Map of BAGHDAD ethnic composition: 2006 & 2014
Map of BAGHDAD ethnic composition: 2006 & 2014


In the last two decades the city of Baghdad has become synonymous with violence and war. It was not always thus, as Baghdad was for centuries the centre of the Islamic world. And as recently as the 1970s, both the capital and Iraq as a whole experienced relative economic prosperity and boasted hospitals, universities and other public institutions that were considered among the best in the Middle East. Since the 2003 US invasion, and especially since the 2006-2007 insurgency against the US led occupation, Baghdad has suffered under brutal sectarian war. The International Organization for Migration has estimated that 85% of internally displaced persons living in Baghdad actually came from within the city, and it is believed that 70% of those were Shiites. In 2007, construction began on a 5 km long, 3.6 metre high separation barrier between the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya and surrounding Shiite neighbourhoods. Thousands of Iraqis gathered at several peaceful demonstrations against the ‘Baghdad Wall’, with the message that dividing Baghdad into sectarian enclaves would only create more tension and long-term problems for the city. Following elections 2010 – widely considered to be the fairest in the country’s history – a government of national unity was created. But sectarian politics remained in play, with the Shiite prime minister Al Maliki widely viewed with suspicion and hostility by Sunnis. Iraq’s leaders continue to struggle with deeper questions of how to share power, deliver services and divide control of disputed territories and oil resources, leaving plenty of room for insurgents to exploit grievances, which they have done in recent months with dire consequences for the region as a whole.


Baghdad is the capital and largest city of Iraq. The population of Baghdad as of 2011 is approximately 7,216,000, making it the second largest city in the Arab world after Cairo, Egypt. Seventy-four percent of Iraq’s population is Arab. The other major ethnic groups are the Kurds at 22 to 24 percent and Assyrians, Iraqi Turkmen, and others at 5 percent, who mostly live in the north and northeast of the country. Islam is the official religion of Iraq and constitutes 97 percent of the population (Shiite 60 to 65 percent and Sunni 32 to 37 percent), while Christians and others constitute 3 percent.

Of Iraq’s 18 governorates, Baghdad is the smallest in terms of land, but has the highest population, constituting about 24 percent of Iraq’s total population. The city of Baghdad comprises 89 official neighbourhoods within nine districts.

Historically, Baghdad was a large village, lacking major political or commercial significance until the second Abbasid Caliph, Abu Jafaar Al-Mansur, who moved the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad in 762 CE (145 on the Hija calendar). He renamed the city “Medinat al-Salaam” or “City of Peace.” Within a century of its founding, Baghdad emerged as a focal point of the Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th to the mid-13th centuries). Artists, engineers, scholars, poets, geographers, traders and other professionals from across the Islamic world contributed to a unique intellectual revolution, forming a distinctive culture and dominant influence in the region. Agriculture, law, economics, sociology, and many other fields and innovations were significantly developed during this period in the city. Baghdad was the centre of the Islamic Empire during the Abbasid period until an invasion by the Mongols in 1258.

Baghdad was one of the three seats of provincial Ottoman rule, and was maintained as a Sunni buffer against the Shia Safavid Empire in Iran. Baghdad was brought under Ottoman rule in 1638 and remained under Ottoman rule until 1917, when it was captured by the British during World War I. In 1920, Baghdad became the capital of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia and after 1932, Baghdad was the capital of the Kingdom of Iraq. Iraq was given formal independence in 1932 and full independence in 1946.

In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown in a coup d’état and the First Republic was established. In 1963, the military elite carried out another coup d’état. By 1968, the nationalist Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) party came to power by staging the last coup in Baghdad. In 1972, the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), a consortium of Western oil companies that held a monopoly over Iraqi oil reserves was nationalized. Throughout the 1970s, Iraq experienced relative economic prosperity; hospitals, universities, and other public facilities in Baghdad were considered some of the best in the Middle Eastern region, and were easily accessible by the general public. The Iraqi government also made infrastructure a priority, particularly in Baghdad, constructing modern sewage and water treatment facilities, as well as large highways.

Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979 and remained in the position until 2003. During that period, the country was governed by Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, where the majority Shia population was ruled by and subordinate to the Sunni minority. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) consumed the early years of his presidency and caused damage to some of Baghdad’s newly established infrastructure; missiles were launched into the city and much of Iraq’s oil revenues were channelled into the Iraqi army, away from service delivery and public institutions. It is estimated that a million people died as a direct result of this war and of the abuse of presidential power during this time. This number includes the 5,000 Kurds gassed in the city of Halabja in March 1988 and overall about 182,000 Kurds (and other non-Arab peoples) with the Enfal Campaign.

The First Gulf War in 1991 destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure and military industrial capacity. Hundreds of thousands of residents lost their lives and/or faced displacement. Intense aerial bombing campaigns by the US forces included targeting of electrical power plants and water and sewage treatment plants, thereby depriving the general population of these basic services.

In April 1990, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 661, imposing some of the most stringent international economic sanctions imposed on a nation in the later 20th century. These sanctions had devastating consequences nationwide. Chlorine and other chemicals necessary to run Baghdad’s sewage treatment plants were barred from importation. Most residents of Baghdad had a supply of only 16 hours of electricity a day, as the government lacked resources to repair the badly debilitated national power grid. Perhaps most notably, infant and child mortality rates for the highly populated southern and central regions of Iraq (housing 85 percent of the national population) rose steadily in the 1990s to nearly double the average rate of the 1980s. Meanwhile, infant and child mortality rates in the rose from 80 deaths per 1000 live births to 90 deaths per 1000 live births. Between 200,000 and 1.5 million deaths – mostly children – were attributed to nearly 13 years of sanctions.

In March 2003, the US invaded Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), grounds that were later proved false, but which initiated an intense bombing campaign in Baghdad. Between the 7 and 9 April, Baghdad fell to the control of the US-led Multinational Forces in Iraq (MNF-I). The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 on 22 May 2003, which formally ended sanctions against Iraq and recognized the US as an official occupier.

In the following months, crime and looting were rampant throughout many Baghdad districts. The US soon formed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to fill the power vacuum that emerged after it banned the Ba’ath party and dissolved the Iraqi military and police forces, leaving a protection gap against the spreading lawlessness throughout Baghdad. The US established a 10 sq km “Green Zone” – generally referred to as the “International Zone” (IZ) – in central Baghdad city, around the former Presidential Palaces of the Ba’ath party. From this insulated and secure position, the CPA and successive Iraqi governments have administered affairs for the rest of Iraq – often referred to as the “Red Zone.”

Before the 2006-2007 insurgency arose against the US led occupation of the country, most neighbourhoods and districts of Baghdad were considerably mixed. Sunni and Shiite sectarian violence during these years often reached horrific levels as a result of violence, displacement, and government policies, a pattern of increasing sectarian-based segregation and separation between Sunni and Shiite communities arose. After the February 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra city, the Mahdi army and other affiliated Shiite militias forced many Sunnis to leave Baghdad.

In December 2006, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 85 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in Baghdad actually came from within the city. Moreover, it is believed that at least 70 percent of IDPs living in Baghdad were Shiites. Although such figures are rare and their accuracy is undeterminable, it is clear that a majority of those who became displaced within Baghdad between 2006 and 2007 (which is often referred to as a period of civil war) were Shia.

In April 2007, construction began on a 5 km long, 3.6 meter high separation barrier between the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya and surrounding predominantly Shiite neighbourhoods. Thousands of Iraqis gathered at several peaceful demonstrations against the “Baghdad Wall” with the message that should Baghdad be divided into separate, sectarian-based enclaves, this would create more tension and long-term problems in the governorate.

Since the bloodshed peaked in 2006, some order was gradually restored, though violence remained high. The fairest elections in the country’s history were in March 2010 and led to the creation of a government of national unity, although its creation took eight months of political stalemate that played out mostly along sectarian lines.

On 15 December 2011, the American military formally ended its mission in Iraq. The day after the American departure, Prime Minister Al Maliki ordered the arrest of President Tariq al-Hashimi, the nation’s highest-ranking Sunni, on charges of murder and terrorism. Mr. Hashimi fled to sanctuary in Iraq’s Kurdish region before moving to Turkey. At the time, Sunnis and even some Shiites worried that Mr. Maliki was seeking to consolidate power, but as violence rose again and there was little improvement in basic services, the predominant worry was over the government’s abiding weaknesses.

Assaults against Iraqi civilians and government officials swelled in late December 2011 and in January 2012, as the country was gripped by a political crisis rooted in imbalances of power and festering conflicts between the Shiite prime minister and his largely Sunni and secular political opposition.

The crisis eased somewhat as opposition politicians ended their boycott of the Parliament and cabinet. But Iraq’s leaders continue to struggle on deeper questions of how to share power, deliver services and divide control of disputed territories and oil resources, leaving plenty of room for insurgents to attempt to exploit a persistent sense of instability and dissatisfaction with the government.

Insurgent attacks have steadily increased in 2012 according to United Nations statistics. In late July, in a coordinated display intended to show they remain a viable force, Iraqi insurgents launched at least 37 separate attacks throughout the country, setting off car bombs, storming a military base, attacking policemen in their homes and ambushing checkpoints, Iraqi authorities said at least 97 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. September 2012 was one of the deadliest months so far, with about 200 people, mostly pilgrims, reported killed. Baghdad continued to be the target of the largest share of the bombings, making reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite communities more difficult to achieve.

Destructive moral populism reached a peak at the end of this year when Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, used allegations of terrorism to push Sunni Vice President Tairq al-Hashimi and Minister of Finance, Rafi al-Issawi, out of their government positions and into exile. These actions increased the already present feelings of alienation and generated mass demonstrations in December 2012 across the Sunni-majority areas of the northwest, allowing The Islamic State to expand rapidly in its wake. 

In August of 2013, more than 70 people were killed in attacks at the end of Ramadan, propelling the country again into a state of sectarian war. The attack claimed by ISIS led to, according to the NGO Iraq Body Count, the deadliest year since 2008, with 9,475 civilians killed. By early 2014, ISIS had taken control of Falluja and most of Ramadi, both cities in the Anbar Province and Sunni strongholds. It is estimated by the UN that nearly 500,00 Iraqis fled this region due to fighting in the subsequent months. 

In 2014, Al Qaeda officially cut ties with ISIS. In June, ISIS militants took over both Mosul and Tikrit, forcing tens of thousands to flee. By September, Kurdish forces, Iran and the United States agreed to assist the Iraqi government in their battle against ISIS. International concerns over ISIS’s ruthlessness and the brutal treatment of women and children began to emerge. 

The US led forces blocked ISIS from taking over Baghdad, but did little to thwart the advancement in the north including ISIS establishment of governance, security forces and schools. The first major setback for ISIS occurred after a three-month siege of Amerli, a town close to Baghdad. US airstrikes began targeted attacks near Baghdad and the north, but remained largely ineffective without the support of Iraqi troops on the ground. Having been carefully constructed over a seven-year period, Iraqi forces effectively collapsed during 2014’s ISIS campaign. It has been estimated that 60-70 percent of the Iraqi armed forces left government employment during June 2014, leaving the Iraqi Army involved in the fight again ISIS needing to be rebuilt almost completely. In September, a broad-based government was formed by Shia politician Haider al-Abadi, and included Sunni Arabs and Kurds. An agreement was signed in December by the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials to share oil wealth and military resources as a way of reuniting the country against the threat of ISIS. 

In March 2015, the Iraqi military achieved its first strategic victory, driving ISIS out of Tikrit. ISIS countered with the capture of Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar in May, after a series of car bombs. By December, government forces had recaptured central Ramadi. The battle against ISIS was now international in scope with attacks occurring in Syria, Yemen, Turkey, the United States, United Kingdom, Indonesia, France, Belguim, Bangledesh, and Libya.

By February 2017, Iraqi forces, aided by the US, began to try to retake the western half of Mosul. By July, forces have complete control of Mosul, depriving ISIS of their most important stronghold and pushing them out of the country. By the end of the year the Iraqi government publicly claimed victory over ISIS and the US military issued a report stating that ISIS had lost close to 98% of its territory. 

A new battle began in November 2017 as Baghdad imposed punitive measures on the Kurdish Regional Government after Kurds backed an independence referendum. Although the legality of this was rejected by the government in Baghdad, Iraqi army forces offensively pushed back Kurdish forces and reclaimed Kirkuk in a move aimed to stop an independent Kurdistan.

Presently, Iraq must deal with a multi-issue front. ISIS still has as many as 10,000 loyalists in both Iraq and Syria. With a strong following and vocal leadership, it may revert to its insurgency roots and refocus on orchestrating terrorist attacks. Kurds in the north who make up 15%-20% of the Iraqi population elected a new Regional President in June. The threat of a resumed fight for independence remains large. Growing tensions between neighbour Iran and the US pose deeply problematic for Iraq going forward, especially as Iraq as a whole is still in recovery from the war against ISIS. It has been estimated by War Child that 2.6 million Iraqis are still displaced by the conflict and that nearly 9 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition, the Iraqi government must deal with not only reintegrating Sunni communities back into the political system, but also must demobilize and integrate Shiite militias that formed during the conflict, as well. 

Baghdad, itself, is on the brink of nearing a population of 10 million and joining the ranks of the worlds megacities. It still remains a profoundly damaged city. In September 2019, at least 100 people died in protests against unemployment and corruption in cities including Baghdad. Housing shortages, transportation infrastructure inefficiencies, government corruption, unemployment, and a lack of electricity and water are present concerns. In October, security forces opened fire on protesters in Baghdad, killing 10 and wounding 286. This was the worst civil violence seen in years in the Iraqi capital. In January 2020, the United States conducted a strike against a vehicle convey in Baghdad, killing Qasem Soleimani, Commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force and Abu Mehdi Muhandis, a senior commander in the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces. Retaliation strikes and further protests have occurred deteriorating the security situation.