Exclusion and Violence in Post-2003 Iraq

This paper examines the origins of political violence in Iraq. It argues that, in the wake of the democratic transition process in from 2004 to 2005, Iraqi exiles, who were chiefly Shiite Muslims and Kurds appointed by Paul Bremer, Iraq’s U.S. civilian administrator, moved to write a constitution and set up a political system that deliberately marginalized minorities. Since then, the Sunni minority began and continues to engage in or support violence against the state. It suggests that violence and instability in Iraq are to be understood in terms of local contexts of meaning, notably the nature of struggle for political power.

Yasir Kuoti
May 26, 2016

Violence in post-2003 Iraq has many facets, including political and ideological. In what follows, I focus on one of these facets: political. I make two points: First, the manner by which the Iraqi constitution was created, written, and adopted influenced minorities to rationalize violence against the government and its base of support. Second, this logic to use violence is best understood in the context of local power struggles between the rising rule of the Shiite majority and the declining rule of the Sunni minority. Today, sectarian tensions are an integral aspect of the conflict in Iraq.

Many scholars have acknowledged that the United States mishandled the democratic transition in the 2003 Iraq War, but there is considerable debate regarding the reasons for Iraq’s chronic instability.1 Some policy analysts put forth the conventional analysis that considers the ongoing instability in Iraq as a natural outcome of the democratic process.2 Others consider the source of instability to be the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime.3

While these are certainly enabling factors, the dynamics between group exclusion from the political process, lack of political competition, and the discriminatory Iraqi constitution are the principle sources of Iraq’s instability. Specific provisions in the Iraqi constitution excluded groups of people, namely Sunnis, which created incentives to use violence as a means to obtain power. This approach is useful, because it analyzes the Iraqi situation on its own merits. The arguments of democratization and inherited legacies as sources of violence in Iraq are too vague for analyzing its origins. This analysis comes from my native understanding of and experience in Iraq. My research method is one of observation while living in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, which provided first-hand experience in Iraqi politics.

Although violence in Iraq has sectarian dimensions, it took on a new and unique character after the 2004-2005 period when the constitution was created and adopted. In response to a perceived unjust political arrangement in the Iraqi constitution, Sunni elites in 2004 adopted a new strategy to subvert the Iraqi government. This decision to use violence also took into account the developing security environment. In other words, Sunni deci sion makers and elites were cognizant that they would need to partner with other Sunni affiliated extremist groups (such as Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq and al-Qaeda) in order to effectively disrupt the government of Iraq.

This paper first defines central concepts before providing a background on political developments in Iraq. It then gives an overview of recent elections in Iraq as well as the writing of the Iraqi constitution. Finally, it expands upon the origins of violence and instability in Iraq.


A political system is the arrangements through which power is allotted. The political system of Iraq is a confessional democracy, based on Arend Lijphart’s consociational model.4 It is a system by which social groups share and exercise power; the larger the group, the larger representation it receives. Violence refers to politically motivated aggression by a group against others. In Iraq, violence is largely carried out or supported by the Sunni minority against the Shiite-led government and its base of supporters. Finally, a constitution is a set of rules, laws, procedures, practices, and principles in a country.5


The 2003 Iraq War was the outgrowth of the First Gulf War in 1990, which itself was an extension of Iraq-Iran War in 1980-1988. Having been burdened with some 40 billion dollars of debt from this latter adventure, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq annexed Kuwait in August 1990 in order to access rich oil fields. This move brought about international outrage.

The Gulf War and the failures of Iraq to comply with United Nations disarmament measures hastened the 2003 Iraq War. By April of 2003, coalition forces began to realize that the invasion was the easiest part of the occupation, having faced no significant opposition. Lack of post-conflict planning by the Bush administration led to alarming levels of looting, disorder, and lawlessness.6 In May 2003, Paul Bremer, appointed by the Bush administration to oversee Iraq’s affairs until a national government was formed, issued two decisions: one outlawed the Baath party, and another dissolved the ministries of defense and interior, sending home millions from the security sector.7 Having occupied high ranks within Saddam’s regime, Sunnis saw “debaathification” as an intentional effort to retaliate against them.8 This directly hindered the newborn democracy. Sunnis did not react violently at first, rationalizing that the upcoming constitution and government would right wrongs. During this time, Iraq was relatively stable, discounting the attacks against coalition forces carried out by some of Saddam’s loyalists. Civilian deaths were mainly the product of collateral damages and some careless shootings by coalition forces.

On 28 June 2004, Bremer installed a government led by the moderate Shiite Ayad Allawi. His government inherited several serious security challenges, notably the First Battle of Fallujah. The battle attempted to eliminate extremists in Fallujah as well as to apprehend the perpetrators of the killing of U.S. contractors in April 2004. In response, U.S. Marines were dispatched, triggering fierce confrontations. Meanwhile, Sunnis and Shiites, especially the Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, were pressing for a timeline for parliamentary elections and an elected government. As a Shiite, al-Sadr’s siding with Sunnis in calling for local elections was, to many, baffling. His support for Sunnis fighting the Marines in Fallujah was also confusing. By mid-April 2004, al-Sadr sent members of Jaysh al-Mahdi, or al-Mahdi Army, to Fallujah to fight alongside Sunnis, a move that was reciprocated when al-Sadr’s supporters became the target of coalition authorities.9 This relationship between al-Sadr and Sunnis is evidence refuting the notion of irreconcilable Iraqi sectarian hatred prior to 2005.10 


Toward the end of 2004, local and international politicians scheduled 2005 to be the year for Iraq’s national elections. For every 31,000 votes, a political entity gained a seat in the National Assembly. There were 111 political entities representing more than seven thousand individuals. Those most motivated to participate in the elections were the Shiites and Kurds, due to large percentages of the total population. Out of 270 seats in the National Assembly, the Unified Iraqi Coalitions (a conglomeration of Shiite Islamist parties) won with 140, the Kurdistan Alliance List (Kurdish parties) gained 75, and the Iraqi List (dominated by secular Shiites) won forty seats, totaling 255 out of 270.11 Sunnis, who represent about 20 percent of the population, largely boycotted the elections and received only 20 seats.12

Once the members of the National Assembly were selected, it was tasked with drafting a constitution, to be voted on in 2005. If approved, elections for a permanent government would be held no later than 15 December 2005.13 The National Assembly began its work with the selection of 55 officials and experts who formed the Committee on the Writing of the Constitution. Committee members were selected based on a confessional quota system (a confession is a religious or ethnic sect): 28 from a Shiite coalition list, 14 from a Kurdish list, eight from al-Iraqiya list (moderate Shiites), one from a Christian list, one from a Turcoman list, and one from a Sunni list. More Sunnis were added to the Committee after international calls for greater inclusiveness, but four were assassinated only days into their work, prompting their Sunni colleagues to halt participation in protest.14 Despite their protests, the drafting of the constitution continued without them. By 15 October 2005, the constitution was adopted by popular referendum. While largely rejected by Sunnis, almost 80 percent of Iraqis (mostly Shiites and Kurds) voted in favor, making it the law of the land.15

The manner by which these initial steps were taken without Sunnis’ participation ignited violent resentment towards the new system. The right for meaningful participation in the National Assembly, which dictated the terms of the constitution, made Sunnis cast serious doubts toward the entirety of the system. They saw democratic rules being used for undemocratic purposes, leading to the deterioration of relations and the territorialization of Sunnis and Shiites.

Sunni alienation is deep-rooted, both among elite groups and average individuals. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Sunnis engaging in atrocities and terrorist acts on the wishes of Sunni elites alone. Rather, this is a distinctive regime of violence in which a frustrated population rebels against a system they perceive as unjust.

Violence intensified as years went on, but its roots go back to 2004-2005. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) would not have ventured to bomb a Shiite mosque had it not sensed that the Sunni community would somehow tolerate its action. Having lost political power through the democratic process, Sunnis sought power elsewhere. Political power began to mean the capacity for violence and the extent to which it is taken to the greatest degree. This rationalization for violence is inseparable from its local context. It is not an international or regional conflict in which powerful outside states use proxies to advance their interests. It is a local conflict in which Sunni groups in Iraq, having been marginalized in the constitution drafting process, use violence to subvert the government, which they view as illegitimate. However, to achieve their objectives, Sunnis show no reluctance in enlisting the assistance of foreign groups so long as it achieves the goal of abolishing the system.


Violence is not a unique phenomenon in Iraq. But, what is unique is the sharp escalation of political violence. Violence in Iraq must be understood with regard to the consequence of political developments that took place in 2004 and 2005. Since then, violence has been the prevailing feature of Iraqi politics. Its ever-increasing trend, as recently illustrated by the seizure of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2014, has not only threatened the political authority of the Iraqi state, but also Iraq’s territorial integrity and social order.

Political violence in Iraq is distinctive in many ways, including bombing of public spaces, the use of car bombs, political assassinations, election violence, and the administration of punitive justice by non-state actors, among others. The motivation for violence has been to subvert the government, capture political power, and establish a new system of rule or even an Islamic State.

Professor Joseph Wright’s theory of political competition and democratic stability in new democracies is insightful. Wright describes the occurrence of violence and instability in new democracies in terms of initial political competition. More substantial nonviolent competition at the initial stage of democracy formation equates to a more stable long-term democracy. Countries with low initial nonviolent competition are more likely to fail due to grievances generated by the excluded groups, who tend to subvert the new system.16 For Wright, initial political competition entails competitive elections, which bring about more stable governments. Groups which have institutionalized restrictions placed on them, and which otherwise would partake in the election process, are prone to reject the new system.17

Applying this theory and its assumptions to contemporary Iraq is illuminating. First, as stated earlier, Sunnis did not participate fully in the political creation of Iraq’s new democracy. The National Assembly, tasked with drafting the constitution, initially had only one Sunni to represent some 20 percent of Iraq’s population. When pressured, the National Assembly added more Sunnis, many of whom were quickly assassinated or intimidated to resign. Members of the Constitution Committee, however, continued the drafting process without their Sunni colleagues. Second, when the constitution was completed and offered for referendum, Sunnis disapproved it, seeing it as unrepresentative. This is because Sunni lawmakers were marginalized during the drafting process.18 In the Sunni-dominated province of al-Anbar, for example, the disapproval rate was as high as 97 percent.19 But the constitution was adopted regardless. These developments caused Sunnis to be suspicious of the intentions of Shiites and Kurds.20 Sunnis did not partake in designing the political system; Shiites and Kurds predominantly designed it. Then, Sunnis refused to partake in the elections, and therefore had only nominal representation in the legislature. Meanwhile, the Shiite bloc dominated the legislature, making it able to pass bills irrespective of others’ votes.

In addition, the Debaathification law restrained some leaders of the Sunni community from running for office. Furthermore, complaints were made that Sunnis’ low turnout in 2005 elections was in part due to the violence and intimation they experienced in the pre-election period. During elections, Sunnis complained about fraud and manipulation.21 The causal link between the lack of initial competition, discontent with the status quo, and participation in violence by the Sunnis is logically clear.

Factors that deepened Sunnis’ rejection for the system and strengthened their belief in its illegitimacy were: (1) unfair proportional representation; (2) constitutional provisions; and (3) the structure of the government’s power.

(1) Proportional Representation

One of the many problems in Iraq’s governing system is the single-district legislature which benefits the groups with the largest proportion of the population. These are typically the Shiites and Kurds, who tend to dominate the parliament.22 They have an advantage in dictating laws and enforcing the constitution.23 Sunnis, conversely, do not have the needed number of policymakers to challenge policies, nor do they enjoy a veto power to block bills.

However, passing legislation is not, per se, the biggest issue that frustrates Sunnis. Rather, it is the popular sense of perpetual inferiority in making policy. This enduring frustration comes from understanding that the system, in which voters cast votes along confessional lines, is unlikely to lead to effective Sunni participation in the government. Thus, the demographics of Iraq restrict Sunnis’ engagement in politics. Shiites, on the other hand, are expected to always have the largest representation in parliament and the broader government.

The system of parliamentary politics is the most serious challenge to the democratic system in Iraq. From the outset in 2005, Sunnis sought both to withhold their support for the system, and to obliterate the system by engaging in or supporting violence. The Sunni community in al-Anbar and Salah ad Din provinces provides the government with the most extreme opponents.

The most serious obstacle the government faced came in 2012 when Sunni lawmakers refused to accept the government’s legitimacy, regarding Shiite members of parliament as instruments of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s agenda. As such, Sunni members of parliament, such as Ahmed al-Alwani, protested with his constituents in creating a resistance camp. In response, al-Maliki ordered security forces to raid the camp, alleging it had been infiltrated by terrorists. This incident snowballed and led the way for the arrival of ISIS.

(2) Constitutional Provisions

Constitutional provisions of particular relevance are Articles 109 and 110 regarding the distribution of resources among regions. Article 110 allots extra revenues from oil and gas sales to regions deprived under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. It also provides that regions where oil and gas are extracted receive the most from revenues.24 It is important to note that the regions most damaged by Saddam’s regime were the Kurdish-dominated north and Shiite-dominated south; in addition, the north and south hold the largest oil and gas resources. According to an analysis from NPR’s Kristen Stilt, the article “most likely benefits the Kurdish and Shiite areas.”25 It is clear that the drafters of the constitution, who were mostly Kurds and Shiites, influenced the language and and laws of the constitution to advance their group’s interests.

(3) Structure of Government

Although not clearly stated in the constitution, an arrangement was created by which certain groups were designated to control various branches of the government. An unsaid bargain emerged in 2005, likely influenced by ethno-sectarian representation, whereby power was distributed to groups under Paul Bremer’s Transitional Governing Council. Shiites were allotted the Office of Prime Minister (OPM) while Sunnis came to control the chairmanship of Parliament. Kurds inherited the Office of the President.

In a system where political power is unequally distributed among ethno-sectarian groups, two outcomes are likley to occur: disagreements and violence. This method for allocating political power generates dissatisfaction among minorities. In Iraq, the Office of the President is merely ceremonial, which effectively marginalizes Kurds. The Shiite majority, in addition to holding the powerful OPM, controls Parliament. Such an arrangement frustrates Sunnis, who complain that Shiites meet and pass laws unilaterally. In so doing, the majority risk becoming tyrannical, exacerbating the fears of minorities. As a collective result, this causes Sunnis to resent the system and seek political power through the means of violence.

Parliament Oversight and Effectiveness

The evidence suggests that the Iraqi parliament is an example of corruption and ineffectiveness. Theoretically, the confessional representation in parliament incentivizes MPs to demonstrate devotion to parties. This is because it is the parties that nominate candidates. Independent candidates have little chance of succeeding in the system, and they must bargain with a larger group. Today, the legislature lacks independent experts to make policies with the good of the country in mind. Instead, MPs and their associated groups create laws to the benefit of their respective groups. The state’s institutions, such as the judiciary, have not been up to the task of regulation. This is expected since scholars have long argued that strong legislatures are requisites for the functioning of democratic institutions.26 There is ample evidence that Iraqi MPs are ineffective, corrupt, and keenly interested in advancing their own interests.

The control of parliament by Shiite blocs has transformed it into a sanctuary for corruption and incompetence. It is ineffective in exercising oversight. This ineffectiveness facilitated the rise of authoritarianism and institutionalized corruption. Today, Iraq has been labeled “the most corrupt country on the planet.”27

The permanent committee system has yet to acquire the effectiveness associated with strong legislatures. Individuals expected to provide expertise are either inactive or ineffective. For example, when investigating the permanent Committee on Women, Family, and Childhood, researchers from the University of Baghdad found that the Committee is staffed with five inexperienced members who receive no support from parties or blocs.28

These findings are consistent with public perceptions of the legislature as the most corrupt institution in the country. For example, according to the 2014 budget, each MP receives $6,800 plus $3,400 in “premiership allocation,” totaling $10,200 per month. Moreover, at the end of each four-year term, MPs are entitled to annual retirement benefits equal to 80 percent of their salary while in “public service.”29 Further, against public uproars, parliament increased its 2014 budget by $330 million. Some of this pays for MPs’ personal purchases. For example, the budget allocates $2.45 million for clothes, and $24 million for “exceptional expenditures” such as the procurement of motorcycles, each costing $10,000.30


In this article, I have argued that the chronic violence found in Iraq today is attributable to initial political developments in 2004 and 2005. These initial political developments were highly exclusionary, especially to Sunnis. Debaathifcation policies and lack of Sunni representation in the National Assembly and the Committee on the Writing of the Constitution were emblematic of this exclusion. Since then, Iraq has reached a tragic level of political violence and instability. Support for parties has been polarized along ethnic and religious lines, and underwritten by ineffectiveness, cronyism, corruption, and patronage. To effectively and efficiently deal with violence, Iraqi leaders need to support radical structural changes for the country’s political system and institutions.


1 For useful accounts on the mishandling of democracy in Iraq, see, for example, Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, (New York: Owl Books, 2006); and David L. Phillips, Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, (New York: Westview Press, 2005).

2 See Cervellati, Matteo, Foutunato, Piergiuseppe and Uwe Sunde, “Violence During Democratization and the Quality of Democratic Institutions,” European Economic Review 66 (2014): 226-47.

3 Such legacies include repression and sectarianism. See, for example, Antonio Costa Pinto, “Authoritarian Legacies, Transitional Justice and State Crisis in Portugal Democratization,” Working Paper 3-05, Instituto de Ciências Sociais Universidade de Lisboa, 2005; Katherine Hite & Cesarini Paola (eds.). Authoritarian Legacies and Democracy in Latin America and Southern Europe, (Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2004).

4 Arend Lijphart, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands, (California: University of California Press, 1975).

5 For more information on the meaning of constitutions, see Larry Sullivan (ed.), “The Sage Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences,” Sage Publications, 2009.

6 See, for example, Sean Rayment, “Iraq War Was Badly Planned, Army Says,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2007; James Fallow, “Blind into Baghdad,” Atlantic Monthly, January 1, 2004; Michael O’Hanlon, “Iraq Without a Plan,” Hoover Institution, December 1, 2004, 128; Thomas Ricks, “Army Historian Cites Lack of Postwar Plan,” Washington Post, December 25, 2004; “Iraq: Looting, Lawlessness, and Humanitarian Consequences,” Amnesty International, AI Index: MDE14/085/2003, 2003; “Fears Mount over Iraq Disorder,” BBC News, April 9, 2013; Paul West, “Civil Disorder Rages on in Iraq,” The Baltimore Sun, April 13, 2003; Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War without End, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007). Galbraith, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, said that U.S. leadership knew very little about the nature of Iraqi society and problems. See also, Christian Avard, “Ambassador Claims Shortly after Invasion, Bush Didn’t Know There Were Two Sects of Islam,” The Raw Story, August 4, 2006.

7 Sharon Otterman, “Iraq: Debaathification,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 7, 2005.

8 Debaathifcation was the hallmark of Shiite politician Ahmed al-Challbi; laws were selective in targeting individuals, mainly Sunnis, as lawmakers saw fit. Later, Paul Bremer, instead of giving the authority and implementation of laws to an independent body, handed it over to the Governing Council, which handed it to al-Chalabi.

9 Juan Cole, “Muqtada al Sadr and Sunnis Mickey Kaus,” Informed Comment Blog, January 4, 2007.

10 It is also possible that al-Sadr cooperated with the Sunnis for rational, personal calculations in that he himself was the subject of many questions. He was left out of the interim government because of reported troubles with authorities. Due to his popularity among his base of support, if elections were to have taken place, he would have gained many seats in government.

11 Kenneth Katzman, “Iraq: Elections, Government, and Constitution,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, November 20, 2006, 1-2.

12 Kenneth Katzman, 2; Roy Carroll, “Sunnis Admit Poll Boycott Blunder and Ask to Share Power,” The Guardian, February 14, 2005; “Sunni Clerics Call Iraqi Elections Illegitimate,” Fox News, February 2, 2005.

13 “Report to Congressional Committees: Rebuilding Iraq: U.S. Assistance for the January 2005 Elections,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, September 7, 2005, 3.

14 Saad N. Jawad, “The Iraqi Constitution: Structural Flaws and Political Implications,” London School of Economics Middle East Center Paper Series 01, November 2013; “Sunnis Quit Iraq Constitution Body,” BBC News, July 21, 2005.

15 John Ward Anderson, “Sunnis Failed to Defeat Iraq Constitution,” The Washington Post, October 26, 2005. In the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Saladin, constitution disapproval rate was 97% and 82% respectively. Kenneth Katzman, 2.

16 Joseph Wright, “Political Competition and Democratic Stability in New Democracies,” British Journal of Political Science 38, vol. 2 (2008), 221-45.

17 Ibid., 228

18 Lionel Beehner, “Why Sunnis Don’t Support Iraq’s Constitution,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 12, 2005.

19 See, for example, “The Iraq Commission Report,” Foreign Policy Centre, 2007, http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/861.pdf.

20 Beehner 2005.

21 Doug Struck, “Sunni, Secular Groups Demand New Vote,” Washington Post, December 21, 2005.

22 Kristin Stilt, “The Iraqi Constitution: A Closer Reading,” NPR News, 2007.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 See, for example, John Carey, Frantisek Formanek and Ewa Karpowicz, “Legislative Autonomy in New Regimes: The Czech and Polish Cases,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 24, vol. 4 (1999), 352.

27 Patrick Cockburn, “A Bribe Here, a Bribe There: Why Iraq is Now the Most Corrupt Country on the Planet,” Counterpunch, June 29, 2009.

28 Ianas Abd-al-Saada Ali, Batool Hussein Alwan, and Sanaa Kathem Kadea, “The Committee on Women, Family, and Childhood in the Iraqi Parliament: an Evaluation,” Lebanese American University, http://iwsaw.lau.edu.lb/files/groupresearchpaper.pdf [in Arabic].

29 Ali Abel Sadeh, “Iraqi Activists Seek to End Pensions for Parliament,” al-Monitor, August 2013

30 Milad Abdul Jabbar, “The Iraqi Parliament: A Detailed Study,” KobaniKurd, http://www.kobanikurd.com/البرلمان-العراقي-دراسة-مفصلة/.