Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2017, 15:16 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Iraq

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date October 2014
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Iraq, October 2014, available at: [accessed 18 November 2017]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: October 2014


The Republic of Iraq, or ancient Mesopotamia, has an area of 169,236 square miles, and shares borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the south, Jordan to the west, Syria to the northwest, Turkey to the north, and Iran to the east. It has a very narrow section of coastline at Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf. The country consists of mostly desert, although land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is fertile and lush, and some swamps remain in the southern delta, although many were intentionally drained during the 1990s. The mountainous north gives way to a flatter centre and south. Iraq has sizeable oil reserves in its north and south, estimated to be second largest in the world after those of Saudi Arabia. Those regions are majority Kurd and Shi'a, respectively; most Sunnis inhabit the oil-poor middle of Iraq.


Iraq was formed out of the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul captured by Britain during 1916-18. In 1921 Britain made Iraq a monarchy under the Hashemite King Faisal, recently ousted from Syria. At the time the political separation of 'Southern Kurdistan' (that is, those Kurdish areas under British control) was still under consideration, but Faisal made its inclusion a vital pre-condition of accepting the crown. His reason was simple: without the predominantly Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs would be seriously outnumbered by Shi'a Arabs. His and every successor's regime has ensured both Sunni and Arab control. The monarchy allowed more community representation than its successors, but remained dependent on co-opting notables and chiefs. The state failed to engage minorities sufficiently. Family, tribal, ethnic or confessional loyalties still have first call on the average Iraqi citizen, although the ordeal of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88, did more to forge Iraqi national identity than any other event.

In 1958 the monarchy was overthrown. For a moment it seemed possible to build a republic based upon communal and individual egalitarian principles, but the coup leader, Brigadier Qasim, became increasingly distrustful of power residing anywhere except in his own hands. After his overthrow in 1963, Arab nationalists and Ba'athists (see Syria on Ba'ath origins) took over, but the latter were soon marginalized. In 1968, however, the Ba'athists ousted the Arab nationalists and established a one-party state.

The new vice-president, Saddam Hussein, emerged as the most powerful member of the regime. He established a regime of secret police and informers so extensive that ordinary Iraqis were fearful of making any political criticisms, even in private. Having defeated the Kurds in 1975, Saddam Hussein sought to destroy the leadership of all other groups that might pose a threat to the regime. All forms of social and economic association were penetrated in order to identify and eliminate all those who dissented from the totalitarian regime now being created. When Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency in 1979 he purged hundreds of senior members from the administration, narrowing the regime to a small coterie from his home town of Tikrit, family and trusted friends. The Ba'ath became largely irrelevant to the exercise of power.

In 1980 Saddam Hussein launched a full-scale war against Iran in the belief he could rapidly defeat it. But Iran soon pushed Iraqi forces back. Hussein notoriously used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and, in the genocidal 'Anfal campaign' of the late 1980s, also against Iraqi Kurds, who posed a domestic threat to his regime. Iran only agreed to a cease-fire in 1988 when Western support for Iraq rendered an Iranian victory impossible. Two years later Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait and lost his western support. Iraq was put under an international trade embargo. Having failed to withdraw unconditionally, Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait by an American-led international coalition force.

In the mid-1990s Iraq remained under embargo because of its reluctance to implement fully UN Security Council resolutions regarding weapon stocks. Despite a UN-administered 'Oil-for-Food Programme', the people of Iraq found themselves starved of food stocks and other essential commodities, and the country bankrupt. It later emerged that some senior UN officials and national governments had accepted kickbacks from the Iraqi government in exchange for political favours and diversion of funds to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Following the establishment of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in 1991, Kurdish northern Iraq, however, entered into a period of relative calm and economic stability under autonomous rule. Due to the U.S.-enforced no-fly and security zones and incessant Kurdish rebellions, Saddam Hussein withdrew from Kurdistan and blockaded the borders along Kurdish-controlled territories, Following the subsequent collapse of central government, most of the three northern provinces of Erbil, Duhok, and Sulimaniyah came under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two parties held an election in 1992, which seated Iraqi Kurdistan's first elected government. The PUK and the KDP occupied an almost equal number of seats, leading to tension in the early years of Kurdish government. The two factions fought openly in the mid-1990s, leading to a regional split in governance with the PUK, controlling the south and calling upon the support of neighbouring Iran for support, whilst the KDP controlled the north and sought to form an alliance with Saddam Hussein's regime. However, the two parties were eventually reconciled in the late 1990s and signed a Unification Agreement. The region was therefore largely protected from regime attacks and was able to put its share of the oil-for-food funds to better use.

Although the Gulf War saw coalition forces push toward Baghdad, and there was a possibility that they would move into the capital and overthrow Saddam Hussein, President George Bush Sr did not go through with this and pulled out. However, before doing so, he encouraged Iraqis to rise against Hussein, with the promise that the USA would support their campaigns. However, this did not materialize at all, and led to pogroms and massacres against the Marsh Arabs and largely Shi'a groups in the south of the country. Hussein mounted reprisal killings of many Iraqis, a campaign of extermination comparable in some sense to the previous Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the north when wholesale town and populations were destroyed by Saddam Hussein's forces. The West turned a blind eye to such pogroms, but maintained economic sanctions against the regime and launched occasional military strikes against Hussein's military.

In March 2003, however, the US, supported by the UK and several other allies, launched a massive invasion of Iraq without UN authorization. The Bush administration sold the war on two pretexts that were subsequently revealed to be categorically false - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that threatened not only the region but also the West, and that through connections with al-Qaeda, Hussein was linked to the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. It quickly emerged that the Bush and Blair governments had manipulated sceptical intelligence reports on these matters in order to support a political decision to launch a war for Hussein's removal.

Baghdad quickly fell to the invasion force; but as formal military resistance collapsed, a Sunni insurgency was born. Meanwhile, the Shi'a majority, tasting power for the first time in the country's history, formed its own militant organizations, some with deep ties to new government structures, and the Kurds organized to maintain and expand control over the north with its oil wealth. After four years of bloody fighting, deaths - largely of Iraqi civilians - numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and the displacement of millions, the situation is more unstable than it was before the invasion.Since then, Iraq has suffered continuous waves of sectarian violence.


Main languages: Arabic, Kurdish, Turkman (Turkish dialect) and Assyrian

Population of Iraq (est.for July 2014): 32,585,692

Main religions:

  • Islam (Twelver (Ithna'ashari) Shi'a and Sunni) - 99%
  • Christianity (Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East members, Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, Armenian Catholics and Orthodox, Protestants, and Evangelicals) - 0.8%
  • Yazidi faith - <1%
  • Sabian faith - <1%

Main minority groups:

  • Sunni Arabs (32-37%, although estimates vary greatly and are contested)
  • Kurds (15-20%)
  • Christians (0.8% - 500,000)
  • Turkomans (3% - up to 3 million)
  • Assyrians (500,000)
  • Yazidis (500,000)
  • Shabak (250,000)
  • Kaka'i (Kurdish sub-group) (200,000)
  • Syrian refugees and asylum seekers (220,787)
  • Roma (Kawliyah) (50,000-200,000)
  • Sabian Mandaeans (3,500-5,000)
  • Faili (Shi'a) Kurds
  • Palestinian refugees (10,000-15,000)
  • Baha'i (less than 1,000)
  • Circassian Sunnis (2,000)
  • Jews (10-20)

[Sources: Minority Rights Group State of the World's Minorities 2010: Kurds, Baha'i, Jews. MRG Iraq Report June 2010: Faili Kurds, Circassian Sunnis, Roma, Kaka'i, Palestinians, Shabak. CIA World Factbook 2014 on Iraq: Arabs, Turkoman, Shi'a, Kurds, Christians. Sunnis (est. based on widely circulated media reports, but claims are disputed). US CIRF 2013: Yazidis, Sabian-Mandaeans, Christians and Baha'i. UNHCR Iraq Factsheet Qt. 1 2014: Syrians. ACE Human Rights Report on Assyrians in Iraq 2011: Assyrians]

Iraq is composed of several ethnic and religious groups. About 99 per cent of the country is Muslim. The Muslim population is divided into a large Shi'a Arab majority, a Sunni Arab minority, and an ethnic Kurdish minority that is also predominantly Sunni. Kurds represent the largest non-Arab minority in the country (15-20 per cent of the population), followed by Assyrians and Turkmen. Other smaller ethnic (and ethno- religious) minorities in Iraq include Armenians, Faili Kurds, Roma and Shabak.

The areas bordering the officially recognized Kurdistan Region, which are claimed by both the Kurdistan and Federal governments, including Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahidden and parts of Nineveh, are historically home to a number of Iraq's minority communities. In fact, the proportion of minorities in these areas is increasing, as members of minorities fleeing from other parts of Iraq choose to settle there. These areas have become the most dangerous governorates in the country in terms of security and freedom to access rights and services, particularly for minorities. Furthermore, some members of minorities consider the Kurdistan Region a less than ideal place to resettle due to differences in language and poor job prospects.

kaka'i, known also as ahl-e haqq, are generally considered a kurdish subgroup which speak a different language called macho. it is estimated that around 200,000 kaka'i live in iraq, the most important kaka'i area being in the south-east of kirkuk. it is believed that most of them have been displaced since the fall of the former regime. their faith, 'kakaism', stems from the word for 'brotherhood'. due to a misinterpretation of their religion, many muslims refer to them as devil-worshippers, which has resulted in their repression. in addition, they may be targeted on the basis of their kurdish ethnicity. they have been subjected to threats, kidnapping and assassinations, mainly in the kirkuk area.

The Iraqi Turkmen claim to be the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, residing almost exclusively in the north. Approximately 60 per cent are Sunni, with the remainder Ithna'ashari or other Shi'a. Shi'a generally live at the southern end of the Turkmen settlement, and also tend to be more rural. Although some have been able to preserve their language, the Iraqi Turkmen today are being rapidly assimilated into the general population and are no longer tribally organised. Tensions between Kurds and Turkmen mounted following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, with clashes occurring in Kirkuk. Turkmen view Kirkuk as historically theirs.

Iraqi Christians include Armenians and Chaldo-Assyrians, who belong to one of four churches: Chaldean (Uniate), Jacobite or Syrian Orthodox, Nestorian and Syrian Catholic. Christians are at particular risk because of their religious ties with the West and thus, by association, with the multinational forces (MNF-I) in Iraq. There was a resurgence of violence against Christians in early 2009. Christians were subject to another wave of violence in Mosul in the run-up to the March 2010 parliamentary elections, causing further displacement. Even before the events in January 2009, Christians had been fleeing the country at much higher rates than other groups. According to the US-based research facility the Brookings Institution, Christians in Iraq numbered between 1 million and 1.4 million in 2003. Today, only an estimated 500,000 are reported to remain. Only 25,000 Christians now live in Mosul, for instance, compared to 75,000 in 2003.

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime led to the displacement of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had hitherto been residing in Iraq. About 22,000-34,000 Palestinians were believed to live in Iraq at the beginning of the war, according to statistics published by the Forced Migration Review. Seen as being favoured by the previous regime, they have faced retaliatory attacks since its demise. UNHCR figures show that only 13,000 are believed to have remained in the country. About 1,500 of them have been living in extremely tough conditions in Al Waleed camp, located close to Iraq's border with Syria, after fleeing from persecution in Baghdad in recent years.

Many Muslims consider Baha'í as apostates or heretics due to their belief in a post-Islamic religion. Their situation in Iraqi society has, therefore, always been difficult. For example, many Baha'í born in the last 30 years have no citizenship documents, including passports, and therefore cannot leave the country. In April 2008, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior confirmed in May that the rights of the Baha'i minority to residency and identity documents had been restored. However, problems persist: a report by USCIRF claims that in spite of the revoked prohibition, many Baha'í have still faced obstacles in changing their identity cards to indicate their faith.

Known as Kawliyah in Iraq, the Roma are either Sunni or Shi'a Muslims, and are found in the Baghdad region and in the South. Kawliyah were not allowed to own property and did not have access to higher positions in the government or the military. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, they have been attacked by Islamic militia who disapprove of their different customs. Community leaders estimate their population at around 60,000.

According to the USCIRF, large percentages of Iraq's smallest religious minorities - Chaldo-Assyrians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis - have fled the country in recent years due to religiously-motivated attacks that have created a climate of impunity. Those that that remain face discrimination and marginalisation, especially in parts of northern Iraq.

Once numbering more than 150,000, almost all members of Iraq's Jewish community have now left voluntarily or been forced out. Since the outbreak of the Second World War, they have suffered persecution as a result of Arab nationalist violence. UNHCR reports that, since the fall of the regime in 2003, the situation for Jews in Iraq has drastically deteriorated. Since 2003, the population has been reduced considerably, now possibly numbering no more than 10 people in Baghdad, and some families in the Kurdistan Region.


Like most Middle Eastern societies, under Saddam Hussein the social structure of Iraq operated on patronage networks - either through extended families and tribal structures or through other solidarity groups. This made the effort to transition to an open, democratic and representative society a formidable task.

Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's government, an American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took responsibility for administering the government. What goodwill the occupying powers gained by overthrowing Hussein, who was widely despised by Shi'a and Kurds, quickly dissipated. Inadequate numbers of foreign troops stood by as government buildings were looted by mobs and public order deteriorated. Massive munitions depots throughout Iraq were left unguarded, even as CPA administrator Paul Bremer disbanded the majority Sunni Iraqi army, Interior ministry force and presidential guard in May 2003. Overnight, the move rendered 720,000 armed Iraqi men unemployed at a time when Sunni insurgents were organizing to avert majority Shi'a rule and against the foreign presence that made it possible. Abuses by American and other international forces in Iraq, notably the use of torture and humiliation against detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, enraged Iraqis, strengthening Sunni insurgents and Shi'a militias alike.

An American-installed Iraqi Interim Government replaced the CPA when the March 2004 Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period became operational in June 2004. Ethnic and sectarian quotas used to constitute the new government left Sunnis feeling under-represented. Most Sunnis boycotted elections for the National Assembly in January 2005, and Shi'a and Kurds controlled the new Iraqi Transitional Government under Iyad Allawi, a Shi'a, that replaced the Interim government in May 2005. Shi'a-dominated government security forces responded to military and terrorist attacks by Sunni insurgents with fierce brutality against Sunni communities. Mutual campaigns of ethnic cleansing targeting Sunni and Shi'a communities were in full swing.

Parliament approved the draft of a new constitution in August 2005, followed by its adoption through a popular referendum in October 2005. December 2005 elections to select a first full-term parliament occurred with greater Sunni participation, albeit in a campaign marred by ongoing sectarian and ethnic violence. It took until May 2006 for the new National Assembly to select Shi'a Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister, with a Kurdish President (Jalal Talabani) and a Sunni Vice President (Tariq al-Hashemi).

Much NGO activism and media attention has focused on the question of the protection of religious minorities in the new draft constitution. The fear was that reference to Islam as 'the main' source of legislation rather than 'a' source of legislation along with other sources of law (as stated in the Transitional Law) would compromise the rights of religious minorities by imposing Sharia law. The constitution, however, reverted to the term of Islam being 'a' basic source of legislation in its Article 2. Religious minorities were further concerned about the reference that no law could be introduced in Iraq that contradicted "the established principles of Islam." As these "principles" are not clearly defined in the constitution, they could be used to repress minority rights and forbid conversion from Islam.

However. the constitution also states that no law can conflict with the principles of democracy or the rights and freedoms upheld in the constitution. Article 2 further guarantees full religious rights for all, while maintaining the Islamic identity of the majority, and recognizing Iraq as a multi-ethnic as well as multi-religious country. It equally guarantees "the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean Mandaeans" and asserts that all Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on religion, creed, belief, or opinion. Citizens are also granted the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. However, legal norms in themselves will not be able to secure minority rights in Iraq. For example, the constitution prohibits all coercion in matters of thought and religion as did the Transitional Law of Administration; however, this provision has been ineffectual in light of the fact that tens of thousands of minorities have fled Iraq since March 2003.

Despite the fact that apostasy is not prohibited in Iraq's Penal Code, laws and policies exist which constrain citizens' freedom to change religion. According to the USCIRF, Iraqi officials have refused to allow Baha'i to change their religion on their identity documents from "Muslim", citing regulations which prevent Muslims from converting to another religion. While the 1972 Law of Civil Affairs permits non-Muslims to convert to Islam, it also makes conversion of children automatic if one parent converts to Islam, regardless of whether or not the other parent consents (though they are able to choose their religion independently once they come of age). Furthermore, although the constitution grants Iraqis freedom "in their commitment to their personal status according to their religions, sects, beliefs, or choices," subsequent legislation for implementation is yet to be passed. There is also a 2006 law which proscribes Jews who emigrated from reacquiring Iraqi citizenship, contradicting the constitutional prohibition on retracting citizenship obtained by birth.

According to Article 4 of the Constitution, Arabic and Kurdish are considered official languages of the state. Linguistic minorities were concerned that only these two languages were being overtly protected in earlier constitutional drafts - Arabic as the official language of Iraq, but Kurdish as well as Arabic in the Kurdish region. This left out clear protection for Iraq's Turkomans, for example, and concern surrounds the survival of the language and the continuation of their schools. The final constitution establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official languages but guarantees in Article 4 the right of Iraqis to educate their children in their mother tongue in governmental or private educational institutions. Further, it recognizes the Turkoman and Assyrian languages as official where they reside, and allows each region to recognize further official languages by referendum.

The new constitution defined the system of government in Iraq as federal, with significant implications for majority-minority relations, at a time when the very definition of who constitutes a 'minority' in Iraq was shifting. In terms of their political marginalization, Kurds and Arab Shi'a were minorities in Ba'athist Iraq, but now it was Arab Sunnis who feared such marginalization from power.

Federalism has long been the most contentious issue within the Iraqi constitutional debate. The issues of oil revenue and federalism are intricately linked. Most Sunnis live in Iraq's oil-poor middle, giving the community a strong incentive to support central governance and maximum oil revenue sharing-especially if they can revive their longstanding political dominance. Kurds and Shi'a are predominant in the oil-rich north and south, respectively, and thus have a strong incentive to oppose strong central institutions and cross-regional revenue sharing. Whereas the Shi'a have a numerical majority in the country as a whole and new access to political power at the centre, there is less drive among them for regional autonomy. Meanwhile the Kurds have been the most vocal and insistent regarding federalism, keen to maintain or even enhance their autonomy as enjoyed through the Transitional Law under the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The constitution states that Iraq's oil and gas resources belong to the whole population and will be administered by the federal authorities in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and provinces, and in a way that will ensure balanced development throughout the country. However, despite immense American pressure, the al-Maliki government has been unable to forge a consensus on a crucial oil bill in parliament.

Article 4 of the Transitional Law stated that 'the federal system shall be based upon geographic and historical realities and the separation of powers, and not upon origin, race, ethnicity, nationality, or confession'. However, the constitution does not contain this clause. It outlines the powers of the federal authorities in Chapter 4, stating that the federal authority will maintain the unity of Iraq.

Iraq's neighbours have taken an interest in Iraq's struggle with compromise over federalism. Shi'a-majority Iran and Sunni- majority Saudi Arabia have observed Shi'a-Sunni tensions with interest and concern, and Kurdish autonomy in Iraq potentially affects Turkey's relationship with its Kurdish population. In September 2005, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister voiced fears that Iraq could split apart, disenfranchise its Sunni population and draw neighbouring countries into a wider conflict.

The adoption of the Electoral Law in September 2008 paved the way for the Governorate Council elections in January 2009. Al- Maliki's Da'wa party emerged as the winner. However, it failed to win a majority in most provinces. In fact in most governorates, no single party won a majority, making it necessary to forge power-sharing alliances. An amendment guaranteeing seats for Christians, Shabak, Yezidis and Sabean- Mandaeans in Baghdad, Ninawa and Basra was finally approved on 3 November 2008 in response to widespread protests by minority groups and intensive debates in the Parliament. However, the total of six seats in the quota was only half the number recommended by the UN and was criticized as inadequate by Christian representatives.

The Multi-National Force (MNF) withdrew from Iraqi cities in June 2009 and in August the following year, the Bush administration announced the end of combat operations in Iraq. U.S. troop levels subsequently dropped below 50,000 and in December 2010, the United Nations removed Iraq from Chapter VII of the UN charter, marking the official end of its foreign occupation and restoring the country's sovereignty.

While 2009 and early 2010 saw a welcome decline in Sunni-Shi'a violence in Iraq and the formation of more pluralist political groupings in the 2010 elections to the country's parliament, the Council of Representatives, Iraq's diverse minorities continued to be targeted on the basis of religion at this time. In northern Iraq, against a backdrop of tensions between Kurds and Arabs over disputed territories in Kirkuk and Nineveh, minorities such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkmen, who have historical roots in these areas, have been the target of much of the violence.

In a devastating attack on Our Lady of Salvation, a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, 56 Christians and 12 others were killed. UNHCR reported that about 1,000 families from Baghdad and Mosul fled as a result of the October church attack. Privately, international officials believe that as many as 4,000 Iraqi Christian households left Baghdad immediately following the attack, and Iraqi Christian leaders have put the number at more than 8,000 families.

Armed groups also targeted mosques, as well as people gathered for religious pilgrimages, weddings, and funerals, mainly in Shia areas. The repeated attacks caused civilians to flee their communities, prompting a rise in internally displaced persons and refugees. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), other Sunni Islamist factions and neo-Ba'athist groups continued to bomb parts of the country and carried out targeted killings in a push to reignite sectarian and ethnic conflict by exploiting deep divisions between Shi'a and Sunni and between Arab and Kurd.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Al Khoei Foundation
Tel: 44 171 372 4049

Assyrian Culture and Advice Centre
Tel: 44 181 579 0192

Culture and Mutual Aid Association of Iraqi Turks
Tel: 90 212 513 9065

Institut Kurde
Tel: 33 1 48 24 64 64.

Iraqi Minorities Council
Tel: +964 790 191 2362

Kurdish Cultural Centre
Tel: 44 171 735 0918

Kurdish Human Rights Project
Tel: 44 171 287 2772

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