Not to mislead peace: on the demise of identity politics in Iraq



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The paper tries to falsify the argument that identity politics is declining in Iraq. It argues that the alleged decline in identity politics is not a true change happening in politics in Iraq. Group needs and demands are still there, and have still not been addressed. The dominant socioeconomic needs, in my view, has only temporarily masked identity politics.

To some extent, nationalism, Kurdish nationalism, sectarianism, and those sorts of things on the surface seem to have lost their value and significance. But I argue that it is just a temporal thing and that identity issues can, at any point in time, resurface and even reemerge in a violent way. So, the core of the argument is that group identities are still there since group issues and demands have not been adequately addressed.

For instance, the issue of disputed territories and the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over contested areas in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin have not yet been settled permanently. It is true that because of the current power balance between Baghdad and the KRG, Article 140 is less talked about, but that doesn’t mean that in a few years’ time when things change, that issue is not going to come up again. The same goes for the role of religion in politics and government. The same with constitutional amendments and reform. These are deeper structural issues that have not been addressed in Iraq.

I was trying to highlight that any peace-building efforts in Iraq require giving attention to those things, even though they are not currently the main priority for people. For example, things like disputed territories might not be a top priority at this stage. But if you’re not dealing with it adequately and are not trying to work out a mutually acceptable solution for it, it might come up again at any point. With the fragile state of the situation in Iraq, it might lead to community tensions and complex violence.

The fact that most Iraqis tend to prioritise social and economic needs, should not mislead us that group-identity issues have lost their significance. Those structural, important things in Iraqi politics have not disappeared altogether; they are still important but behind the scenes now.

Key Findings

Iraq is in a very early stage of its movement towards democracy and rule of law (and it is not always a move towards democracy, often it has been a movement away from democracy.) Despite many criticisms, Iraq has a good constitution, but most of it is just ink on paper and has not been fulfilled. Iraq is struggling with constitutional implementation, rule of law, and the separation of powers, checks and balances.
Militias are still active and largely uncontrolled by the state. The economy is still controlled by non-formal actors, including people in politics, elites, in government, militias, and families, and there is no open and free market in the country.
While Iraq definitely needs a constitutional amendment, but we are not clear about the direction of the amendments or potential amendments. Militias are still active and largely uncontrolled by the state. The economy is still controlled by non-formal actors, including people in politics, elites, in government, militias, and families, and there is no open and free market in the country. These are some of the struggles that Iraq faces. Another finding was that Iraq definitely needs a constitutional amendment, but we are not clear about the direction of the amendments or potential amendments. We are not sure that any constitutional amendments are going to be in the direction of better democracy for Iraq. If you look at people who argue for constitutional amendment, you see that some of the demands and agendas are towards re-centralisation of the country .and at times they call for codification of conservative/traditional values and practices. So we are not sure if any constitutional amendments are going to be in the direction of democratisation of the country.
While civil society in Iraq, although more vibrant and numerous now than before, is still struggling in many ways. To begin with, a large part of Iraqi civil society seems to be dependent on politicians, political elites, and political parties. So, it doesn't seem that Iraqi civil society is largely pursuing an independent agenda. There are interferences in civil society in the way they are running internally. Civil society is struggling and, in many ways, is less change-seeking and less radical than it is supposed to be.
Civil society is preoccupied with humanitarian interventions and support (not to devalue the involvement of civil society in humanitarian practices), but civil society is supposed to be more pro-change, promoting gender equality, freedom of conscience, peace, reconciliation, harmony in the country, and environmental protection. This sort of pro-change civil society in Iraq seems to be inactive.

How to use

The first small step in this direction could be creating an environment where civil society can advocate for their rights, with the understanding that changes may come as a natural progression rather than through artificial intervention. Sometimes change occurs over time due to shifts in various factors.
In Europe and in the West, (but I state these words with a lot of caution - as there's also a huge debate around the independency of civil society in the West), but the fact that the economy moves more towards free markets and competition, does help civil society to flourish.
Privatisation of the economy, (if it happens in a true sense of privatisation of the economy - and not just on the surface), can give civil society better access to the political resources it wants. So, for example, in the context of the West, civil society organisations can seek a multitude of sources of funding from universities, research funding bodies, governments, charities, and so on. In Iraq, civil society needs a similar change in the broader economy so that it won't be obliged to seek sources and resources from the government and political elites all the time.
Civil society need to be educated that they can bring about change and know how to realise its potential. Iraqis are totally disappointed with elections and conventional politics. There's a huge distrust in political elites and the post-2003 political landscape. The only source of hope left for Iraqis is civil society, but again, realising this potential remains uncertain.

Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

Hewa Khedir, (2022). ‘Not to mislead peace: on the demise of identity politics in Iraq’. Third World Quarterly, 43(5), pp.1137–1155.

About this research

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

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About this research

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

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What it means

Iraq’s civil society struggles due to a lack of historical examples and background to build upon. From its inception in the 1920s, Iraq’s civil society has faced challenges. Early Iraqi monarchy time from 1921 to 1958, more specifically to 1950s, experienced some degree of civil society, with free press and active political parties despite the British influence. However, from 1958 onwards, civil society has always been oppressed in Iraq due to two main factors:

First, Iraqi governments throughout the second half of the 20th century were unwilling to give space to dissenting voices.

And second, the socialist welfare system that evolved did not require any contribution from civil society and local actors, as the state was expected to provide everything from protection to services to jobs.

This resulted in a deficiency of civil society and a challenging legacy that continues to impact Iraq today. After 2003, Iraqis started organising themselves and speaking up to some extent independently from conventional politics and government. However, political elites and parties continue to interfere in the affairs of civil society, resulting in dependency on party politics and conventional elites for funding and personnel.

Another issue is the dependency on international funders and organisations, which may make civil society less representative of local demands and priorities. International donors may come to Iraq with their own agendas, which may not always align with the top priorities for Iraqis.

Regarding the economy still being controlled by non-formal actors, elites, families, and militias, these are just several examples. There is no separation between politics and the economy, which has implications for civil society itself, such as the lack of jobs and the growing clientelism in the country.

No one in Iraq can initiate any significant economic or financial enterprise without having some sort of partnership with influential people in politics. This control over the market and economy by political elites and parties has resulted in a growing network of clientelism since 2005.

So, all the resources were in the hands of the government or state and depending on people’s loyalties and connections, they limited and controlled the distribution of resources. This has broad implications for civil society and people’s access to resources. Even within civil society, research suggests that the government tends to favour certain organisations that are closer to their political parties and elites. As a result, resources are not distributed fairly and equally, allowing political elites to control the distribution according to their own agendas and priorities.

When it comes to the people, they are divided into two camps: a small minority who try to adapt to the system and benefit from the resources by being loyal to and establishing connections with political parties and elites, and a larger segment of the population, mostly young people, who are excluded from the system. The latter group is deprived of opportunities and resources, not necessarily due to a lack of skills but because they don’t have connections within the clientelistic networks. This has led to protests and movements demanding jobs and services since 2009.

Regarding Iraq’s struggle to establish the rule of law, the former prime minister tried to put some restrictions on armed groups,. However, these groups resisted the government’s efforts, even going so far as to besiege government buildings. This shows that armed groups and militias can act independently from the government, undermining the rule of law.

Another aspect of the lack of rule of law is the lack of independence in the judiciary. There is often significant pressure on judges and courts when it comes to making decisions on important issues. While there are good, professional judges within the Iraqi judicial system, the overall environment does not allow them to perform their roles independently. For instance, the Iraqi Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Kurdistan Region’s entitlement to sell its oil resources was met with accusations of political influence from the KDP, claiming that the decision was a result of pressure from Iraqi political elites and neighbouring countries.

When it comes to the rule of law and why it’s still struggling in Iraq, one factor is the need for additional skills, training, and capacity-building for investigators, inspectors, and judges. More modern methods of crime investigations should be introduced, and law enforcement personnel should be trained in these new techniques. Issues like lack of proper documentation and evidence in cases, such as mass graves, show that different skill sets are needed in order to investigate these matters effectively.

In Kurdistan, since 2008-2009, there has been more liberal legislation regarding gender equality, criminalising domestic violence, and banning practices like FGM. However, there are significant challenges with the implementation of these laws. Sometimes the issue lies with the courts and judges who may not be as liberal or open to applying these new legislations. This has led to instances where women were killed under the justification of “honour killing” and cases were not investigated properly.

In order to bring about change, there needs to be a focus on grassroots activism and the development of a strong, independent civil society. A bottom-up approach to politics, with local activists, communities, and civil society organisations holding politicians accountable, can promote changes in governance, legislation, and service delivery. This kind of civil society can advocate for marginalised people, environmental protection, gender equality, and religious tolerance.

Creating sustainable change is not an easy task, as civil society is often influenced by party politics and political elites and is dependent on international funding and donors. However, a strong and independent civil society can lead to sustainable change and improvements.


Methodologically, this article deploys a literature review method by investigating publications (journal articles, books, media commentaries, policy reports and the like) that address Iraq’s political history, state–society relations, cross-communal relations, violence, state and peacebuilding and economy. To ensure that the local perspective is adequately represented, the article draws on publications produced by Iraqi scholars and organisations.

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