Iraq | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In an effort to stem sectarian killings in 2007, the U.S. military initiated a troop surge to augment the number of soldiers already in Iraq. While the effort did reduce civilian casualties, terrorist violence continued. Also during the year, Sunni Arab political participation increased, and tribal cooperation with U.S.-led coalition forces dealt significant blows to al-Qaeda. However, the Iraqi government remained unable to independently provide security and other essential services, and made little progress toward enacting long-delayed reform legislation. The Kurdish north further consolidated its status as an autonomous region in 2007. The Kurdistan National Assembly passed its own oil law in August even as national oil legislation stalled, allowing foreign companies to invest in the development of the northern region’s oil resources.

The modern state of Iraq, consisting of three former Ottoman provinces, was established after World War I as a League of Nations mandate administered by Britain. The British installed a constitutional monarchy that privileged the Sunni Arab minority at the expense of Kurds and Shiite Arabs. Sunni Arab political dominance continued after independence in 1932 and even after the monarchy was overthrown by a military coup in 1958. The Arab nationalist Baath party seized power in 1968, and the new regime’s de facto strongman, Saddam Hussein, formally assumed the presidency in 1979.

Hussein brutally suppressed all opposition to his rule and sought to establish Iraq as the dominant regional power by invading Iran in 1980. During the ensuing eight-year war, his regime used chemical weapons against both Iranian troops and rebellious Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990 but were ousted the following year by a U.S.-led coalition. After the war, the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, pending the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction. Because Iraq refused to fully cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, however, the sanctions remained in place for over a decade.

Following the establishment of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in 1991, most of the three northern provinces of Erbil, Duhok, and Sulimaniyah came under the control of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which together established an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, a U.S.-led military coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, captured Baghdad less than three weeks later, and established a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to administer the country. After extensive negotiations with leading Iraqi political and religious figures, the CPA appointed a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and granted it limited lawmaking authority.

The CPA decided to disband Iraq’s military and reconstitute the armed services. Unable to build up the new forces quickly enough, and with insufficient troops of its own, the U.S.-led coalition presided over a worsening security situation. The initial euphoria felt by many Iraqis after the Hussein regime’s collapse was quickly tempered by the security vacuum, widespread looting, and acute electricity and water shortages that followed.

Sunni Arabs, who constitute roughly 20 percent of the population, viewed the prospect of majoritarian democracy with trepidation. Disproportionately affected by de-Baathification policies and upset about losing their standing within the Iraqi government to the Shiite majority, Sunni Arabs were not eager to participate in the coalition-led political transition. Exploiting these sentiments, loose networks of former regime officials, Sunni Arab tribe members, and al-Qaeda militants began organizing and funding an insurgency that rapidly gained strength in late 2003 and 2004.

In spite of the escalating insurgency, Iraq’s political transition progressed substantially. In March 2004, the IGC adopted a Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) to serve as the country’s interim constitution. In June, after weeks of UN-mediated negotiations among the main (noninsurgent) political groups, the CPA and the IGC transferred sovereignty to an Iraqi Interim Government (IIG), headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Elections for a 275-seat Transitional National Assembly (TNA), along with simultaneous elections for provincial governments and the KRG, were held in January 2005. Insurgents’ calls for a boycott and threats of violence on election day led the vast majority of Sunni Arabs to stay away from the polls, handing a landslide victory to the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and a KDP-PUK Kurdish coalition. After three months of contentious negotiations, the TNA selected a new Iraqi Transitional Government (ITG), headed by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The meager representation of Sunni Arabs in the TNA (only 17 seats) gave them little voice in the process of drafting a permanent constitution. The final text that went to referendum clearly reflected the interests of the Shiite and Kurdish coalitions. It recognized the de facto autonomy of the Kurdish region and allowed other provinces to form similar autonomous regions. But the charter failed to unequivocally stipulate that revenue from oil and natural gas fields, located mostly in Kurdish and Shiite regions, be distributed equitably nationwide.

Many articles of the constitution pertaining to internationally recognized political rights and civil liberties depended on subsequent legislation for clarification and enforcement. The charter also stipulated that the Federal Supreme Court should include an unspecified number of “experts in Islamic jurisprudence” alongside civil judges. The draft constitution was approved by a popular referendum in October 2005, though two Sunni Arab provinces voted overwhelmingly against it. Under a compromise brokered as a concession to Sunni demands before the referendum, the first elected parliament would form a Constitutional Review Committee to determine whether the document should be amended. The committee was created by parliament in September 2006, but as of the end of 2007, it has been unable to produce any concrete recommendations. Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab community’s self-exclusion from the political process paved the way for Shiite and Kurdish parties to extend their influence throughout government. Cabinet ministries were distributed according to ethnicity and sect, following a trend established early in the transitional phase, with powerful ministerial positions reserved for the main Shiite and Kurdish political parties. Shiite parties’ control over the Interior Ministry allowed their associated militias to infiltrate the police and counterinsurgency forces. Extrajudicial detentions and killings by Shiite militias and militia-dominated police units proliferated during 2005 and 2006.

In sharp contrast to the January 2005 voting, many prominent Sunni Arab moderates ran in the December 2005 elections for a full-term parliament, and the minority increased its political representation. The Shiite UIA led the polls but failed to gain an absolute majority. After a four-month negotiating deadlock, Nouri Kamel al-Maliki of the Shiite Da’wa party was chosen as prime minister. Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, a major Shiite militia, emerged as an important power broker as his armed followers continued to undermine security.

The February 2006 bombing of al-Askari shrine, an important Shiite pilgrimage site in the city of Samarra, set off a new cycle of intense sectarian conflict focused on areas where Sunni and Shiite Arabs lived in close proximity. As civilian deaths increased dramatically, the U.S. government in January 2007 announced a staggered influx of about 30,000 troops to augment the 130,000 already in Iraq. Civilian deaths from sectarian violence dropped sharply over the course of the year, and the Mahdi Army declared a six-month ceasefire in August, but ethnically cleansed or separated neighborhoods became a fixture in Baghdad and other ethnically diverse provinces. Coalition commanders state that overall attacks have fallen by 60 percent, yet a massive truck bomb killed 130 people in a Baghdad market in February 2007 and four truck bombs killed over 500 people in Kurdish villages along the Syrian border in August.

Many Sunni Arab tribes and communities reportedly turned against the radical foreign fighters they once supported and increasingly participated in the political process in 2007. However, additional attacks in Diyala and other provinces revealed that many insurgent elements had moved out of their former strongholds—whether because of the increased U.S. troop presence or the new hostility from local Sunni populations—only to begin new operations in other areas.

Meanwhile, coalition forces continued to transfer primary security responsibility to the Iraqi authorities in relatively stable provinces, especially in the Shiite-dominated south. Local Kurdish forces had long maintained security in the north, which remained mostly free of insurgent and sectarian violence in 2007. In December, however, the Turkish military launched airstrikes against remote bases in northern Iraq controlled by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group known for carrying out terrorist and guerrilla attacks in Turkey. The Turkish intervention threatened to destabilize Iraq’s Kurdish region and the country as a whole.

Despite the year’s security improvements and increased Sunni political participation at the local level, political progress at the national level remained elusive in 2007. The main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accord Front, and the Shiite faction loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr both staged boycotts of the legislature over the course of the year. The parliament failed to enact key reform laws, including legislation governing oil revenues and contracts, even as the KRG passed its own oil measure in August and signed independent exploration and development deals with foreign oil companies, prompting strong protests from other Iraqi lawmakers.

Over 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries in recent years, and another 1.7 million have been internally displaced. This has strained the resources of the host countries, threatening to cause regional disruptions and instability. Many of the Iraqis who have fled are middle class and make up the core of civil society, thus jeopardizing Iraq’s future development. A number of Iraqis have attempted to return in 2007, encouraged by security gains.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Iraq is not an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, the country remains under the influence of a foreign military presence and impairments caused by sectarian and insurgent violence. Under the constitution, the president and two vice presidents are elected by parliament and must appoint the prime minister, who is nominated by the largest parliamentary bloc. Elections are to be held every four years. The prime minister is charged with forming a cabinet and running the executive functions of the state. The parliament consists of a 275-seat lower house, the Council of Representatives, and a still-unformed upper house, the Federal Council, which would represent provincial interests. Political parties representing a wide range of viewpoints are allowed to organize and campaign without legal restrictions, but the Baath party is officially banned.

With one-fifth of the country’s population, the autonomous Kurdish region constitutes a distinct polity within Iraq, boasting its own flag, military, and language. However, its political leaders continue to profess their commitment to remaining part of a federal Iraqi state. The Kurdistan Alliance—a coalition of the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, and a number of smaller parties—holds 53 seats in the national Council of Representatives, with an additional 5 seats held by the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU). Since the constitution was approved by referendum in October 2005, this pivotal Kurdish political bloc has sought support from leading Shiite parties to implement the charter’s Article 140, which would open the door for a referendum on whether the oil-rich Kirkuk area should be incorporated into the Kurdish region. Most Sunni Arabs and advocates of a centralized state oppose that outcome. The referendum, which was scheduled to take place this year, has been postponed due to pressure from its opponents.

In the 111-seat Kurdistan National Assembly, the PUK and KDP each have 38 seats while the KIU has 9. The remainder are distributed among the smaller Alliance parties, which are fully or partially funded by the two main parties. Elections for the Kurdistan National Assembly are supposed to be held every four years.

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), whose nine-member board was selected by a UN advisory committee, has sole responsibility for administering elections. Voting for the TNA in January 2005 and the constitutional referendum in October 2005 was certified as free and fair by international monitors. The December 2005 elections for a four-year government also went smoothly, though there was some insurgent violence. Sunni Arabs came out in greater numbers and increased their representation in parliament.

Iraq is plagued by pervasive corruption. The problem has seriously hampered reconstruction efforts, and it is estimated that 25 percent of donor funds are unaccounted for. A leaked U.S. State Department report in 2007 stated that anticorruption commissions had little enforcement capacity, the judiciary was extremely weak, and officials were subject to intimidation by Interior Ministry officers and extrajudicial militias. Iraq was ranked 178 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and generally respected by the authorities. However, it has been seriously impeded by sectarian tensions and fear of violent reprisals. Over a dozen private television stations are in operation. Although most are affiliated with particular religious or political groups, the nonpartisan station Al-Sharqiya is the most widely watched. Major Arab satellite stations are easily accessible, as roughly one-third of Iraqi families own a satellite dish. More than 150 print publications have been established since 2003 and are allowed to operate without significant government interference. Internet access is not restricted by the authorities, but only about 0.1 percent of the population has access.

Although the Iraqi media are not subject to direct government censorship, violent retributions against journalists have hindered their ability to report widely and objectively. Many have persevered in spite of such threats. As many as 206 journalists and media workers, most of them Iraqis, have been killed in the country since 2003. Dozens have also been abducted by insurgents and militias or detained without charge or disclosure of supporting evidence by U.S. forces on suspicion of aiding and abetting insurgents.

Legislation passed in 2006 criminalized the ridicule of public officials, and a number of Iraqi journalists have been charged with the offense. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television station has been banned from working in the country since August 2004 for violating CPA Order 14, which prohibits media organizations from publishing or broadcasting material that incites violence or civil disorder. The government often threatened to shut down media outlets for “inciting violence” when reporting on sectarian killings in 2007. The Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry shut down a television station run by Sunnis for airing footage of protests against the December 2006 hanging of Saddam Hussein. The ministry also established a unit to monitor journalists and media outlets, to correct “false news.” Journalists faced prosecution if they refused the official correction. In May 2007, Iraqi lawmakers approved taking legal action against Al-Jazeera for allegedly offending Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They also banned Al-Jazeera reporters from the Iraqi parliament building.

Broadcast media in the Kurdish north are dominated by the two main political parties, but independent print outlets and internet sites have arisen in recent years. Independent journalists are able to criticize powerful interests with more freedom than in the rest of Iraq, but those who offend local officials and top party leaders or expose high-level corruption are increasingly subject to physical attacks, arbitrary detention, and legal harassment.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and religious institutions are allowed to operate with little formal oversight. However, all religious communities in Iraq have been threatened by sectarian violence, particularly after the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in 2006. Thousands of Iraqis have been killed by death squads, insurgents, and militias, and members of both major sects and minority faiths have been driven from mixed or isolated neighborhoods.

Given the Shiite majority presence in government, state preference has been given to protecting and funding Shiite holy sites and religious leaders. However, in an effort to repair sectarian relations, Friday prayers from Sunni mosques in 2007 were allowed to air on television for the first time since the 2003 invasion. Iraq’s Chaldean and Assyrian Christian minorities have suffered greatly from the sectarian violence, prompting Pope Benedict XVI and other religious leaders to make a special plea for their protection. Many Christians have fled Baghdad, often to the Kurdish north. Other minority sects, like the Yazidis and some Sufi orders, have also suffered attacks. In August 2007, al-Qaeda masterminded a terrorist bombing that killed over 400 Yazidis in northern Iraq, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region; it was the deadliest such attack in Iraq’s history.

Academic institutions operate in a highly politicized and insecure environment. Hundreds of professors and intellectuals have been assassinated for voicing their opinions or encouraging dialogue, or for sectarian reasons. Large numbers of educated Iraqis have fled the country, although the more stable Kurdish region has benefited from an influx of skilled individuals seeking refuge there.

Rights to freedom of assembly and association are recognized by the constitution and generally respected in practice. The constitution guarantees these rights “in a way that does not violate public order and morality.” Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations are able to operate without legal restrictions, though security constraints limit their activities in many regions. The lack of a legal framework and registration system for nongovernmental organizations also hinders their ability to function and attract donor funds. Peaceful demonstrations occurred frequently during 2007 without interference from coalition or Iraqi forces, except when they were in violation of curfews. Gatherings or rallies that violated anti-Baath strictures were considered illegal.

The constitution provides for the right to form and join professional associations and unions, although Iraq’s 1987 labor law remains in effect, technically prohibiting unionization in the public sector. Union activity has flourished in nearly all industries since 2003, and strikes have not been uncommon. In 2005, the interim Iraqi government promulgated Decree 8750, which gave authorities the power to seize all union funds and prevent their dispersal, with the promise of future laws to be passed under the permanent government. To date there have been no new labor laws passed, but a parliamentary committee (consisting of mostly pro-union lawmakers) was established to revise the decree and advance International Labor Organization–compliant labor laws drafted in 2004. Iraqi union leaders have vocally opposed the proposed national oil law.

Judicial independence is guaranteed in the new constitution. The Higher Judicial Council (HJC)—headed by the chief judge of the Federal Supreme Court and composed of Iraq’s 17 chief appellate judges and several judges from the Federal Court of Cassation—has administrative authority over the court system. In practice, however, judges have come under immense political pressure and have largely been unable to pursue cases involving organized crime, corruption, and militia activity. Since 2003, some 30 judges have been killed. The constitution stipulates that trials must be conducted in public “unless the court decides to make it secret.” The accused are “innocent until proven guilty in a fair legal trial.” According to a recent UN report, the “growing perception of impunity for current and past crimes committed risks further eroding the rule of law.”

Persons accused of committing war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity fall under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT), previously known as the Iraq Special Tribunal. The IHT statute does not explicitly require that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and lacks adequate safeguards against self-incrimination. Numerous irregularities were noted by international observers in the al-Dujail trial, which culminated in the execution by hanging of Saddam Hussein in December 2006.

The criminal procedure code and the constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, though both practices are common in security-related cases. There have been credible reports of illegal detention facilities run by the Interior Ministry and party-sponsored militias. The constitution prohibits all forms of torture and inhumane treatment and affords any victims the right to compensation, but neither coalition nor Iraqi authorities have established effective safeguards against the mistreatment of detainees, and allegations of torture by security services have been serious and widespread. KRG laws similarly prohibit inhumane treatment of detainees, but it is widely known that Kurdish security forces practice illegal detention and questionable interrogation tactics. Although the exact number fluctuated, over 24,500 Iraqis suspected of involvement in the insurgency were held by the U.S. military at any given time in 2007, before being released or handed over to the Iraqi authorities. Detainees in coalition custody have also experienced torture and mistreatment.

There is a critical lack of centralized control over the use of force in Iraq. Insurgents, militias, and criminal gangs, many with ties to government forces, were responsible for the mistreatment and killing of thousands of civilians in 2007. Human rights abuses by the security forces have taken on a sectarian dimension, fueling instability. Police recruits have themselves been a target of violence. The interior minister has attempted to stem abuses and militia ties among the police by firing thousands of employees, including an entire brigade, but the problem remains endemic. The frequent employment of martial law in attempts to stem growing insecurity grants sweeping powers of arrest and restricts basic freedoms.

Security improved somewhat in 2007 as the U.S. military boosted its presence and helped to establish “concerned local citizens” (CLC) forces—such as the Anbar Salvation Council—at the provincial, tribal, and local level. Coalition forces also began to arm former insurgents who turned against al Qaeda and sought to cooperate with the security forces. The CLC’s still have not been incorporated into the national security structures, and it is unclear whether their gains can be sustained once coalition troops withdraw. Fighting between Shiite militias, criminal gangs, and partisan security services in Basra and other southern provinces was widespread in 2007, as British troops completed their handover of security responsibility there to Iraqi officials.

There have been credible allegations of employment discrimination against Sunni Arabs and non-Muslim minorities in some government institutions, and many former Baath party members have faced difficulty obtaining state employment due to the overzealous application of de-Baathification policies. However, Sunni Arabs joined the Shiite-dominated security services, particularly the local police, in greater numbers in 2007; this trend was encouraged by the Anbar Salvation Council and other elements of the so-called Sunni awakening movement, which opposed al-Qaeda and sought a greater role for Sunnis in government. Minorities in northern Iraq—Turkmen, Arabs, Christians, and Shabak—have reported instances of discrimination and harassment by Kurdish authorities.

The constitution promises women equal rights under the law, and they are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in the legislature. While women comprised 32 percent of the TNA, the portion dropped to 25 percent after the December 2005 elections. Public security for women remained a major problem in 2007. Women who held jobs, attended university, or went out in public unveiled were frequently harassed, and in some cases killed, by radical Islamist groups of both major sects. In the Kurdish region, women do not suffer the same harassment and are not forced to abide by religious codes or cultural restrictions. They are free to travel and are very active in political and civic life, although their political power is limited.