Iraq | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017



Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Iraq holds regular, competitive elections, and the country’s various partisan, religious, and ethnic groups enjoy some representation in the political system. However, democratic governance is seriously impeded in practice by problems including corruption, severe insecurity, and the influence of foreign powers. Iraqis living in areas controlled by the Islamic State (IS) militant group exercise virtually no political or personal freedoms.

Key Developments: 
  • The Iraqi government regained significant territory from IS in both Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, though a number of areas—including large parts of Mosul—remained under IS control at year’s end.
  • Many Sunni Arabs were displaced by the battles against IS, and some also faced abuse by their liberators, particularly the Shiite militias fighting alongside Iraqi government forces.
  • The prime minister’s attempt in February to form a technocratic cabinet—which threatened the allocation of positions based on ethno-sectarian and partisan considerations—touched off months of protests and political infighting, with some factions holding an illegal rump parliamentary session in April in a bid to replace the speaker and other key officials.
  • Opposition lawmakers led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeded in removing the ministers of defense and finance in August and September, citing corruption allegations, and the vital posts remained vacant at year’s end.
Executive Summary: 

In 2016, Iraqi government forces and their allies—including a U.S.-led coalition, peshmerga units reporting to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Shiite militia groups organized as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and various other ethnic and tribal militias—retook significant territory held by IS since at least 2014. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, was fully recaptured early in the year, and the Anbar city of Fallujah was taken in June. By October government forces had begun an offensive on Mosul, a major city and capital of Nineveh Province in the north. However, at year’s end IS still controlled portions of Mosul, Hawija, Al-Qaim, and Tal Afar, as well as some surrounding areas.

The battles themselves raised new challenges to Baghdad’s sovereignty, with Iran actively supporting key Shiite militias, the Kurds expanding the de facto territory of their autonomous region, and the Turkish military staking out an unapproved presence in the Mosul area to support allied militias and oppose Kurdish fighters associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish separatist group that has carried out terrorist attacks in Turkey.

The fighting also continued to exacerbate the deep rifts that made Iraq vulnerable to IS infiltration in the first place. The PMF and to a lesser extent government forces sometimes mistreated Sunni civilians in areas retaken from IS, and the government remained unable to care adequately for displaced Sunnis. Nor was the state able to protect Shiite civilians from IS terrorist attacks meant to drive a wedge between the Sunni and Shiite populations.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s political establishment descended into near-chaos during the year. The Shiite coalition that had dominated the parliament shattered over whether to end the long-standing, unwritten ethno-sectarian allocation of government positions in favor of a more technocratic cabinet. Former prime minister al-Maliki, a supporter of the status quo, squared off against followers of rival Shiite political leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who insisted on reform; both sides threatened to bring down Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government if their demands were not met, and other groups splintered or maneuvered as the crisis unfolded. Abadi’s attempt to reshuffle the cabinet, initiated in February, remained unresolved at year’s end, with a number of key ministerial posts left vacant.

Kurdish politics also proved dysfunctional in 2016. The Kurdistan Parliament effectively remained suspended amid a political stalemate that began when Masoud Barzani’s already extended term as KRG president expired in 2015. Barzani’s party defended his right to stay in office until conditions permitted new elections, while other parties called for reforms that would shift power to the legislature.

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