronting one another to monopolize state resources and by organising religious and/or ethnic mobilisations.

In his recent work, Quesnay analyses the social upheavals and the radical transformation of the political game which have been taking place in Iraq since 2003. This book, which is the result of ten-year fieldwork, describes the conflict by analysing the shifting balance of political powers and changing social tensions. 

To this aim, he addresses a key phenomenon not often dealt with in literature, i.e.  the role played by political organisations in transforming the society. The book is also the fruit of his unique access to people’s lived experiences in a highly violent context. 

The work relies on qualitative methodology favouring participant observation; it cross-references several hundred interviews in order to produce a sociology of Iraqi politico- military groups’ practices and functioning. 

By shedding light from inside on a largely unknown conflict despite heavy media coverage, the research contributes to a better understanding of the failure of the Western intervention and of the arrival of the Islamic State as well as of the current strengthening of the new Shiite para-military power in the country. 

  • Quesnay A., 2021, La guerre civile irakienne. Ordres partisans et politiques identitaires à Kirkouk, Paris, Karthala.

Arthur Quesnay est membre du CESSP, université Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne : quesnay.arthur@gmail.com

The Iraqi civil war, a time of strong politicisation 

In 2003, the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the beginning of the American occupation and Iraq’s plunge into civil war did not really forecast a period of depoliticization, quite the opposite. That time was one of unique politicisation. Enduring the war, which simply meant having lodgings in a district, getting a job, selecting a school for kids or developing a business, depended on the capacity to figure out an ever-changing political map. Iraqi interviewees insisted that their relationship to politics, which used to be monopolised by the Baath party, had to become plural while legal or illegal political organisations were violently fighting to gain control of the State and of its resources. 

Far from breaking away from the former regime, the political organisations took up some of the Baath practices. Political action continued to particularly thrive on religious and ethnic differences and on the politicisation of state institutions along the Baath legacy of a party- State- society triptych.  This centrality of both parties and religious and ethnic identities took a turn for the worse as they were in line with the institutional transformations demanded by the American occupying forces. That significantly intensified the civil war.

As a matter of fact, the United States, being quickly overtaken by an insurrection which challenged their occupation of the country, speculated on the Shiite organisations returning from exile and on Kurdish parties. State institutions therefore lost their independence as the political parties became the main actors of violence and the unavoidable intermediaries between the Iraqi people and state institutions. 

Thus, the parties gained dominance thanks to their organisational capacity and bureaucratic character. They set up a great number of para-state institutions, implemented identity-based policies, i.e., strategies of ethnic or religious mobilisations in order to get support, even gain legitimacy, in the society. 

It therefore prompted religious and ethnic polarisation: the conflicts between partisan forces as well as their monopoly on the administration and economic resources gradually standardized demography in the various territories. The move towards identity actually strengthened the frontiers between ethnic and religious groups and facilitated partisan mobilisation.

The Shiite or Kurdish parties’ violence against Sunni Arabs became a recurring technique to bring their own group together by triggering violent cycles.  Disparaged as pro- Baathist, the Sunni population started being targeted and repressed, as early as 2003, all over the country, while Kirkuk was becoming the main arena for Kurdish parties’ anti-Arab policies.

However, despite that surge of violence, the Iraqi State did not die out. On the contrary, because of the economic rent provided by oil exports, the political organisations were bound to comply a minimum with the institutional game. It was indeed of major interest to them that the State should be operational enough to guarantee exchange rates with the international.

Last of all, both the presence of UK-US occupying forces and the organisations’ reliance on outside regional powers set no-go areas, with a particular focus on the respect of Iraqi borders. The formal existence of the state, although weakened in Turkish-controlled governorates, was not questioned but the model of government was clearly turning away from the national model.

Kirkuk: a strategic vantage point to observe changes in the Iraqi society 

Kirkuk is emblematic of the way the oil rent-based Iraqi state forced Kurdish parties to comply with state norms. Kirkuk governorate was one of the best vantage points to observe the changing Iraqi society, as the multi-ethnic character of its population clearly made the political organisations’ ethnic and religious mobilisations more visible. 

The confrontation between Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen groups displayed some political logics, also at work elsewhere in Iraqi but which were intensified there. The governorate had initiated a great number of political innovations – set up para-state institutions, trade-unions, economic committees, administrative sections or associations controlling the population. They are all key elements to understand the post-2003 national dynamics: politization of public administrations by partisan actors, growth of nepotistic networks, implementation of identity-based policies and state abandon to the benefit of local organisations.

Lastly, the control of state institutions was all the more obvious in Kirkuk as the confrontation between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central government got worse and worse between 2003 and 2017. These tensions developed against the background of socio-economic challenges faced by post-2003 Iraq: skyrocketing rural-urban divide, overcrowded impoverished peri-urban areas, poorly controlled demographics and a high rate of illiteracy which slowed down all economic changes. 

Between 2011 and 2013, the Sunni insurrection grew and gradually radicalised as the governmental repression increased. It is that repression-militarisation dynamics which enabled the Islamic State to seize and occupy almost a third of the Iraqi territory in 2014.   But, more important than reporting on fighting and mobilisation processes is the analysis of actual political transformations. 

At the beginning, the Iraqi State was once more diminished by the loss of part of its army, which enabled Kurdish parties to strengthen their hold on the governorates they were claiming. The conflict allowed them to capture significant international resources and develop their radical projects. 

However, in a second phase, the oil rent and international support enabled the State to take advantage of the popular mobilisation against the Islamic State to reinforce the parallel system of para-military control. The Iraqi government used State resources to organize and finance the inclusion of thousands of paramilitary fighters at Kirkuk, thanks to which it ultimately regained control.  It was the joint association of para-military and Iraqi military forces which enabled Bagdad to enter Kirkuk in 2017 and regain control over the governorate.

That was how the partisan appropriation between 2003 and 2017 paradoxically led to reinforcing the central state through para-military support and contributed to building a new political order in an attempt to gain control. 

A party-State-society triptych: a key to understanding the Iraqi civil war 

The Kirkuk governorate is clearly representative of the party-State-society triptych at work in the Iraqi conflict under different forms via activist networks, policies of demographic engineering and coercive political machineries. 

In 2003, the US-backed Kurd organisations, particularly the PUK, entered Kirkuk and seized the town thanks to their forceful partisan structures, which enabled them to take control of the governorate institutions. The Kurdish organisations set up a new identity-based hierarchy allowing them to dominate an otherwise multi-ethnic population by trivializing the use of violence in the name of an ethno-nationalistic rhetoric.

Confronted to Kurdish control, the Sunni Arab representatives proved unable to build political institutions, evidencing the impact of the US anti-rebellion policy. Besides, the failure of Turkmen organisations further illustrates the way transnational mechanisms were controlling Iraqi political organisations while their leaders’ lack of independence from Turkey was the main reason for their failure to establish a stronger social basis. Pressurized by political organisations, the population had to adapt to a new social order where ethnic or religious identity prevailed. 

First of all, repression and violent insurrection divided the governorate between the Kurd-controlled North and the South where insurgents were targeting Shiite Turkmen inhabitants. Next, the shift of economic circuits towards Iraqi Kurdistan increased urban inequality to the advantage of Kurdish districts. Last of all, access to employment was ethnically restricted, which marginalized Arabs and Turkmens while the partisan intra-Kurdish struggle intensified competition for resources. 

In this context, inhabitants had to gain new competences to find their way into an increasingly polarized society. In 2011, a national multi-ethnic unanimous protest movement developed at the time of the Arab spring. But, like in the rest of the country, repression crushed the movement limiting it to Sunni Arab areas, which in turn intensified ethnic and religious tensions and ultimately led to the creation of the Islamic State. 

From June 2014 onwards, the fighting against ISIS radicalized the political projects of all the groups.  Taking advantage of Bagdad’s decline, the military-backed Turkish parties seized the whole province even though the conflict was increasing their own internal tensions.  Simultaneously, Shiite Turkmen organisations used the popular mobilisation against ISIS to challenge Turkish domination. Hence, a new conflict emerged between a Kurdish autonomist project and a Shiite state-centred one.

In the end, Bagdad’s reconquest of Kirkuk in October 2017 underlined the failure of the ethnic-focused politization led by Kurdish parties as the increasingly powerful pro-Iranian para-military networks were advocating a new political order with the objective of redefining the Iraqi political system.

Our analysis of the political dynamic at work in Iraq between 2003 and 2017 contributes to understanding how identity-based issues were the result rather than the cause of the redefinition of political structures after the collapse of the Baath regime.  However, even though the arrival of ISIS in 2014 and Kirkuk’s reconquest by the Iraqi State evidenced the failure of the political system implemented by the US, the defeat of the Califate enabled the State to regain control over most of the Iraqi territory by relying on the Iran-backed para-military networks. 

The official end of the civil war witnessed the political inclusion of para- military groups at the national level and into the state apparatus for the sake of a new political order aiming at stabilizing the country. 

  • Tripp C., 2002, A History of Iraq, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dorronsoro G., Grojean O., 2015, Identités et politique. De la différenciation culturelle au conflit, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po.
  • Dodge T., 2017, Iraq – From War to a New Authoritarianism, Londres, Routledge.
  • Baczko A., Dorronsoro G., 2017, « Pour une approche sociologique des guerres civiles», Revue française de science politique, n°2, vol. 67.
  • Bet-Shlimon A., 2012, « Group Identities, Oil, and the Local Political Domain in Kirkuk: A Historical Perspective», Journal of Urban History, n°5, vol. 38.

Illustration d’Adèle Huguet pour Mondes Sociaux : licence CC BY-NC-ND.

Pour découvrir ses dessins, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Crédits en CC : Flaticon Freepik, Webalys, Agung Rama

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Citer ce billet
Arthur Quesnay (2023, 20 mars). Political organisations at work in the Iraqi civil war. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9mj

Arthur Quesnay

Arthur Quesnay, université Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, CESSP (quesnay.arthur@gmail.com)

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