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Population of Iraq

Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Baghdad Photo Fanack


Ethnic Groups
Sunnis and Shiites
Internally displaced persons and refugees


Like so many post-colonial countries, Iraq is an artificial political entity. The population is varied in its composition, especially in the north, where, from time immemorial, the vast mountainous region has provided a relatively safe haven for ethnic and religious minorities. Thus, with the formation of the modern state of Iraq, several population groups differing in religion and ethnicity have come to live together within the boundaries of a state: Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen, but also Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. A look at these diverse groups reveals the deep wounds that were inflicted on Iraq’s society, particularly by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq population
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Ethnic Groups


About three-quarter of the approximately 30 million (2010 estimate) Iraqis are Arabs. They are descendants of the conquerors who invaded Iraq from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century CE. The Arab population is sharply divided in religion. 80 percent of the Arabs are Shiites, making up the largest section of the population. The other 20 percent of Arabs are Sunni.

Although a minority, Sunni Arabs dominated Iraqi politics until 2003. Along with the Kurds, the Shiite Arabs have long suffered political and economic exclusion, which, given their proportion of the total population, demonstrates clearly the distortions in the existing political order in Iraq. In addition, the wars with Iran and over Kuwait have affected most severely southern Iraq, where most of the Shiites live. The popular rebellions in the south in the spring of 1991 were suppressed with extreme violence, whereupon the regime carried out a sharp anti-Shiite propaganda campaign.

Iraq population
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The scarce resources available to the central government were hardly ever allocated to the south of the country, with the result that the Shiite Arabs are often the worst off among Iraq’s peoples. Because they seldom had access to government jobs, the Shiites turned to trade and the professions as their primary occupations.

After the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Shiite Arabs gained prominent positions in Iraqi politics and government, more or less in proportion to their numbers. Sunni Arabs have predictably found their loss of political power and influence after 2003 hard to accept.

Marsh Arabs

A unique group are the Madan, or Marsh Arabs. Their culture goes back to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, and is six or seven thousand years old. The Marsh Arabs inhabit the vast marshes in the Amara-Nasiriya-Qurna triangle. Many of them were driven from their territory in the 1990s following the draining of a large part of the swamps by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The motives for the draining of the Marshes were largely political. Difficult to penetrate, throughout the centuries these marshes served as a hiding place for political opponents of the rulers in Baghdad, as they did after the army’s defeat in Kuwait in 1991.

Originally numbering half a million, today less than 250,000 Madan still live in the Marshes, chiefly in the eastern part, along the border with Iran. Ten years later, there is little incentive among the Madan who have been driven out to return to their hard existence in the Marches. After 2003, efforts have been made to reverse the effects of the drainage project, simply by breaking through a number of the dikes. The Madan are Shiites.


Communities of Assyrians live in western Iraqi Kurdistan – particularly in the region east of Mosul, the Nineveh (Ninawa) Plains – and in Baghdad. Though they are often incorrectly classified as a religious minority, the Assyrians see themselves as a people with their own distinct language and regard themselves as descendants of the ancient Assyrians, who built a mighty empire in Mesopotamia centuries before the Christian era. Through deportation, flight, and voluntary emigration (chiefly among the young), the Assyrian population has declined greatly over the past decades.

About half the Assyrians live in Baghdad, and another 10 percent in the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan, their original home territory; the remaining 40 percent live scattered across the region in between Baghdad and the north. Like the small Armenian community, the Assyrians are Christians, about two-thirds adherents of the Chaldaean Catholic rite, the remainder Nestorians. Although they have adopted the Arabic language, their own language, Sureth (Syriac, an Eastern Aramaic language, which, like Arabic, belongs to the Semitic language family) is still spoken.


The Mandaeans – who revere Adam, Noah, and John the Baptist – are now a threatened ethno-religious community in Iraq. They have lived in southern Mesopotamia since before Islam. Three decades ago still a community of 70,000, their number has dwindled to 5,000. Many Mandaeans have ended up as refugees in neighbouring countries and in the West, having been forced from Iraq by warfare and persecution by extremist Muslims. Mandeans are famous for their craftsmanship in jewelry.


The presence of the Turkmen (Turcoman) community in Iraq goes back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Although Turkmen conquerors had settled in what is now Iraq since the 11th century, most of them were settled by the Ottoman sultans in the hills between the Tigris and Kurdistan as a buffer and to protect the important trade routes from Damascus to Central Asia. The Turkmen thus became soldiers, administrators, and craftsmen in the garrison towns along these trade routes. Like the Kurds and the Assyrians, the Turkmen were victims of the deportation policies of Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

The size of the Turkmen community, like that of other minorities, is disputed: their leaders assert that 2.5 million Turkmen live in Iraq. Non-Turkmen sources suggest fewer than a half million. Two-thirds of the Turkmen are Sunni, the rest Shiite. In addition to Arabic, the Turkmen speak a Turkish dialect. Since 2003 a flare-up of the conflict over the future status of the Kirkuk Governorate has raised tensions between the Turkmen, who consider Kirkuk their original home, and the Kurds, who claim it as part of the Kurdish region.


Until the early 1950s there was a sizeable Jewish community living in Iraq. In the 1947 census their numbers were estimated at around 117,000. The Jews have lived for many centuries in Mesopotamia, as deportees and as converts. Most of them were concentrated in urban areas, especially Baghdad, where much of the trade there was in their hands. Although most of the Jews spoke Arabic, they were able to preserve the Hebrew language and their own religious customs. There were also small Jewish communities in the Kurdish north, whose members spoke Kurdish and shared many customs with the surrounding Kurds.

Political developments, such as the rise of Zionism and the dramatic events surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, made their position increasingly precarious. These factors, combined with attacks aimed specifically at Jews (committed by what later turned out to be Zionist agents), brought about a massive emigration to Israel in the 1950s. At present, there are fewer than 250 Jews in Iraq. The void in the Iraqi economy that was left by Jewish emigrants in the 1950s has, to a large extent, been filled by Shiite Arab merchants.


A census in the mid-1970s indicates that about 234,000 Iraqi citizens considered themselves Iranians. They are descendants of religious functionaries and students – who had come from Persia (today Iran) to the various Shiite theological centres in Iraq, such as Najaf, Karbala, and Kadhimiya – or of pilgrims who began trading there. Most of them thus lived in cities. They spoke Arabic as well as Farsi; all were Shiites. During the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1987), at least 150,000 of them were deported to Iran and their possessions confiscated. They were easy to identify, because the annotation ‘Iranian citizenship’ (jinsiya Iraniya) was made against their names in the state administrative records. That most of the families had lived in Iraq for several generations did not matter.

Sunnis and Shiites

Approximately 95 percent of the population of Iraq is Muslim. Muslims are divided into two groups, going back to the early years of Islam. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, there arose two different camps within the umma (Muslim community) with regard to his succession, the Sunnis and Shiites. The designation ‘Shiite’ goes back to the Arabic term shiat Ali (Party of Ali). The followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, were united in this party. On the basis of personal promises believed to be made by Muhammad, Ali obtained the leadership within the umma (his party termed this leadership the imamate) for himself and his descendants.

The Sunnis, whose name derives from the sunna (the tradition of the Prophet) argued for rule by a chosen leader (which rule they termed the ‘caliphate’). Although Ali, regarded by the Shiites as their first imam, was chosen as the fourth caliph by the Sunnis (as successor to the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman), the conflict between the two main branches of Islam over leadership escalated after his death. That conflict ended in 680 CE, with the battle near Karbala, where the Shiites, now led by one of Ali’s sons, Imam Husayn, were defeated in an unequal contest. Husayn and his comrades were slain there.

Shiite Islam received a powerful stimulus when it was elevated to the state religion by the Safavid dynasty in neighbouring Persia in the 16th century, and it spread gradually through the Sunni population. Since then, pilgrims and religious students from Persia/Iran and from Shiite communities elsewhere in the Arab/Islamic world, particularly Lebanon, have made their way to the ‘holy cities’ of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. These movements led to social, political, and economic contacts among these communities, which are still important today.

There are five obligations – called the Five Pillars of Islam – incumbent on all Muslims: the confession of faith (‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet’), prayer five times a day, the giving of alms, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Shiites attach almost equal value to a pilgrimage to their holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. To the Five Pillars can be added the obligation of every Muslim to engage in jihad, the struggle to defend the community of believers (umma) against attacks by the infidel.

Eight of the most important Sunni and Shiite mosques in Iraq:

Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Baghdad, tomb of Abu Hanifa
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Kadhimiya (Baghdad), tombs of the Imams Musa al-Kadhim and Muhammad al-Taqi
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Karbala, tomb of Imam Husayn, Photo Fanack
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Kufa Mosque where Imam Ali was fatally wounded, Photo Fanack
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Najaf, tomb of Imam Ali
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
The Great Mosque in the Citadel of Arbil

Shiite Sites

On historic grounds, and because of the proportion of Shiites in the population, Shiite Islam is more typical of Iraq than is Sunni Islam. Southern Iraq is the cradle of Shiite Islam, and it was there that Imam Ali and his successors fought out the conflict with the Sunnis. In Iraq one also finds the mausoleums of several of their Imams. Over the course of centuries these tombs became important pilgrimage sites. Important Shiite theological educational centres (madrasas) also arose there, especially in Najaf and Karbala.

The most prominent is Najaf (south of Baghdad), which is the last resting place of Imam Ali. As a theological centre, Najaf has been called the ‘Vatican of the Shiite world’. From there the Grand Ayatollahs give direction to Shiite communities all over the world. There too, generations of ulama (clergy) from all parts of the Shiite world have been trained. In expectation of the Day of Judgement, Shiite believers through the centuries have had themselves buried close to the tomb of Imam Ali, in a cemetery that now covers several square kilometres, the Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace).

Second to Najaf is Karbala, also south of Baghdad, where the mausoleums of Imam Husayn and his half-brother Abbas, the hero of the battle of Karbala, are located. Karbala is also an important centre for theological education. Finally, there are Kadhimiya, a suburb of Baghdad, with the graves of Imams Musa al-Kadhim and Muhammad al-Taqi, and Samarra, a Shiite enclave north of Baghdad, with the mausoleums of the Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari.

The Clergy

Shiite Islam is based on a fundamental dichotomy in the community of believers, between muqallads ( ‘those who know the doctrine well’) and muqallids (literally, ‘those who follow’). The first category comprises mujtahids, religious scholars who are authorized to engage in their own interpretation (ijtihad) of the Koran and Islamic law. This authority is conferred upon a mujtahid by his master, after many years of study at one of the centres of theological education in the Shiite world, which, besides Najaf, Karbala, and Kadhimiya in Iraq, include Qom and Mashhad in Iran. As laymen, muqallids are expected to follow the religious directives (fatwas) of the mujtahids and pay their religious tax (zakat, khums) to them. These taxes are used for the upkeep of religious institutions and for the support of the needy.

Depending on his level of knowledge, a religious student acquires successively the honorary titles Thiqat al-Islam (Trust of Islam), Hujjat al-Islam (Hojatolislam, Proof of Islam) and Ayat Allah (Ayatollah, Sign of God). A prominent ayatollah (based on his fame and the number of his followers) is denoted as Marja al-Taqlid (Source of Emulation), and is given the honorary title Ayat Allah al-Uzma (Ayatollah al-Ozma, Grand Ayatollah). The fatwa of the Marja al-Taqlid is the last word on all questions for the faithful Shiite – everyone is expected to follow the directives of a living Marja al-Taqlid.[/fusion_text]There are generally several Maraji al-Taqlid at a given time. Four of the most prominent Grand Ayatollahs are presently living and working in Najaf: Sayyid (‘lord’, denoting a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and recognizable by his black turban) Mohammad Said al-Hakim (born in Iraq in 1936), Sheikh Basheer Hussain al-Najafi (born in Pakistan in 1942), Sheikh Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayad (born in Afghanistan in 1930), and Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani (born in Iran in 1930). The latter is regarded as the first among equals. Collectively, the highest Shiite religious leadership are designated as the Marjaiya (collective of Maraji al-Taqlids) and the educational institutions and the staff connected with them are the Hawza Ilmiya (Area of Knowledge).

Sunni clergy do not have a comparably rigid hierarchical structure, and there is a looser connection between the ordinary believer and the religious functionaries and scholars. They are distinguished by their functions: the imam (leader of communal prayer), the qadi (judge), and the mufti (legal scholar). Like his Shiite colleagues, the latter has authority to issue fatwas. In many cases, those in the higher religious circles have had years of study at Cairo’s prominent al-Azhar University. Among the Sunni the faithful also pay a religious tax to religious functionaries.

Internally displaced persons and refugees

Iraqi society has been thrown into total confusion over the past decades, as a consequence of warfare, repression, and ethnic cleansing: these have produced many displaced persons and an extensive Iraqi diaspora.

In 2002, the number of displaced persons within Iraq was estimated at 600,000 to 800,000 in the north and up to 300,000 in the central and southern sections of the country. In the first year after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, an estimated 100,000 refugees returned, primarily from neighbouring Iran (the Iraqi diaspora was several times this figure). At the start of the new millennium about 4.5 percent of the population consisted of internally displaced persons and returned refugees; the number of internally displaced people and refugees increased dramatically after 2003, due to escalating violence. This has placed an extra burden on an already ravaged economy. The infrastructure needed to care for these people is inadequate. Because of the high rate of unemployment, there is hardly any prospect for work.

The efforts of the displaced and refugees to obtain compensation constitute a source of political tension. This is particularly true in Iraqi Kurdistan – where Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians were displaced on the grounds of ethnicity – and Shiite Arabs moved into their places. Now, after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, many of those who were driven out are demanding the return of possessions stolen from them – homes, land, and businesses. They run up against Arab settlers who are often unwilling or unable to return to the areas they came from. The new government has so far not taken legal measures nor provided economic support.

Kirkuk Governorate

For years, Kurds have been involved in a conflict with Turkmen, Assyrians, and Arabs over the future status of Kirkuk Governorate, whose boundaries were redrawn in 1975, severing a third of its territory and a third of its Kurdish inhabitants; the new governorate was renamed al-Tamim (‘Nationalization’). After the 1930s, and for the next several decades, Kirkuk was Iraq’s most important oil-production centre.[/fusion_text]The composition of the population in this mixed governorate, with Kurds a majority overall and Turkmen in the city, changed radically against the Kurds, as a result of both the deportation policies and the settlement of Arabs, policies that were designed to thwart Kurdish claims to the governorate. The Kurds nevertheless continued to demand that Kirkuk Governorate come under Kurdish control. The collapse in 2003 of the strong centralized Iraqi state created new opportunities in this respect.
The Turkmen and Arabs contest the Kurdish claims. The presence of oil has heightened the conflict and has drawn in outside actors, such as Turkey. By supporting the Turkmen, Ankara originally hoped to prevent the authorities in the neighbouring Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq from gaining control of its huge oil fields. At present, Turkey deals directly with the Kurds. This is a dangerous political conflict with a clear ethnic dimension. In the Arab-nationalist stronghold of Mosul, tensions between the Arabs and Kurds also increased after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq Population - Fanack Chronicle
The Breakdown of Kurdish Provinces – Iraq

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