The Diminishing Relevance of the Sunni-Shi‘a Divide

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Fanar Haddad, National University of Singapore

Recent developments in Iraq,[1] Syria,[2] and the region have occasioned a shift in the vocabulary of conflict and contestation away from sectarian categories and have helped diminish (though not eliminate) the emotive force and ready utility of sectarian identities from what they were only a few years ago. Today, what had been transformed into artificially simplified categories of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi‘a’ have lost the ersatz veneer of monolithic homogeneity that was created by/for the sect-coded conflicts that followed 2003, giving way to a more familiar intersectionality and intra-sectarian heterogeneity and lines of contestation  (see Dodge in this collection). As will be illustrated, this can be seen in Iraq in, among other things, the transformations that have marked electoral politics and the muhasasa system in recent years. The point is not to suggest that these shifts are permanent or that sectarian identity has been reduced to irrelevance but to note that the landscape has significantly changed between 2003 and 2018 and that the political relevance of the Sunni-Shi‘a divide has considerably diminished in the latter years of that period. Beginning around 2016, sectarian dynamics were no longer the chief driver of political instability – neither in Iraq nor the region.

The shifting politics of sect since 2003

As central as sectarian identities were to the very foundation of the post-2003 Iraqi political order, and as pivotal as Sunni-Shi‘a cleavages have been in Iraqi political contestation and political violence, the role, utility, and political relevance of sectarian identity have not stood static over the last fifteen years. The inflamed salience of sectarian identities at various junctures since 2003 should not blind us to the ebbs and flows of sectarian dynamics, something that cannot be explained with recourse to vague concepts such as ‘sectarianism’. Rather, the politics of sect in Iraq between 2003 and 2018 are better understood as having gone through several stages that can be loosely divided into two cycles:

  • First cycle
    • 2003 – 2005: Entrenchment
    • 2005 – 2007: Civil war
    • 2007 – 2010: Retreat
  • Second cycle
    • 2011 – 2012: Entrenchment
    • 2013 – 2015: Civil war
    • 2016 – 2018: Retreat

It is important to note the fundamental difference between the two cycles. The drivers of entrenchment and the broader political climate in 2003-2005 differ in many respects from those of 2011-12. For example, the impact of the American occupation in the former and that of the Arab uprisings and the Syrian civil war in the latter fundamentally shaped perceptions toward sectarian identity and sectarian relations. Likewise, internal Iraqi dynamics and the positive regional shifts mentioned above differentiate retreat in 2016-18 from the earlier stage of retreat in 2008-10. The broader enabling environment is crucial – and is often overlooked in speculation regarding the future of insurgency in Iraq.

The stages of sectarian dynamics listed above are a reflection of the shifting political stakes of sectarian competition. They are also a reflection of the gradual normalization of the post-2003 order and the consequent restriction of what is politically up for grabs. Political contestation in the earlier stages was more zero-sum and more identity-based, with the very nature of the Iraqi state and the foundational rules of political life seemingly up for grabs. In these early years, sect-centric and ethno-centric actors believed they were in an existential struggle to ensure their place and survival in an Iraq whose contours had yet to be solidified. Since then, the prism of sectarian/ethnic identity has lost the capacity it once had to dominate political perceptions and calculations as the relations of power between sect-centric actors became less open to contestation thereby leaving greater room for intra-sect, or indeed trans-sect, dynamics.

The normalization of the post-2003 order

The shifting stages of the politics of sect in Iraq underline the normalization of the post-2003 order and of the structures underpinning post-2003 sectarian relations. What was contentious or shocking in 2005 is often no longer so today. Perhaps the most straightforward illustration of this normalization process is the changing attitudes, in Iraq and beyond, toward the empowerment of Shi‘a-centric political actors, including those aligned with Iran. Initially, this was controversial enough to cause regional consternation and ultimately led to an internationalized civil war. Today, for good or ill, the political ascendance of Iraqi Shi‘a-centric actors is accepted by domestic, regional, and international policymakers and political actors as a fact of the political landscape.

A key indicator of these shifts is changing threat perceptions – both elite and popular. A large part of normalization is the waning of fear. Fears of group extinction and fears of group encirclement were heavily sect-coded in the early years after the U.S. invasion. This had a divisive social impact, as spiralling violence led people to seek safety in their own sectarian communities and to frame the sectarian other as a threat.[3] Today, and particularly since 2014, this is no longer the case. Despite the Islamic State’s unambiguously genocidal stance towards Shi‘as, post-2003 Iraq’s second phase of civil war was not sect-coded in the same way that the first was – not least because of the diversity of forces that fought against the Islamic State. Again, normalization and by extension the waning of fear are key elements to this: in 2019, the sectarian other may be loved, hated or viewed with indifference, but is no longer regarded as an existential threat. One manifestation of this is a greater ability to distinguish between the individual and the group and between the sectarian other and the militants claiming to represent them. The intra-Sunni divisiveness of the Islamic State, the diminished relevance of sectarian categories and the normalization of the politics of sect mean that unlike in 2005-2007, Iraqis after 2014 may fear Sunni or Shi‘a militants without viewing Sunnis or Shi‘as writ large as a threat – thereby shifting from a higher to a lower generality of difference as commonly happens with de-escalation.[4] To illustrate, in July 2016, Baghdad experienced its deadliest bombing to date, when more than 300 civilians were killed in an Islamic State suicide truck bombing in the mostly Shi‘a area of Karrada.[5] Yet despite the backdrop of the wartime mobilization against the Islamic State, popular outrage at the atrocity was aimed not at Sunnis nor at Sunni neighbourhoods but at the Iraqi government for its failure to protect civilians.[6] This starkly differs from the grim patterns of 2006-2007, when such an incident would have stoked fear of and anger toward ‘the Sunnis’ further fuelling the tit-for-tat atrocities between Sunni and Shi‘a armed camps.

A corollary to the process of normalization relates to the perceived reversibility of the post-2003 order. In the first stage of civil war in 2005-2007, the political order was young, insecure, internationally isolated, and directly linked to and dependent on the American occupation. Today, over a decade later, memories and experiences of pre-2003 Iraq are dimming, and powerful interests spanning across sectarian, ethnic, and even international boundaries are firmly entrenched in Iraq and are vested in the survival of the state. This is a product of the two stages of civil war and the ascendance of the state and its allied forces: where 2005-2007 signalled the irreversibility of the post-2003 order in the capital, 2013-2015 did so on an Iraq-wide scale. Insurgency will undoubtedly persist and is likely to be a feature of the Iraqi landscape for years to come. Likewise challenges to the system will likely grow as evidenced by the wide-spread calls for ‘revolution’ in the mass protests that erupted in 2019. However, the idea of overthrowing the political order in a sect-coded revolution is one entertained by a demographic that gets smaller and more extreme by the year.[7] Again, this is reflected regionally: Iraq today enjoys positive relations with all of its neighbours, regional interests are increasingly invested in Iraqi stability and would-be spoilers have fewer potential regional patrons than ever before

None of this means that political instability is a thing of the past. Rather, it signals that its parameters have changed in line with the increasing complexity of the Iraqi state and of Iraqi political contestation, which have moved beyond broad-stroke foundational issues relating to the politics of sect and the balance of power between sect-centric political actors. These changing parameters have been evidenced in political messaging, electoral behavior, public opinion, and patterns of violence. For the purposes of this brief note, it suffices to examine the changes that have been witnessed in electoral politics and in the muhasasa system.

The muhasasa system

There were always two components to the muhasasa system: a muhasasa ta’ifiyya (sectarian apportionment) and a muhasasa hizbiyya (party apportionment). These two overlapping components serve as important drivers of inter and intra-sectarian political competition respectively. The former was more prominent in the earlier stages of the post-2003 era when the basic balance of power between sect-centric actors was being contested – in other words, when the contours of sectarian apportionment were being established. Over the last fifteen years, however, contestation within the muhasasa system has shifted increasingly toward party apportionment as a function of the political classes’ acceptance of the rules governing relations of power between sects. As one politician put it in a private conversation in 2018: “Today it is all about the parties. They [the political classes] have moved beyond muhasasa ta’ifiyya because, especially after 2014, everyone knows their size and place.” Put another way, at the level of political elites, ethno-sectarian muhasasa and the political shares accorded to ‘Sunnis’, ‘Shi‘as’ and ‘Kurds’ are, for the moment, reified and minimally contested. Even at a popular level, opposition is less animated by how political office is apportioned or how much is given to this sect or that, and is instead driven by wholesale rejection of the muhasasa system itself.     

The increasing tilt of the lines of contestation animating the muhasasa system from sectarian to party apportionment has several implications for how we think about sectarian dynamics. Most obviously, it again reflects the importance of normalization as sectarian relations of power become more institutionalized and less contested: moving away from inter-sect divisions in a contested muhasasa ta’ifiyya and more towards intra-sect divisions in a contested muhasasa hizbiyya. The increasing tilt towards a party muhasasa is a function of the normalization of the post-2003 order and of the culmination of the tension between Shi‘a-centric state-building and Sunni rejection with the ascendance of the former and the containment of the latter.[8] In turn, this has seen sect-centric actors turn from competition to collusion in pursuit of intra-sect and trans-sect ends. It has also driven the shift from identity politics to issue politics and has deepened the divide between the people and the ruling classes.[9]

After 15 years of sect-coded political contestation, Iraqi politics are no longer about managing the coexistence of communities nor are they about establishing or tearing down a state. Rather, elite bargains evolved into an exercise in the management of the coexistence and working arrangements of complicit elites. This reflects the reality that the political classes have long made common cause through their mutual interests and collusion in an exclusionary system that has given them all a stake in its continuation. The political classes also share a common threat perception with regards to the burgeoning social pressure from below from a public that has grown ever more distant from the political classes as the politics of sect lost relevance.[10]

Electoral Politics

Linked to the above is the evolution of electoral politics. Surveying the political evolution of Iraqi elections, one of the most visible patterns that emerges is the shift from inter to intra-sectarian competition. In the earlier elections the contest was about the fundamental political norms that would govern the post-2003 order: establishing the muhasasa system and determining the practical extent of communal representation and particularly of the respective shares of Sunnis, Shi‘as, and Kurds. The more these broad and foundational issues were settled, the less contested inter-sect and inter-ethnic political competition became. By extension, this diminished the perceived need for sectarian solidarity and allowed for greater intra-sectarian and intra-ethnic competition, thereby intensifying the fragmentation of electoral politics with every electoral cycle. The formalization and normalization of the ethno-sectarian division of office was bluntly described by former Speaker of Parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani in a television appearance soon after the elections of 2018: “Our share [Sunnis] is known: six ministries, nine commissions, and more than 60 other positions – special grades. So, what do we care who comes and who is the largest bloc and who is Prime Minister? What do I care? Whoever comes, we will say: this is our share, give it to us. He cannot say no, because this is agreed upon.”[11] This perspective, of course, is a stark departure from the hotly contested debates surrounding demographics and political entitlement that proliferated in the early years following 2003.[12]

The numbers speak for themselves. In January 2005 the vote was dominated by three lists – Sunni, Shi‘a, Kurdish – who between them secured more than 87 percent of the vote. The Shi‘a list alone secured more than 48 percent of the vote. In December 2005, 90 percent of the vote went to just five ethno/sect-coded lists.[13] Since then the vote – and the political constellations vying for it – has fragmented with every round of elections to the extent that in 2018 the top nine lists shared 80 percent of the vote, with the top performer, Sadrist-led Sa’irun, netting only 14 percent. Furthermore, in another departure from prior practice, many of the major lists campaigned across ethnic and sectarian lines.[14] These dynamics were subsequently reflected in the government formation process, which defied ethno-sectarian compartmentalization. For example, the trademark backroom jockeying for ministerial positions that follows every Iraqi election yielded unexpected bedfellows between Shi‘a-centric and Sunni-centric political actors more accustomed to hurling accusations of treason and complicity with Iran/the Islamic State at each other.[15]

This cross-sectarian collusion between what had been regarded as implacable enemies is another marker of the development of a more transactional Iraqi politics, shaped by political interests and pragmatism.[16] This echoes the literature on the evolution of political marketing in post-authoritarian and/or post-conflict settings whereby an initially more blunt and narrowly focussed messaging gives way to more politically flexible and professional strategies.[17] Further, with time, the increasing complexity of the electoral system alters incentive structures away from zero-sum calculations and shapes electoral behavior accordingly: from inter-group competition to increased intra-group competition as seen above.[18] Indicative of this is the banality of the once-controversial and contested apportionment of the highest political positions among Shi‘a, Sunni, and Kurdish representatives – a banality that is evidenced in the cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic alignments that underpinned the nominations for these positions after the elections in 2018. The broader dynamics of government formation after 2018 saw rival cross-sectarian alignments pushing their respective Shi‘a and Sunni nominees rather than Sunni and Shi‘a camps disagreeing over a position or over how it was to be apportioned.

Evolution, not resolution, of political instability

The fact that the relevance of sectarian categories has diminished in Iraqi politics should not be taken to mean that Iraq’s political problems are over. That the prism of sectarian identity is not what it was does not mean that Iraq is any closer to addressing the structural drivers of political dysfunction. Likewise, if sectarian dynamics lose their capacity to drive conflict and instability, it does not follow that other drivers will not persist or that new ones will not emerge. From muhasasa, to corruption, to political violence, to weak rule of law and shortcomings in governance, these and many more structural issues continue to plague Iraq even if they are less sect-coded today.[19] As such, what is being described here is more the evolution rather than the resolution of instability and dysfunction between 2003 and 2018.

As existential sect-coded contestation of the state subsides, and as serious contestation of the balance of power between sect-centric actors wanes (regionally and domestically), so too do political sect-centricity and, by extension, the political utility and relevance of the sectarian divide. Like their Sunni-centric counterparts, Shi‘a-centric politicians have also had to adapt to the diminished political utility of sectarian identity in Iraqi politics. With Shi‘a political ascendance seemingly secured in Iraq and accepted regionally, intra-Shi‘a politics and issue politics could better come to the fore as evidenced by the escalating yearly protests in Baghdad and the southern governorates since 2015.[20] Gone are the days when Shi‘a-centric political actors could stoke fears of recalcitrant Sunnis, murderous ‘takfiris’, or closeted Ba‘thists. Hence, despite broad support for the war against the Islamic State, no amount of wartime jingoism was capable of preventing the emergence of a robust protest movement against perceived government failings in Baghdad and other Shi‘a-majority cities in 2015.[21] In the years following the cataclysm of 2014, political leaders were no longer able to distract from their failures by pointing to the security situation or by blaming the sectarian other. Today, Shi‘a-centric actors have as much to fear from a disgruntled Shi’a public as they do the re-emergence of insurgency in Sunni areas. 

Does this signal the end of sect-centricity? Not at all; rather, it underlines its transformation. Further, it signals the normalization of the balance of power between sect-centric actors whose relations are now marked more by collusion than competition. As such, and as has been abundantly illustrated in the upheaval of 2019, the main political challenge is no longer about the politics of sect or rival sect-coded claims to the state. Rather, the greatest internal challenge is popular anger that, thus far, has been primarily mobilized in Shi‘a areas. This again reflects the diminished political salience of the politics of sect which itself is a function of the normalization of the main contours of Shi‘a-centric state-building: ensuring that the central levers of power are in Shi‘a hands (and more so, Shi‘a-centric hands), and institutionalizing a vision of Iraq that frames Iraqi Shi‘as as the big brother or senior partner in Iraq’s multi-communal framework.

Today violence, victimhood, political perception, and populist discourse are no longer as sect-coded or as juxtaposed against the sectarian other as was the case in the past. As early as 2014, and even prior to the fall of Mosul, there were warnings that the rise of the Islamic State was threatening to turn intra-Sunni violence into a long-term problem.[22] And indeed, in areas liberated from the Islamic State, intra-Sunni violence and tribal vengeance have been a more persistent issue than sectarian violence.[23] The grim human rights situation in liberated areas and the primacy of vengeance over justice have been too systemic and have implicated too broad an array of actors to be reduced solely to the prism of sectarian violence.[24] As such, Sunni victimhood is driven as much by local predation by Sunni actors as it is by ‘the Shi‘as’. Likewise, resentment at the state and its institutions is today an Iraq-wide issue that does not conform to a sect-coded logic of Sunni opposition and Shi‘a support. Where once a contested Shi‘a sense of state ownership was rallied to uphold and defend the nascent order against a sect-coded challenge, today the same Shi‘a motifs, symbols, and rituals that were enlisted in the service of Shi‘a-centric state building are being directed against the state for its failure to offer much beyond the prism of identity politics.[25] ‘Shi‘a rule’ is no longer an emotive issue for the Shi‘a public because it has been secured. Rather than identity issues, Iraqi mobilization is animated today by the demand for a peace dividend, political representation, economic opportunity, functioning services, and the elusive promise of a better life.

The trigger for the accelerated elevation of the political relevance of sectarian identities was ultimately the manner in which the American invasion of 2003 disturbed the balance of power between sect-centric actors both in Iraq and in the broader region. The political and military contestation that followed and the sect-coded fears and ambitions they engendered have considerably receded in Iraq with the normalization of post-2003 hierarchies of power. Today, Iraqi and regional developments seem to be veering away from the prism of sectarian identity: at the time of writing, the sectarian wave seems to have crested.[26] However, another black swan event that allows for the contestation and renegotiation of the relations of power between sect-centric actors could nevertheless reinvigorate the political relevance of sectarian identity.

Changes since 2014 and the relative stabilization of the Iraqi state may ultimately be squandered, as were the gains made in Iraq’s brief moment of optimism in 2008-2010.[27] Nevertheless, even if sectarian dynamics take a turn for the worse, it is almost impossible for them to perfectly revert to what they were in earlier years. The entrenchment and civil war of 2003-2007 were caused by a set of extraordinary circumstances and an enabling environment that cannot readily be recreated: foreign invasion and occupation, state collapse, a backdrop of decades-long isolation and sect-coded legacy issues. The Iraqi state eventually grew more complex since its destruction in 2003 and, by 2018, political alignments and political contestation reflected a complexity that could no longer be contained in the prism of ‘sectarianism’ – however defined. This was even more glaring on the level of regional politics, where the illusion of Sunni and Shi‘a camps had long been unsustainable.[28] Where sectarian dynamics are concerned, the last 15 years demonstrate the way that sectarian relations and sectarian identities evolve according to context and respond to ever-changing incentive structures and enabling environments rather than having an ancient logic of their own transcending time, space, reason, and comprehension.


[1] In addition to the dramatic drop in violence and the territorial defeat of the Islamic state, Iraq’s improved bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and its greater regional integration are cases in point. See Mehiyar Kathem, “A New Era Beckons for Iraqi-Saudi Relations,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 2, 2018,; “Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report no. 186, May 22, 2018,; Renad Mansour, “Saudi Arabia’s New Approach in Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nov. 2018,

[2] On the drawing down of the Syrian civil war, the shift in how regional actors view the conflict and the steady reintegration of Syria into the regional fold are another example. See Kamal Alam and David Lesch, “The Road to Damascus: The Arabs March Back to Befriend Assad,” War on the Rocks, Dec. 7, 2018,

On Syria’s reintegration, see Hashem Osseiran, “UAE Reopens Embassy in Damascus after Six Years,” National, Dec. 27, 2018,; Bethan McKernan and Martin Chulov, “Arab League set to readmit Syria eight years after expulsion,” The National, Dec. 26, 2018,; Jeyhun Aliyev, “Bahrain reopens embassy in Syria,” Anadolu Agency, Dec. 28, 2018,

[3] On the central role of fear in shaping action in conflict see Lina Haddad Kreidie and Kristen Renwick Monroe, “Psychological Boundaries and Ethnic Conflict: How Identity Constrained Choice and Worked to Turn Ordinary People into Perpetrators of Ethnic Violence during the Lebanese Civil War,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 16:1 (2002): 5-36; Michael J. Boyle, “Bargaining, Fear and Denial: Explaining Violence Against Civilians in Iraq 2004-2007,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 21 (2009): 261-87.

[4] This shift away from a zero-sum negative framing to a more spectral one was noted by Neta Oren in how Arab entities have been framed in Israeli political discourse: the easing of tensions and fear encourages a lower generality of difference. Neta Oren, “Israeli Identity Formation and the Arab Israeli Conflict in Election Platforms, 1969-2006,” Journal of Peace Research, 47:2 (2010): 198.

[5] Ahmed Rasheed, “Death Toll in Baghdad Bombing Rises to 324: Ministry,” Reuters, Aug. 1, 2016,

[6] “Ghadhab muwatinin athna’ ziyarat al-Abadi li-mawqi’ tafjir al-Karrada,” (Citizens’ Anger During al-Abadi’s Visit to the Site of the Karrada Bombing), BBC Arabic, July 3, 2016,

[7] As has been widely noted, since losing their territorial ‘caliphate’, Islamic State militants have been staging a resurgence in rural parts of Iraq. While a repeat of 2014 remains unlikely, the Islamic State and insurgency in general will continue to threaten Iraqi stability for some time. For recent analysis on post-caliphate Islamic State fortunes and strategies see Michael Knights, “The Islamic State Inside Iraq: Losing Power or Preserving Strength?” CTC Sentinel, 11:11 (Dec. 2018): 1-10,; Hisham al-Hashimi, “Tandhim Da‘ish fi ‘am 2018: al-Iraq Namuthag,” (The Islamic State in 2018: The Case of Iraq,” The Center of Making Policies for International and Strategic Studies, Oct. 2018,

[8] Fanar Haddad, “Shi‘a Centric State Building and Sunni Rejection in Post-2003 Iraq,” in Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, ed. Fred Wehrey, (London: Hurst and Co., 2017).

[9] Faleh A. Jabar, “The Iraqi Protest Movement: From Identity Politics to Issue Politics,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series no. 25, 2018,; Renad Mansour, “Protests Reveal Iraq’s New Fault Line: The People vs. the Ruling Class,” World Politics Review, July 20, 2018,

[10] The scale of the near-annual summer protests across southern Iraq and Baghdad in 2018 are a case in point. See Harith Hasan, “The Basra Exception,” Diwan, Carnegie Middle East Center, Sept. 19, 2018,; Fanar Haddad, “Why Are Iraqis Protesting?” Al Jazeera English, July 19, 2018, The protests of 2019 posed a far greater challenge to the governing order. In both cases and those preceding them, the politics of sect were marginal: they were concentrated in Baghdad and other Shi‘a-majority areas, they were driven by issue politics rather than identity-politics, and, in the case of 2019, they were an expression of rage against the political system in its entirety.

[11] “Sa’et Mukashafa ‘ra’is majlis al-nuwab al-asbaq al-Mashhadani,” (Sa’et Mukashafa ‘former head of the Council of Representatives al-Mashhadani’), uploaded Nov. 7, 2018, In the same interview Mashhadani emphasizes the fact that, beyond sectarian identity, muhasasa today is a function of family links, tribal connections and party affiliation. 

[12] In particular, a fairly common view among Sunni Arab politicians in the early post-2003 era rejected the notion that Sunni Arab Iraqis were a minority. This position was voiced by mainstream Sunni politicians as well as more extreme voices; from religious leaders such as Harith al-Dhari (former general secretary of the Association of Muslim Scholars), to politicians such as Khalaf al-Ulayyan, Mohsen Abdel Hamid (former head of the Iraqi Islamic Party) and Osama al-Nujaifi, to extremists such as Salafi jihadist preacher Taha al-Dulaimi. In fact, as early as August 2003 Dulaimi was describing the idea that Sunnis are a minority as a lie. See Taha al-Dulaimi, “Hathihi Hiya al-Haqiqa: al-A‘dad wa-l-Nisab al-Sukaniyya li-Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Shi‘a fi-l-Iraq,” (This is the Truth: Population Numbers and Percentages of Sunnis and Shi‘as in Iraq), published online August 2003, re-published in 2009, For a less extreme iteration see comments of then-Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in which he claims that the notion of a Shi‘a majority in Iraq is a lie. “Media bias ‘threat’ to Iraq,” Al Jazeera, Jan. 3, 2007,

[13] For the elections of 2005, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission: and; Adam Carr’s election archive,; Dodge, Iraq, pp. 44-48.

[14] For the elections of 2018 see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission’s website,, accessed January 13, 2019; Adam Carr’s election archive, accessed January 13, 2019; and Renad Mansour and Christine van den Toorn, “The 2018 Iraqi Federal Elections: A Population in Transition?” LSE Middle East Centre, July 2018,

[15] Perhaps the starkest example was the umbrella ‘Construction Bloc’. This political alliance linked the (Sunni-centric) National Axis, former Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law, and the PMU-led Fatah Alliance. This combined two sect-coded camps that had long framed each other as the sect-coded hate-figures par excellence embodying the heart of sectarian narratives of victimhood.

[16] Needless to say, political interests and pragmatism are often regarded as a euphemism for political cynicism. Iraqi public opinion was taken aback by the unexpected alignment of political actors who had previously expended much energy demonizing each other as Islamic State supporters or nefarious Iranian militiamen. This fed into the wider popular alienation from the political classes. See Helene Sallon, “In Iraq, The Revolt of Generation 2018,” Worldcrunch (originally in French in Le Monde), Oct. 13, 2018,

[17] For a discussion of these themes see Adam Harmes, “Political Marketing in Post-Conflict Elections: The Case of Iraq,” Journal of Political Marketing, (2016), DOI: 10.1080/15377857.2016.1193834. Harmes applies the Lees-Marshment model of political market that categorizes political parties along three ideal types: product oriented, sales oriented and market-oriented parties. Post-conflict electoral evolution goes through these stages fro the least sophisticated (product oriented) to the more layered, nuanced and practical market-oriented model – be it in inter or intra-group dynamics.

[18] Ibid. To give an example of the evolution of incentive structures away from zero-sum identity politics, referencing Dodge and Benraad, Harmes argues that legislative and procedural changes in the voting system aided in the reduction of sectarian mobilization. For example, Benraad points to the controversial decision following the elections of 2010 allowing the head of the largest coalition formed after the elections to form a government. This, she argues, incentivized parties to run individually rather than in a broad list in future elections. Quoting Myriam Benraad, “Al-Maliki looks at a third term in Iraq,” Al Jazeera Center for Studies, April 22, 2014, p. 3. Also see Dodge, Iraq, pp. 147-80.    

[19] For a concise overview of the challenges and internal contradictions facing the incoming government in 2018 (none of which are particularly sect-coded) see Kirk H. Sowell, “A Fractured Iraqi Cabinet,” Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nov. 8, 2018,  

[20] Protests in 2019 have been especially severe. The overhanded and bloody suppression that ensued transformed the protests into an insurrection that may yet flare up again. See Fanar Haddad, “Iraq’s protests and the reform farce,” Al Jazeera, Oct. 5, 2019,

[21] Harith Hasan, “Ab’ad al-ihtijajat al-ijtima‘iyya bi-l-Iraq wa mu’tayat al-khilaf al-Shi‘i,” (The parameters of social protests in Iraq and the nature of Shi’a division), Al Jazeera Center for Studies, Aug. 17, 2015,’ite.pdf; Ali Taher, “Harakat al-ihtijajat al-madani fi-l-Iraq ba‘d 31 July 2015: aliyat al-tashakul wa ma‘alat al-mustaqbal,” (The social protest movement in Iraq after 31 July 2015: mechanisms of formation and future implications), King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Oct. 2015; Jabar, “The Iraqi Protest Movement.”

[22] Wa’il Ni’ma, “Al-Anbar takhsha ‘harb tharat’ wa-rijaluha musta’idun li-tard Dai’sh itha taghayar ra’is al-hukuma,” (Anbar fears ‘a war of vendettas’ and its men are ready to expel Da’ish if there is a change in head of government), Al-Mada Newspaper, June 4, 2014,  

[23] See for example, Kamal al-Ayash, “Anbar Tribes Exact Revenge upon Iraqis Who Worked with Extremists,” Niqash, Oct. 13, 2016,; Kamal al-Ayash, “Anbar’s New Anti-Extremist Militias Get Bigger, Cause New Problems,” Niqash, Nov. 2016,

[24] For an excellent report on the human rights situation in liberated areas of Iraq and the fatal challenges facing those accused of Islamic State affiliation or of being related to anyone with such affiliation see Ben Taub, “Iraq’s Post-ISIS Campaign of Revenge,” New Yorker, Dec. 24, 2018, The report’s occasional portrayals of a campaign of revenge aimed at Sunnis are contradicted by the many examples it gives of locally perpetrated predation and locally driven targeting of suspected Islamic State members and their families.

[25] As Harith Hasan put it in describing the 2019 disturbances, protestors are, “… using national symbolism and connection nationalism and a particularly Shi‘ revolutionary spirit to issues of social justice.” Harith Hasan, “Iraq is currently being shaken by violent protests,” Diwan, Carnegie Middle East Center, Oct. 4, 2019,

[26] The term ‘sectarian wave’ is taken from Byman’s analysis of the subject. Daniel Byman, “Sectarianism Afflicts the New Middle East,” Survival, 56:1 (2014): 80.

[27] There were great improvements in these years: violence continued declining, sectarian politics were in very clear retreat, militia and insurgent networks had been crippled, and many were optimistic that post-2003 Iraqi politics had come of age – unfortunately this proved illusory and was derailed by the controversies surrounding the elections of 2010 (see note 50). Writing in 2009, Visser provides an overview of the reasons for optimism and also why optimism needed to be cautious. See Reidar Visser, “Post-Sectarian Strategies for Iraq,”, March 2009,   

[28] On the transformation of regional politics see Lynch, “The New Arab Order: Power and Violence in Today’s Middle East.”