Iraq: Extremism and Terrorism

On May 24, 2021, Iran-backed Iraqi militias declared they were ending the unofficial truce they had announced in October 2020 and would resume attacks on U.S. forces. The militias made the decision because of “the lack of seriousness of the Iraqi and US governments in scheduling the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq,” one commander told international media. That same day, three missiles targeted the Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province. At least one missile landed inside the base, but no casualties were reported. Militants targeted Ain al-Asad at least four times throughout May. On May 26, Iraqi forces arrested Qasim Muslih, a regional commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, in Anbar province. (Sources: Middle East Eye, Reuters, Reuters)

On May 5, 2021, unidentified militants attacked two oilwells at the Bai Hassan oilfield in Kirkuk, killing at least one police officer and wounding three others at a nearby police post. The attack on the police post was allegedly to distract the police while other militants planted bombs at the oilfield. ISIS had previously targeted Bai Hassan in an April 17 attack that resulted in no damage. Overnight on April 30 and May 1, suspected ISIS fighters attacked Iraqi troops in Tarmiya, killing four. Another five were killed after Iraqi reinforcements arrived, including a civilian. In the Alton Kubre region, suspected ISIS fighters attacked a military position, killing six Peshmerga fighters. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Middle East Eye, Agence France-Presse)

Iraqi militias have promised to continue striking at U.S. targets in Iraq as long as the United States maintains its military presence in the country. On October 10, 2020, representatives from various militias, calling themselves the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission, published a joint statement agreeing to suspend attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq in exchange for the Iraqi government presenting a plan for a U.S. withdrawal from the country. The United States completed a drawdown of troops in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 by January 15, 2021. On February 18, 2021, NATO announced it would increase its troop presence in Iraq from 500 to about 4,000. That April, the United States and Iraq announced the role of U.S. forces in the country would transition to training rather than combat. The countries intended to negotiate a timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. (Sources: Middle East Eye, Reuters, CNBC, Al Jazeera,, Hill, NBC News)

Since the 2003 downfall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, violent extremist groups such as ISIS and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have capitalized on longstanding sectarian divisions among Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations to radicalize Iraqis and expand their own influence. The Iraqi government has had to contend with balancing sectarian divisions in order to present a unified military front against ISIS.

Iraqi sectarianism has fueled extremism in the country, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. ISIS and other groups have used historic divisions between Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, and other minorities to increase their recruitment. As president from 1979 until 2003, Saddam Hussein violently repressed opposition groups and maintained strict military control that inflamed Iraqi and regional Sunni-Shiite tensions. In September 1980, Hussein invaded neighboring Iran and launched a failed eight-year-long war during which both sides systematically rocketed each other’s major cities and Iraqi Kurds aided Iran. In August 1990, Hussein’s army crossed into Kuwait, occupying the country and declaring it a province of Iraq. The invasion led to the 1991 Operation Desert Shield in which a U.S.-led coalition forced Hussein to withdraw. (Sources: Reuters, BBC News, U.K Defense Intelligence, New York Times, BBC News, New York Times, CNN, BBC News)

Iraqi sectarianism has fueled extremism in the country, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

In the aftermath of Hussein’s 2003 removal from power, extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and Jaysh al-Mahdi launched a violent insurgency against the Iraqi government. At the same time, Iranian-backed militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah sought to gain influence in Iraq by joining the insurrection. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) emerged as a central actor in the insurgency, eventually expanding and changing its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and began to seize territory in northwestern Iraq. After capturing Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul in June 2014, ISIS declared an Islamic caliphate in captured portions of Iraq and Syria. Within its captured territory, ISIS enacted brutal discriminatory laws against non-Sunnis, particularly Iraq’s Yazidi and Christian minorities. ISIS has also engaged in the widespread murder, kidnapping, and enslavement of these minorities, leading Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups to accuse ISIS of ethnic cleansing. In non-ISIS-held portions of Iraq, the group has engaged in suicide bombings, shootings, and other violent attacks targeting Iraqi government forces and civilians. Within its captured territory, ISIS has destroyed Iraqi cultural and religious sites, brutally enforced religious restrictions, and violently oppressed Iraqi minorities. (Sources: Bloomberg News, Amnesty International, U.N. OHCHR, CNN)

At its height, ISIS controlled more than 40 percent of Iraqi territory, but by April 2017 the U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Global Coalition against ISIS had reduced ISIS’s hold on Iraqi territory to less than 7 percent. As of March 7, 2017, the coalition had conducted more than 11,000 airstrikes in Iraq, destroying thousands of ISIS positions, vehicles, and other targets. Backed by U.S. airstrikes, the ISF continued to battle against ISIS forces in Mosul, which ISIS captured in 2014. The 100,000-strong ISF operation liberated the eastern side of the city from the militants in January 2017. On July 10, 2017, the Iraqi government announced the liberation of Mosul, where Baghdadi had declared ISIS’s caliphate three years earlier. ISIS continued to lose territory in Iraq throughout 2017, and following the November 17 recapture of Rawa, the last ISIS-held town in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared military victory over ISIS in the country. On December 9, Abadi announced that the Iraqi-Syrian border was fully secure. However, Iraqi officials fear that the group is shifting its strategy to that of a more traditional insurgency. (Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Independent, Global Coalition Against Daesh, U.S. Department of Defense, Reuters, CBS News, Al-Monitor, Washington Post, CBS News, Business Insider, CNN)

Iraqis remain divided on how to counter ISIS. Polling by ORB International revealed that as of July 2015, 56 percent of Iraqis opposed coalition airstrikes targeting the ISIS militants, despite 84 percent believing that ISIS has a “strongly negative” influence in the country. In addition, a March 2016 International Organization for Migration poll discovered that 80 percent of nearly 500 Iraqi migrants in living Europe cited “no hope for the future” as their primary reason for fleeing the country. (Sources: New York Times, BBC News, ORB International, International Organization for Migration)

The Iraqi government is also contending with Kurdish separatism. In the 20th century, Iraqi Kurdish separatists aided Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, particularly in capturing the key Iraqi border town of Hajj Umran. In recent years, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have joined the Iraqi government in fighting ISIS, but have also sought to use recaptured Iraqi territory as part of a future Kurdish state. Within the autonomous Kurdish areas, tensions between Kurds and Turkmens have resulted in riots, such as on July 28, 2008, when a Kurdish mob blamed Turkmen extremists for a suicide bombing in the city earlier that day and attacked Turkmen offices in Kirkuk. (Sources: BBC News, New York Times)

During Saddam Hussein’s 24-year rule, he violently suppressed dissent and sought regional hegemony. At the same time, Hussein instituted policies that legalized the Muslim Brotherhood and expanded the influence of Salafism in Iraq. These policies directly contributed to the rise of militant Salafist groups in Iraq after Hussein’s regime was deposed in 2003. Iraq has since been a sectarian battleground between extremist Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and predominantly Shiite Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias vying for influence.

Baath Party

Created in 1951, the Arab Socialist Baath Party, also known as the Iraqi Baath (“renaissance”) party, advocated pan-Arabism, anti-colonialism, socialism, and secular nationalism. Under Baathist ideology, each individual Arab state is part of a larger Arab nation. The Iraqi Baathist party—headed by Assistant General Secretary Saddam Hussein—came to power in Iraq through a 1968 military coup led by General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. Bakr assumed Iraq’s presidency and appointed Hussein to organize the Baath party’s militia and establish its security agencies. By November 1969, Hussein’s security team had effectively purged opposition rivals and dissidents, leading Bakr to promote Hussein to vice president and head of the Revolutionary Command Council. (Sources: BBC News, BBC News)

Hussein assumed the presidency in 1979 and immediately began to violently suppress any individual or group he viewed as a threat to his reign. Baathists who Hussein deemed disloyal were immediately detained or killed. Hussein promoted the purge as patriotism and advocated for loyalty to him rather than to the Baathist party and its ideology. (Sources: BBC News, U.K Defense Intelligence, New York Times)

In 1994, Hussein initiated the Faith Campaign, which integrated strict Islamic fundamentalist concepts into the Iraqi state.

In September 1980, Hussein invaded Iran in attempt to expand his influence in the Middle East. The eight-year-long war ended with a July 1988 ceasefire after both sides had rocketed each other’s major cities, resulting in major infrastructure damage and civilian casualties. In August 1990, Hussein’s army crossed into Kuwait, occupying the country and declaring it a province of Iraq. In January 1991, a 39-country coalition, led by the United States, deployed forces to Kuwait under Operation Desert Shield to force Hussein to withdraw. After a five-week aerial and ground campaign, the coalition liberated Kuwait on February 27, 1991. In April 1991, Hussein agreed to accept the terms of a U.N. cease-fire agreement, which subjected Iraq to a weapons-inspections program. (Sources: New York Times, BBC News, New York Times, CNN)

For the next decade, Hussein sought to convince the international community that he had discontinued his weapons programs. Simultaneously, Hussein falsely claimed he possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in order to appear militarily stronger to his enemies in Iran and Israel, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Hussein consistently refused U.N. weapon inspectors access to document or destroy Iraq’s collection of unconventional weapons. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on intelligence reports of an active WMD development program. The U.S. military ousted Hussein, who immediately went into hiding. He was captured in December of that year in Tikrit and executed in December 2006 after an Iraqi court convicted him of crimes against humanity. (Sources: New York Times, CNN, BBC News)

Since Hussein’s overthrow, former Hussein loyalists have taken leadership roles in Iraq’s extremist Salafist organizations. Iraqi officials estimate that at least 100 senior and mid-level ISIS leaders are former Hussein loyalists, including Abul-Mughirah al-Qahtani and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi. In 1994, Hussein initiated the Faith Campaign, which integrated strict Islamic fundamentalist concepts into the Iraqi state. The words “God is great” were added to the Iraqi flag, amputation became a legalized punishment for theft, and the Muslim Brotherhood was legalized. A new wave of Salafism spread in Iraq as the Brotherhood expanded its activities. Simultaneously, as part of the Faith Campaign, Hussein ordered his military intelligence forces to infiltrate mosques, which had the effect of increasing Salafism within the ranks of Hussein’s military forces. After the fall of the Hussein regime, the United States disbanded Iraq’s military and purged Baathists from the government. Removed from their military roles, the Salafists from the former Baathist regime joined al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist organizations. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly prioritized the recruitment of former Baathists. (Sources: National Review, Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters)

Iraqi Kurds

Kurds in Iraq as well as southeastern Turkey, western Iran, and northern Syria, have long sought the creation of an independent Kurdistan encompassing those areas. Kurdish separatists in Iraq have been responsible for terrorist attacks in the country. Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous area in northern Iraq near the borders with Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan maintains its own parliament and its own security forces––the Peshmerga––which have aided in the fight against ISIS. (Sources: Stars & Stripes, BBC News)

British forces occupied Kurdish areas in 1918 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Britain incorporated some of these areas, including Mosul, into Iraq the following year. In 1923, Kurdish rebels declared a short-lived kingdom in northern Iraq in defiance of the British occupation. In 1946, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) formed in Iranian Kurdistan. The KDP initially sought self-governance but shifted its focus to self-determination. Iraqi Kurds complained of increasing discrimination by the Iraqi government during the 1950s. After the 1958 overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy, Iraqi Kurds were promised autonomy in a new constitution, but Iraq temporarily dissolved the KDP in 1961 after a Kurdish rebellion. A 1970 agreement between the Iraqi government and the Kurds granted Iraqi Kurds autonomy, but further negotiations broke down and resulted in a new Kurdish rebellion in 1974. In 1975, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)––another Kurdish political party––broke away from the KDP. (Sources: Federation of American Scientists, KDP website, PBS, BBC News, BBC News)

When the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, some Kurds sided with Iran and joined in attacks against Iraqi forces. In 1983, the two main Kurdish parties––the PUK and the KDP––openly rebelled against the Hussein regime. Beginning in 1987 toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi government killed tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and fighters in an attempt to quash an uprising. Iraq formalized the operation in 1988 as al-Anfal (“the spoils”). Iraqi forces employed sarin, mustard, and other nerve gases, killing up to 100,000 Kurds during the almost-seven-month-long campaign, according to Human Rights Watch. A March 16, 1988, poison gas attack on the Iraqi town of Halabja killed approximately 5,000 Kurdish civilians. Fighting between the Kurds and Iraqi forces continued through 1991, when Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized the Iraqi cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. An Iraqi blockade and infighting between the KDP and the PUK resulted in an Iraqi Kurdish civil war, which ended with a 1998 peace treaty between the two factions. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, BBC News, BBC News, BBC News)

Another Kurdish faction, Jund al-Islam, began violently clashing with the PUK in 2001. Jund al-Islam became Ansar al-Islam (AAI) after the 2001 merger of Jund al-Islam with several other violent Kurdish groups. AAI seeks the creation of a sharia-based Islamic state. The U.S. government designated AAI as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2004 because of its “close links to and support from” al-Qaeda. AAI initially trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and provided a safe haven in Iraq for al-Qaeda leaders fleeing the country after the U.S. invasion. AAI has since targeted Iraqi, U.S., and coalition forces in Iraq. Part of the group pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014, but another faction within AAI has continued to fight against ISIS in Syria. In Iraq, AAI continues to target the Iraqi government and coalition forces. (Sources: BBC News, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, Council on Foreign Relations, Long War Journal)

Iraq granted its Kurdish population a semi-autonomous area in the north under the country’s 2005 constitution. After ISIS began capturing territory in Iraq in 2014, Iraqi Kurds joined the fight to repel the terror group through the U.S.-backed Peshmerga forces. Iraqi Kurdish forces have attempted to hold certain territory that they liberated from ISIS in order to create an independent Kurdistan. For example, as of January 2017, Kurdish forces had dug a 650-mile trench around territory recaptured from ISIS in northern Iraq. Kurds have reportedly added 40 percent to their territory since 2014. However, Iraqi officials chastised Kurdish leaders for “getting ahead of themselves” before ISIS’s defeat was complete. In September 2017, Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a referendum, with an overwhelming 92 percent in favor. However, the Iraqi government rejected the referendum as unconstitutional. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offered to “freeze” the result of the referendum and engage in dialogue with the Iraqi government. (Sources: BBC News, Associated Press, Guardian, Reuters, CNN, BBC News, BBC News)

ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq

ISIS’s origins date back to the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion and deposal of Saddam Hussein. On October 17, 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group of jihadist fighters pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, calling themselves Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (the Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Land of the Two Rivers), a.k.a. al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In October 2006, AQI changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). In April 2013, ISI merged with the Nusra Front to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), although the Nusra Front subsequently broke away from the group. In June 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria and named himself caliph. (Sources: Foreign Policy, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Center for Strategic and International Studies,, New York Times, Al Jazeera, New York Times, Al Jazeera)

Baghdadi is an Iraqi native who rose in the ranks of AQI. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Baghdadi created the militant group Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaah to target U.S. soldiers. Sometime between 2004 and 2009, U.S. forces captured Baghdadi and incarcerated him in the U.S. prison facility Camp Bucca in Iraq, where he met other future ISIS leaders. In April 2010, Baghdadi assumed the role of emir of ISI. (Sources: BBC News, Newsweek, Brookings Institution, New York Times)

ISIS has specifically targeted Shiites in Iraq. For example, two bombings over July 2-3, 2016, targeted Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. The July 2 suicide bombing of a Baghdad shopping area killed more than 200 people and was Iraq’s deadliest bombing in years. The bombings came a week after Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Fallujah from ISIS. In September 2014, Amnesty International reported that ISIS had “carried out ethnic cleansing on a historic scale in northern Iraq … systematically target[ing] non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim communities, killing or abducting hundreds, possibly thousands, and forcing more than 830,000 others to flee the areas it has captured” since June 10, 2014. (Sources: CNN, CNN, CNN, Amnesty International)

ISIS has targeted Iraq’s cultural and archaeological history as well. In February 2015, video emerged of ISIS fighters destroying ancient statues and other relics at a museum in Mosul. Also that month, ISIS militants burned the Mosul public library, which reportedly housed more than 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. Within three days in March 2015, ISIS razed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and the ancient city of Hatra, both in northern Iraq, destroying archaeological ruins. In July 2014, ISIS blew up the shrine at the reputed burial site of the biblical prophet Jonah in Mosul. After Iraqi forces retook Nimrud in November 2016, Mosul Museum employee Leila Salih surveyed the damage and told NBC News that ISIS had attacked Iraqis’ “culture, our history, our memories. They tried to destroy the identity of Iraq.” (Sources: Fiscal Times, CNN, CNN, New York Times, NBC News, Agence France-Presse, NBC News)

On June 21, 2017, as ISIS’s situation in Mosul began to grow desperate, the group blew up the city’s historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where Baghdadi had declared ISIS’s caliphate in 2014. Built in the 12th century, the mosque included a leaning minaret called al-Hadba. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova condemned the destruction, calling the mosque and the minaret “among the most iconic sites” in the city. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called ISIS’s destruction of the over-800-year-old mosque “an official announcement of their defeat” in Mosul. (Sources: CNN, New York Times)

ISIS has also tried to influence U.S. actions in Iraq through violence against foreign civilians. In August 2014, ISIS released a video entitled “A Message to America,” which showed a masked ISIS militant—nicknamed “Jihadi John” by former captives—beheading kidnapped American journalist James Foley and threatening to kill another such journalist, Steven Sotloff, if then-U.S. President Barack Obama did not end U.S. military operations in Iraq. That September, ISIS released “A Second Message to America,” a video of Sotloff’s beheading. Jihadi John has since been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, part of a four-member cell of British ISIS guards known by prisoners as “The Beatles” because of their accents. Emwazi died in a November 2015 U.S. drone strike in Raqqa, Syria. (Sources: Agence France-Presse, U.S. Department of State, Washington Post, CNN, CNN)

After ISIS began capturing territory in 2014, the terror group forced Iraqi Christians to convert to Islam under threat of death.

On August 4, 2014, ISIS began its assault on the Yazidi population in Iraq’s northern Sinjar province. ISIS has reportedly killed about 5,000 Yazidi men and taken captive thousands of women and children. Captured Yazidi men and boys were forcibly converted to Islam and enslaved for labor, while women and girls were sold into sex slavery. Additionally, Yazidi religious shrines were marked for destruction. According to a June 2016 report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), ISIS has “sought to destroy the Yazidis through killings; sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm.” Approximately 400,000 Yazidis have been displaced as a result of ISIS. As of April 2017, ISIS continued to hold captive approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and children. (Sources: Fox News, Associated Press, United Nations, BBC News, U.N. OHCHR)

After ISIS began capturing territory in 2014, the terror group forced Iraqi Christians to convert to Islam under threat of death. ISIS also banned non-Islamic religious practices in the areas of Iraq under its control. As a result, Iraq’s Christian population has diminished from 1.4 million in 2003 to an estimated 150,000 to 275,000 in 2016. Iraqi Christians continue to come under attack in Iraqi-controlled parts of the country. On December 23, 2016, unidentified gunmen attacked Christian-owned shops selling alcohol in Baghdad, killing three people and wounding four others. Iraqi Christians have told media that they fear there is no future for them in Iraq. (Sources: Reuters, CNN, CBS News, CNN, Knights of Columbus p. 222 & 223, Christian Times, Jerusalem Post)

ISIS has relied on a combination of violence and incentives to recruit Iraqis. In January 2015, ISIS executed 15 people in the Nineveh Province who refused to join the terror group. Two suspected ISIS members captured in Mosul told Reuters in November 2016 that the group preys on sectarian divisions in Shiite-majority Iraq. Incarcerated Sunni ISIS fighters told Reuters that ISIS had offered them money, food, and promises to defend Sunnis against the physical beatings and other discrimination that they had suffered under the Iraqi government and army. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Reuters)

ISIS has also utilized Iraqi schools to indoctrinate Sunni youth. After ISIS began seizing territory in 2014, the terror group allowed schools to continue operating but instituted gender segregation, strict dress codes for girls, and the banishment of so-called un-Islamic subjects such as music, history, and geography. During the 2015 school year, ISIS began instituting its own curricula with an emphasis on sharia (Islamic law) and Salafism, and many parents stopped sending their children to school as a result. According to a November 2016 statement by the international NGO Save the Children, more than 1 million children living under ISIS in Iraq between 2014 and 2016 either withdrew from school completely or were forced into an ISIS curriculum. (Sources: Reuters, Save the Children, Al-Monitor)

In October 2016, the Iraqi government released a report claiming that ISIS had indoctrinated and militarily trained 4,000 children to carry out suicide and other terrorist acts since 2014. In August 2015, Iraqi police in Kirkuk arrested a 15-year-old boy wearing a suicide vest. The teenager told authorities that ISIS had brainwashed him. In November 2017, another teen accidently killed himself and five family members in their Mosul home after his suicide belt exploded prematurely. ISIS has kidnapped children as young as 8 to be indoctrinated. Europol has warned that these children will be the new generation of jihadists. (Sources: Fox News, International Business Times, Al-Monitor, CNN, CNN)

On July 10, 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory against ISIS in Mosul after an almost-nine-month battle. ISIS continued to lose territory in Iraq throughout 2017, and following the November 17 recapture of Rawa, the last ISIS-held town in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared military victory over ISIS in the country. On December 9, Abadi announced that Iraq was “fully liberated” from ISIS and that the Iraqi-Syrian border was fully secure. In the months prior to ISIS’s defeat in Mosul, however, the Iraqi military reportedly witnessed ISIS commanders fleeing to a mountainous area in northeastern Iraq. Iraqi counterterrorism officials expect ISIS to launch an insurgency on the scale of al-Qaeda’s insurgency after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In May 2018, Iraqi and U.S. forces arrested five senior ISIS leaders, including a deputy to Baghdadi. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, CBS News, Business Insider, CNN, Washington Post)

According to a January 2018 UNICEF report, the war with ISIS displaced 2.6 million people between 2014 and 2017. Included within that number were 1.3 million children, according to UNICEF. According to a June 2018 Voice of America report, ISIS fighters seeking refuge have continued to displace people in the provinces of Kirkuk and Diyala. (Sources: Voice of America, Reuters)

As of spring 2020, Iraqi intelligence estimated ISIS maintained 2,500 to 3,000 fighters in the country. The terror group began to reassert itself in Iraq as the country faced the economic fallout of crashing oil prices and the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. ISIS is suspected of responsibility for a suicide attack on an Iraqi intelligence building in Kirkuk on April 28, 2020, as well as a May 1 coordinated attack on the Popular Mobilization Forces that killed 10. Speaking on condition of anonymity, Iraqi security officials told the Associated Press that ISIS is receiving supplies, food, transport, and shelter from local sympathizers. The officials expressed concern that ISIS was more organized and better equipped than it had been in years. In April 2020, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced ISIS had killed 82 civilians and 88 security personnel in Iraq since the beginning of the year. At least 294 people were wounded in those attacks. That month, Kurdistan Region Peshmerga Minister Shorsh Ismael warned ISIS saw a “golden opportunity” to reassert itself while the Iraqi government was distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sources: Associated Press, Associated Press, Associated Press, Kurdistan 24, Kurdistan 24)

ISIS has taken advantage of the Iraqi government’s focus on the COVID-19 global pandemic. The terror group has called on its followers to strike while its enemies are distracted. ISIS has also used an economic crisis stemming from plunging oil prices as a recruitment tool. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Times)

ISIS has launched a self-proclaimed “battle of attrition” campaign in Iraq. Iraqi officials noted in the spring of 2020 that in addition to exploiting government’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, ISIS was building up its forces by moving fighters from Syria to Iraq. Iraqi intelligence estimated there were 2,500 to 3,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq as of May 2020. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, marked in 2020 between April 23 and May 23, ISIS claimed responsibility for at least 260 attacks in Iraq, killing or wounding 426 people. Attacks included gun attacks, raids, ambushes of security forces, roadside bombs, and the murder of informers. On May 23, 2020, ISIS fighters attacked a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Zammar district in Nineveh province, killing three officers. Observers suspect the attack was revenge for the arrest of ISIS commander Abdul Nasser Qardash earlier that week. Some reports initially claimed Qardash was in fact newly appointed ISIS leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, who used the pseudonym Abdullah Qardash. Iraqi security forces quickly retracted the claim and identified the captured militant as an ISIS leader who had once been considered as Baghdadi’s replacement. (Sources: Associated Press, Arab Weekly, Times, Daily Mail, Arab News)

In August 2020, Under-Secretary for the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Office Vladimir Voronkov estimated ISIS maintained more than 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. In September 2020, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein noted an increase in ISIS’s activities in Iraq and claimed the United Nations had underestimated its numbers. On August 28, an alleged ISIS sleeper cell crossed the border from Iraq into Syria and killed at least four members of the Syrian Democratic Forces. In October, Iraqi forces arrested more than a dozen ISIS officials in the country and killed a suspected ISIS financier. In February 2021, Mazloum Abdi, general commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, warned that ISIS is “trying to revive itself” and continues to threaten regional and global security. (Sources: Associated Press, France 24, Al-Monitor, Kurdistan 24, Voice of America)

Al-Nusra Front (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham)

Al-Nusra Front (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) is primarily active in Syria, but has its origins in Iraq. In the early 2000s, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani was reportedly incarcerated in the U.S. prison facility Camp Bucca in Iraq. After his release in 2008, Golani resumed his activities with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) alongside future ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had also been incarcerated in Bucca. Golani became head of al-Qaeda’s operations in Mosul. In 2011, Baghdadi sent Golani and other al-Qaeda fighters into Syria to take advantage of the power vacuum stemming from the civil war. The Golani-led Nusra Front announced itself in a January 2012 video. According to the U.S. government, AQI formed al-Nusra Front to “hijack the struggles of the legitimate Syrian opposition to further its own extremist ideology.” In April 2013, after Baghdadi unilaterally claimed that al-Nusra Front answered to his Islamic State in Iraq group (ISI, now ISIS), Golani broke ties with ISI and reaffirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda central. (Sources: Associated Press, Long War Journal, U.S. Department of the Treasury, BBC News, Al Arabiya)

Muslim Brotherhood

Created in 1960, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) is the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the largest Sunni political party in the country. Though the IIP does not consider itself a formal branch of the Brotherhood, its leaders have acknowledged political and ideological ties to the Egyptian Brotherhood. The IIP originated from the Islamic Brotherhood Society, a social organization affiliated with the Brotherhood that was established in 1944. Iraq’s Baathist government banned the IIP in 1968, but Iraqi President Saddam Hussein granted greater freedoms to the IIP and other Islamist parties through his 1993 Faith Campaign. Nonetheless, the IIP could not formally operate as a political party until after the 2003 fall of the Hussein regime, when the transitional government Coalition Provisional Authority and Interim Iraq Governing Council formally lifted the ban on the IIP. (Sources: Middle East Policy Council, Global Security)

The IIP reestablished itself as a political party in the summer of 2003 and promoted the establishment of an Islamist state in Iraq through nonviolence. The IIP was the only existing Sunni party in Iraq from before the Baathist regime, allowing it to quickly reorganize and begin constructing mosques, medical clinics, media stations, and IIP offices throughout northwest Baghdad. The IIP quickly became the largest Sunni political party in Iraq. (Sources: Global Security, Council on Foreign Relations, Middle East Policy Council)

The Iraqi population reportedly viewed the IIP as a sectarian party largely responsible for rising anti-Shiite violence in the early 2000s. By the 2009 local elections, the IIP began to lose voters to other emerging Sunni parties. After national losses in Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, the IIP attempted to use the Arab Spring movement to revive its party by holding demonstrations in Iraqi Sunni cities to highlight the Brotherhood’s victories across Arab League nations. (Sources: Middle East Policy Council, Al-Monitor, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

According to IIP spokesman Fareed Sabri, tensions between Iraqi Sunnis and the Shiite government are high. Sabri accused the Shiite-majority government and military of targeting and suppressing the Sunni minority throughout the country. Sabri attests that many Sunnis in Iraq are afraid of the government and that the IIP is politically marginalized by the Shiite leaders because they are Sunnis. Nonetheless, several IIP politicians hold leadership roles in the Iraqi government, such as parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri. He claims that the IIP is the only official Sunni party in the country. (Sources: Al-Arabiya English, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Public Radio International)

Iran-Linked Shiite Militias

Since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran has sought to extend its influence in Iraq through the financial and material support of Shiite militias. In March 2016, Ali Younusi, adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, announced that “Iran is an empire once again at last, and its capital is Baghdad.” The Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has provided material and financial support for Iraqi Shiite militias in the fight against ISIS as well as during the anti-U.S. insurgency. Under Iranian influence, Iraqi Shiite militias have targeted U.S. forces in Iraq and refused to participate in anti-ISIS operations alongside U.S. forces. The Iranian government has also reportedly lobbied the Iraqi government to order its Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to specific action. One member of the PMF, identified only as Abu Hashem, told the Guardian that “without the Iranians we wouldn’t be able to do anything. If the Iranian advisers weren’t there, the battalions wouldn’t attack. Their presence gave the men confidence in the early days.” (Sources: Guardian, Bloomberg News, Al Arabiya, Reuters)

The PMF is Iraq’s 110,000-plus anti-ISIS volunteer forces also known as Hashid al-Shaabi. The PMF includes Iran-linked Shiite militia groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, and Kata’ib Hezbollah. According to Reuters, these groups are “being deployed alongside Iraqi military units as the main combat force.” The Iraqi government created the PMF in June 2014 to unite various Shiite forces in the country in the fight against ISIS. According to now-deceased PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, also a commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iran provides the PMF with “fundamental and direct support.” The U.S. Treasury Department had designated Mohandes, a.k.a. Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, as an adviser to Soleimani. Both Mohandes and Soleimani were killed in a January 3, 2020, U.S. airstrike in Iraq. According to Abu Hashem, the PMF was originally modeled after Iran’s Basij militia, but the various factions insisted on fighting under their own flags and thus the PMF never fully integrated the factions into a singular military force. Mohandes united the factions under his forceful leadership, according to Abu Hashem. And when he died, fractures reemerged in the PMF between factions loyal to Iraq and those more loyal to the Iranian leadership. (Sources: Guardian, CNN, Reuters, Al-Monitor, Long War Journal, U.S. Department of the Treasury, CNN, Washington Post, Reuters, Washington Post)

In August 2018, Iranian sources told Reuters that their government had transferred ballistic missiles to its Shiite proxies in Iraq. Further, according to the sources, Iran has begun aiding its proxies to construct their own missiles. A Western source told Reuters that Iran had transferred tens of missiles as a warning to the United States and Israel. According to Iranian and Iraqi sources, the Iranian government made the decision to boost its missile transfers to the Iraqi militias almost two years earlier with the intention of launching retaliatory strikes in case of a U.S. attack on Iran. The Iranian government immediately rejected claims that it was transferring missiles. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters)

The Iraqi government’s collusion with Shiite militants dates back to after the fall of the Hussein government. In 2006, the U.N. human rights chief in Iraq reported that hundreds of Iraqis were being tortured and executed by death squads working for Iraq’s interior ministry. In February 2006, the Independent wrote that “many of the 110,000 policemen and police commandos under the ministry’s control are suspected of being former members of the Badr Brigade.” On November 26, 2016, the Iraqi parliament passed a bill incorporating the PMF into the Iraqi security forces. Sunni politicians condemned the law as an attempt to sideline Iraq’s Sunni community. A statement from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office called the militia members “heroic fighters” who “need our loyalty for the sacrifices they have made.” Iran’s Khamenei has called the PMF “a national treasure” and an “asset for the present and the future that should be supported.” (Sources: Independent, CNN, Reuters, Long War Journal, Al Arabiya)

Formed in 2006, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) is an Iranian-backed Shiite militia and political party operating primarily in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Lebanon. Until the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, AAH launched more than 6,000 attacks on American and Iraqi forces, as well as targeted kidnappings of Westerners. The group seeks to promote Iran’s political and religious influence in Iraq, maintain Shiite control over Iraq, and oust any remaining Western vestiges from the country. (Sources: Voice of America, Washington Post, Middle East Security Report, Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

AAH broke away from the Mahdi Army (a.k.a. Jaysh al-Mahdi or JAM), the militia run by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2006. Following the December 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, AAH announced its intention to lay down its weapons and enter Iraqi politics. The group opened a number of political offices and religious schools and offered social services to widows and orphans. The Shiite-led Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly welcomed AAH into politics. The group formed the political bloc al-Sadiqun (the Honest Ones) and ran under Maliki’s State of Law bloc in the April 2014 Iraqi national elections, winning one seat. Since entering politics, however, AAH has continued to carry out sectarian violence, execute homophobic attacks, and threaten the interests of Western countries participating in strikes in Syria. (Sources: Institute for the Study of War, Associated Press, ReutersMiddle East Security Report, Washington Post, Reuters, New York Times, Guardian, Jamestown Foundation, Daily Mail, McClatchy DC, Associated Press, Reuters)

The Badr Organization is a Shiite political party and paramilitary force that acts as “Iran’s oldest proxy in Iraq,” according to Reuters. Reuters notes that the group’s military wing is considered “perhaps the single most powerful Shi’ite paramilitary group” fighting in Iraq. Given the group’s deep ties to Iran and its political and military preeminence, analysts have compared the Badr Organization in Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Sources: Reuters, Foreign Policy, Reuters, Globe and Mail)

Formed in 1983 as the Badr Brigades, the group operated out of Iran and originally served as the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iraqi Shiite political party aimed at importing Iran’s Islamic Revolution. During the Iran-Iraq War, SCIRI’s Badr Brigades fought alongside the IRGC against the Iraqi military. After the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Badr Brigades rebranded itself as the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development, and publicly pledged to abstain from violence. Nonetheless, Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri has been accused of directly ordering attacks on up to 2,000 Sunnis between 2004 and 2006, during a Badr Organization-led sectarian war on Iraq’s Sunni population. Today, the Badr Organization and other Shiite militias are “being deployed alongside Iraqi military units as the main combat force” in Iraq, according to Reuters. (Sources: Middle East Forum, Foreign Policy, Globe and Mail, Washington Post, Wikileaks, Reuters)

Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) is an Iranian-sponsored, anti-American Shiite militia formed in Iraq between 2006 and 2007. KH earned a reputation for planting deadly roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars to attack U.S. and coalition forces. KH is the only Iraqi Shiite militia designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. It is also reportedly the “most secretive” and elite of Iraq’s predominantly Shiite militias. KH has long-standing ties to Iran’s external military branch, the IRGC-Quds Force, as well as to Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Reuters, U.S. Department of the Treasury, U.S. Government Publishing Office, Foreign Policy, Reuters)

KH has since sent fighters to defend the Assad regime in Syria, allegedly at the behest of Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani. As KH switched from fighting U.S. forces in Iraq to combating Sunni rebels and extremists in Iraq and Syria, KH has continued to prioritize its anti-American agenda, repeatedly boycotting battles against ISIS in which the United States participates. KH has also promised to target American forces if they do not fully withdraw after ISIS is defeated in Iraq. The United States held KH responsible after more than 30 missiles struck an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk on December 27, 2019, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding U.S. troops. The United States responded on December 29 by striking five KH facilities in Iraq and Syria, killing 24 members of the terror group. On December 31, members of KH joined thousands of protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in demanding a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. U.S. President Donald Trump held Iran responsible after a group of protesters breached the compound’s walls, though they were repelled before they could reach the embassy itself. (Sources: New York Times, Reuters, New York Times, Reuters, War on the Rocks, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal)

In January 2018, the Badr Organization, KH, and AAH joined with other PMF units to form the Fatah Alliance political party ahead of Iraq’s May 2018 elections. The alliance won 47 parliamentary seats in the election, and in June it allied with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance after Sadr’s party won the Iraq elections. On July 13, 2018, Iraqi protesters in the country’s south attacked the political offices of Badr and other Iran-backed groups as they called for Iran to withdraw from Iraq. (Sources: Middle East Institute, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Al-Monitor, BBC News, Jerusalem Post)

On January 3, 2020, a U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani and KH leader Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes. KH joined other Iran-backed Iraqi militias in vowing revenge against the United States. The United States held KH responsible for multiple rocket attacks on Baghdad on January 4 and January 5 that wounded at least six. In March 2020, suspected Iranian-backed militias launched rocket attacks on Camp Taji north of Baghdad, killing three—two Americans and one British soldier—and wounding 14 others. The United States launched retaliatory airstrikes on KH weapons facilities. In response to continued attacks by Iran-backed militias, the Pentagon in late March 2020 reportedly ordered U.S. military commanders in Iraq to draw up plans to target and destroy KH. (Sources: Washington Post, Al Jazeera, CNN, U.S. Department of Defense, Voice of America, Associated Press, BBC News)

Beginning in the spring of 2020, new Iran-backed militias appeared to emerge and claim responsibility for attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. Media analysts, however, reported that claims of responsibility by these groups appeared to be doctored or outright false. In May, Tha’r al-Muhandis Brigade (“Vengeance of al-Muhandis”) released a video of a rocket attack on American helicopters. But media producers determined the video to be a montage of older footage. Other new groups participating in this reportedly fake campaign include Osbat al-Tha’irin, Ghabdhat al-Huda, Kata’ib Thourat al-Ishrin II, and Ashab al-Kahf. Ashab al-Kahf (“Companions of the Cave”) first issued a threat against U.S. forces in April 2020. The group claimed responsibility for an attack on a military convoy in July 2020 in the Salaheddin province. Ashab al-Kahf also claimed responsibility for an August 11 bombing of a U.S. convoy along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, but Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and U.S. sources denied the incident took place. Following the July attack, Iranian media reported that U.S. forces had no choice but to withdraw from Iraq. Foreign policy and media analysts in Iraq and the United States asserted that the video clips these groups are producing appear to originate from the same source and are meant to present an image that Iran-backed groups are still seeking revenge for the attack that killed Soleimani and Mohandes. Ashab al-Kahf initially claimed responsibility for a barrage of rockets targeting the U.S. Embassy on November 17, 2020. However, KH and the Fatah Coalition issued a statement denying any responsibility or connection between the rocket attack and Shiite militias after it became public that the rockets had killed an Iraqi child. (Sources: Al-Monitor, Associated Press, Mehr News Agency, Voice of America)

Financial and political developments in Iraq in the spring of 2020 threatened Iranian influence in the country. Former Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi became Iraq’s transitional prime minister that May, despite opposition from Iran-backed militias. KH had threatened a violent response if parliament approved Kadhimi. Upon his ascension to the office, Kadhimi appointed an American-trained general to head the interior ministry, which had previously been staffed by leaders of Iranian militias. Kadhimi also pledged to fight against government corruption, which has helped Iran gain influence in the Iraqi government. Iran-backed militias have also used anti-corruption protests as cover for violent activities, such as KH’s December 2019 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Between 2014 and 2018, Kadhimi helped restore Iraq’s relations with Iranian regional nemesis Saudi Arabia. He also reportedly has a close relationship with the Saudi monarchy, further threatening Iran’s continued influence in Iraqi politics. In addition, the spread of COVID-19 in Iraq and collapsing oil prices put new financial pressure on the Iraqi government to seek aid from Arab neighbors, which seek to sway Iraq away from Iran’s sphere of influence. Furthermore, Iraqi officials told the U.S. Department of State that Iranian-sponsored militias faced their own budgetary constrictions as the Iraqi government reassessed its financial priorities. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, Arab Weekly)

On June 25, 2020, Iraqi forces arrested 14 KH members in an anti-terrorism raid ordered by Kadhimi. The KH members were allegedly planning an attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic compounds. The following day, KH members in more than a dozen armed vehicles protested outside Kadhimi’s residence, demanding the release of their compatriots. KH called the demonstration an attempt “to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.” On June 29, citing a lack of evidence of wrongdoing, a judge within the PMF ordered the detained to be released to PMF custody for an internal trial. Following their release, the 14 KH members set fire to posters of Kadhimi, as well as U.S. and Israeli flags. KH told Iraqi media that it will never give up its weapons. (Sources: Voice of America, Jerusalem Post)

Ahead of an August 20, 2020, meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Kadhimi told the Associated Press that Iraq no longer needed direct military support on the ground from the United States. At the same time, the United States announced an additional $204 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq. In announcing assistance, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo renewed the United States’ commitment to supporting Iraq’s security forces, defeating ISIS, and curbing the influence of Iran-backed militias. Following his meeting with Kadhimi, Trump announced the United States had few troops left in Iraq, but they would help Iraq in the face of Iranian aggression. Kadhimi also welcomed U.S. business investment in the country. The United States had more than 5,000 troops in the country at the time of the meeting. U.S. military officials said any troop drawdown would be coordinated with the Iraqi government. The United States completed its drawdown of troops in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 by January 15, 2021. On February 18, 2021, NATO announced it would increase its troop presence in Iraq from 500 to about 4,000. The increase comes at the request of the Iraqi government, according to NATO. (Sources: Associated Press, U.S. Department of State, Reuters, Associated Press,, Hill)

After the January 2020 deaths of Soleimani and Mohandis, the factions of the PMF fractured as they vied for influence and they have failed to unify into a cohesive force. Nonetheless, they are driven by a common narrative that the United States is unduly interfering in Iraq. The result has been an increase in attacks targeting U.S. interests. Between October 2019 and July 2020, at least 39 rocket attacks targeted American interests in Iraq. On September 9, 2020, the United States announced it would reduce its troop presence in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000. On September 20, Pompeo informed Iraqi leaders the United States would close its embassy in Baghdad if the Iraqi government did not prevent the militias from launching attacks. Pompeo also threatened to “kill every Kata’ib Hezbollah” member as diplomatic officials leave Baghdad. According to Kadhimi, European officials had also threatened to withdraw from Baghdad if rocket attacks continued. On September 29, Kadhimi told more than two dozen foreign diplomats his government would protect their facilities from attack. PMF leader Falih al-Fayadh and Badr leader Amiri, who also heads the PMU-affiliated Fatah political bloc, joined other Iraqi politicians in condemning militant attacks on foreign diplomatic targets. Nonetheless, attacks continued in the following days as several militias rejected the ultimatum. An AAH statement called the U.S. Embassy a “military base of an occupying force” instead of a diplomatic mission. On September 30, a series of rockets struck a base near Irbil Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan used by the U.S.-led coalition. Kurdish officials blamed Shiite militias, which denied responsibility. Some Iraqi military members have anonymously told media that the only solution may be an armed confrontation between the Iraqi military and the Iran-backed militias. (Sources: Guardian, New York Times, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, Al-Monitor)

On October 10, 2020, representatives from various militias, calling themselves the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission, published a joint statement agreeing to suspend attacks in exchange for the Iraqi government presenting a plan for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The following day, KH and other militias announced their agreement to suspend attacks on U.S. interests on the condition the Iraqi government works toward a full U.S. withdrawal from the country. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly ordered the factions to stand down. A KH spokesman also promised renewed violence if the United States chose to remain in Iraq. The joint statement did not set a deadline for an Iraqi plan of action, but the KH spokesman called for a parliamentary resolution by January 2021. On November 17, the United States announced it would reduce its forces in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 by January 15. Although the U.S. is still projected to reduce troop numbers in January 2021, on December 10, 2020, it was reported that Iranian-aligned proxies in Iraq have conducted more than 50 rocket attacks on bases where U.S. troops are housed. The targets included the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and convoys carrying supplies to American troops. On December 20, the U.S. Embassy was targeted again, resulting in one civilian casualty. The Iraqi military claimed an “outlaw group” fired eight rockets, but Iran-backed militia groups, including KH, denounced the attack. Between January 1 and January 3, 2021, members of AAH and KH threatened Kadhimi, leading the Iraqi judiciary to issue arrest warrants for senior KH leader Abu Ali al-Askari and two other KH members. The AAH members claimed they were awaiting permission from the group’s leadership before carrying out violence against Kadhimi. (Sources: Reuters, Middle East Eye, CNBC, Al Jazeera, New York Times, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Arab Weekly)

Hours before a March 15, 2021, rocket attack on an Iraqi airbase hosting U.S. forces, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations denied his country’s support for any armed attack on U.S. interests in Iraq. In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the rotating president of the U.N. Security Council, Iranian U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi said Iran “has not been directly or indirectly involved in any armed attack against any US individual or body in Iraq.” (Source: Jerusalem Post)

In mid May 2021, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission, which coordinated the October 2020 truce announcement, began threatening to resume attacks because of disappointment with the pace of the U.S. withdrawal. On May 24, the commission ended their truce and announced the resumption of attacks. That month, Iraqi security recorded at least four attacks on the Anbar province’s Ain al-Asad airbase, which hosts U.S. and international forces. On May 26, Iraqi forces arrested Qasim Muslih, the PMF commander in Anbar province. (Sources: National, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters)

As of May 2021, Iran was reportedly organizing new, smaller factions answering directly to the Quds Force. Through 2020, Iran recruited and trained hundreds of fighters from its various militias in Iraq to participate in the new groups. Iraqi security officials suspected the smaller groups would be less prone to infiltration and easier for Iran to control as they take orders directly from the Quds Force without any Iraqi intermediaries. The leaders and exact makeup of these new factions remained unknown to Iraqi security as of that month. Security officials credited more sophisticated recent attacks to the new forces. (Source: Reuters)

Foreign Fighters

ISIS-occupied Iraq has been a destination for foreign fighters since 2014. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq slowed as ISIS continued to lose control of territory in the country. By September 2016, the flow of foreign fighters crossing the Syria-Turkey border had decreased from 2,000 per month to 50. Given ISIS’s loss of territory, U.S. officials reported in June 2016 that ISIS had shifted its messaging to encourage would-be foreign fighters to instead remain and carry out attacks in their home countries. (Sources: Washington Post, Soufan Group, Washington Times)

Thousands of Iraqi Shiite militia fighters, including factions from the Popular Mobilization Forces, reportedly crossed the Syrian border in 2016 and 2017 to fight ISIS and aid Syrian government forces in the Syrian Civil War. One Iraqi Shiite militia, Harakat Nujaba, claimed that it sent 2,000 fighters to join the battle for Aleppo in August 2016. In April 2017, Iraqi Shiite militia fighters reportedly crossed the Syrian border to fight ISIS in the al-Hiri area of eastern Syria, but were pushed back into Iraq. In the same battle, the Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah reportedly fired rockets into Syria from across the Iraqi border. (Sources: Rudaw, Al-Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Reuters)

The Institute for Economics & Peace’s 2020 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) ranked Iraq the second-most impacted country by terrorism behind Afghanistan in 2019. Iraq had previously been the most-affected country between 2004 and 2017 until Afghanistan became the most afflicted in 2018. The GTI recorded 495 terrorist incidents in Iraq in 2019, resulting in 564 deaths and 1,029 wounded. The death toll represented a decline of 46 percent from the previous year’s 1,054 and the third-largest recorded decline that year among countries in the report. It was the first time since 2003 that the death count fell below 1,000. (Source: Institute for Economics & Peace)


ISIS began capturing Iraqi territory in January 2014 when it seized control of Fallujah, Iraq. In June 2014, ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, followed by the city of Tikrit. From June to September of that year, ISIS carried out “ethnic cleansing on a historic scale in northern Iraq… systematically target[ing] non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim communities, killing or abducting hundreds, possibly thousands, and forcing more than 830,000 others to flee the areas it has captured,” according to Amnesty International. ISIS has continued to launch suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against Iraqi government and civilian targets, particularly against Shiite mosques and religious symbols. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, New York Times, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Amnesty International, BBC News, CNN, Washington Post)

Though U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have liberated all of the territory that ISIS captured in Iraq, the terror group has continued to pose a security threat in liberated territories. For example, ISIS claimed the December 11, 2016, double car bombings in Fallujah six months after Iraqi forces liberated the city. ISIS also continues to send suicide bombers into Baghdad and other government-held areas of the country. In October 2016, Iraqi forces began a campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS. The terror group responded with bombings, ambushes, and other violence during the months-long campaign. (Sources: CNN, Associated Press, Associated Press, Global Coalition Against Daesh, Washington Post, CNN, Reuters, Reuters)

After announcing the liberation of Mosul on July 10, 2017, government officials expected ISIS to continue insurgent-style attacks throughout Iraq. Even as ISIS has lost territory, the group has continued to target Iraqi forces and civilians. ISIS claimed an April 4, 2017, attack in Tikrit that killed at least 31 people. The attack was one in a string of bombings throughout 2017 that killed at least 150 people. In each case, ISIS has either claimed responsibility or Iraqi authorities suspect the terror group of orchestrating the attacks. (Sources: Reuters, Associated Press, BBC News, BBC News, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters)

Shiite Militias

Iran has sought to extend its influence in Iraq through the financial and material support of Shiite militias and has provided ballistic missiles and other weapons to multiple militias it supports in Iraq. Iran claims its support of Iraqi militias is a bulwark against a possible U.S. strike on Iran.  Militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, and Kata’ib Hezbollah have launched rocket attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, including the U.S. Embassy and joint U.S.-Iraqi military bases. In an attempt to bring the militias under control, the Iraqi government formed the Hashid al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF), a 110,000-plus volunteer force that includes Iran-linked Shiite militia groups under a central command. Iraqi officials have praised the PMF militants while the Iranian leadership has called them “a national treasure.” Nonetheless, the militias continued to carry out attacks while fighting ISIS. The United States accuses Iran of responsibility for the militias. (Sources: Guardian, Bloomberg News, Al Arabiya, Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, CNN, Al Arabiya, CNN, Washington Post)

In light of militia rocket attacks on U.S. interests, the United States has called on the Iraqi government to rein in the militias. In October 2020, the militias declared a ceasefire on the condition that the United States withdraw all its forces from the country. The United States decreased its forces in January 2021 but maintains a military presence. Some Iraqi military members have anonymously told media that the only solution may be an armed confrontation between the Iraqi military and the Iran-backed militias. (Sources: Reuters, Voice of America, Al-Monitor,


Anti-ISIS Counterterrorism

In January 2014, ISIS captured the city of Fallujah in Anbar Province. By June 2014, the militants had seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Following its capture of the Nineveh Province, ISIS continued south to capture swaths of territory throughout the Tigris Valley and Sinjar Province. Subsequently, the Iraqi government shifted the focus of its domestic counterterrorism operations to defeating ISIS. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

On September 10, 2014, the United States formed the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, which is comprised of 73 countries, to counter the terrorist group’s territorial gains. According to the U.S. State Department, coalition partners are “providing military support, impending the flow of foreign fighters, preventing ISIS financing and funding, addressing humanitarian crises in the region, and exposing ISIS’s true nature.” Through Operation Inherent Resolve––the official name of the coalition’s operation, the coalition has primarily focused on training, equipping, advising, and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), as well as Kurdish military forces. Eighteen coalition partners, including the United States, have deployed military personnel to Iraq to participate in operational missions. Twelve coalition members have conducted thousands of airstrikes in Iraq. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the United States has taken the lead role among coalition partners in the air campaign against ISIS. As of June 21, 2017, the United States had conducted 8,882 of the coalition’s total 12,996 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. On April 30, 2018, the coalition announced the “deactivation” of its land forces headquarters, signaling the end of major combat operations against ISIS in Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition declared that it would continue to provide training and development to the Iraqi military. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, Global Coalition Against Daesh, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense, Reuters)

At its height in 2014, ISIS controlled approximately 40 percent of Iraq. The State Department reported that while Iraq continued to experience a surge of terrorist activity in 2015, ISIS achieved no strategic victories after its capture of Ramadi in May 2015. By the conclusion of 2015, ISIS had lost more than 40 percent of its territory to the Iraqi military and Global Coalition efforts. (Sources: Reuters, U.S. Department of State, Al Jazeera)

At its height in 2014, ISIS controlled approximately 40 percent of Iraq.

In mid-October 2016, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces began a campaign to liberate Mosul. According to Iraqi military sources, ISIS fighters knew that Mosul was “their last land, so they [tried] their best to kill as many as possible.” In an audio recording released in early November 2016, Baghdadi urged his followers to fight to the death in Iraq. (Sources: Reuters, BBC News, Washington Post, CNN, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Reuters, CBS News, Guardian)

As of March 2017, Iraqi forces had liberated the eastern half of Mosul and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that the battle had reached its “final stages.” The same month, Baghdadi and ISIS’s leadership reportedly abandoned Mosul, leaving lower-level commanders to confront Iraqi forces. In April 2017, the Iraqi military estimated that ISIS held only 6.8 percent of Iraqi territory. That May, Iraqi authorities reported that they had killed ISIS’s military commander in western Mosul and recaptured key districts of the city. On July 10, 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory against ISIS in Mosul after an almost-nine-month battle. Iraqi officials tempered their celebrations, however, acknowledging that they still needed to clear away explosives and ISIS fighters hiding in parts of the city. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, Newsweek, Reuters, Wall Street Journal)

ISIS continued to lose territory in Iraq after its defeat in Mosul, and following the November 17 recapture of Rawa, the last ISIS-held town in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared military victory over ISIS in the country. On December 9, Abadi announced that Iraq was fully liberated from ISIS and that the Iraqi-Syrian border was fully secure. However, Iraqi security officials have acknowledged that the group will likely shift its goal from capturing and ruling territory to carrying out insurgent-style attacks in the country. ISIS leaders have reportedly drawn up plans to revert back to guerrilla warfare after their territorial defeat. (Sources: CBS News, Business Insider, Reuters, Al-Monitor, Washington Post, Reuters, New York Times, CNN)

Iraq has continued to launch military operations against the remnants of ISIS in the country. Iraqi military forces are also cooperating with NATO forces to combat ISIS. In the first half of 2020, Iraq intensified efforts against ISIS and its leadership. For example, in coordination with the Iraqi government the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS targeted three ISIS camps in Kirkuk in June 2020. The following month, the Iraqi military launched a series of operations around the town of Tarmiyah north of Baghdad. The operation uncovered an underground ISIS training camp that the military alleged was used to train fighters against Iraqi military forces. Iraqi forces discovered at least five ISIS hideouts and several fugitives during the operation. (Sources: Al-Monitor, Voice of America, Asharq Al-Awsat, Asharq Al-Awsat)

After an ISIS double suicide bombing killed 32 people and wounded 110 others in Baghdad January 21, 2021, the Iraqi government launched Operation Revenge of the Martyrs. On January 28, security forces killed the top ISIS commander in Iraq, Abu Yasser al-Issawi, a.k.a. Jabbar Salman Ali Farhan al-Issawi, in Kirkuk. On February 2, an airstrike in southern Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition killed two ISIS commanders—Abu Hassan al-Gharibawi and Ghanem Sabah Jawad—allegedly involved in the planning of the January 21 suicide attacks. Gharibawi was ISIS’s leader in southern Iraq. On February 20, security forces reportedly killed the local commander of ISIS operations in the Tarmiya area. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Al-Monitor)

The 2003 U.S. Intervention in Iraq

On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq under the suspicion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S.-led intervention, called Operation Iraqi Freedom, quickly toppled the regime. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003. The United States remained in Iraq to counter an Islamist insurgency, which gave rise to groups such as ISIS’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In U.S.-supervised elections in 2005, Iraqis voted along ethnic and sectarian lines and elected a Shiite coalition headed by influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This consequently fueled the Sunni insurgency and resulted in additional attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces. (Sources: New York Times, CNN, New York Times, American Enterprise Institute)

U.S. and Iraqi forces battled AQI and other insurgents out of their strongholds around Baghdad. On June 8, 2006, U.S. airstrikes killed AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi near the city of Baqubah, just northeast of Baghdad. By January 2007, Bush committed an additional 20,000 troops in an attempt to bring stability to Iraq. (Sources: New York Times, New York Times)

In the fall of 2006, U.S. forces began recruiting Sunni tribes and former insurgents to take up arms against AQI in a movement called the Awakening in hopes of improving security networks throughout the Anbar Province and nearby regions. In September 2008, the U.S. military handed over security responsibilities of the province to the Iraqi forces, taking its first step toward U.S. withdrawal from the country. (Sources: New York Times, Understanding War, Long War Journal)

After taking office in January 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his plans to remove U.S. combat forces from Iraq by August 2010 and to have U.S. forces in non-combat roles train, equip, and advise Iraqi forces until the end of 2011. On June 30, 2009, U.S. troops begin withdrawing from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in accordance with an agreement made between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. By December 18, 2011, the final U.S. troops departed Iraq, ending a nearly nine-year campaign that left almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqis dead. (Sources: New York Times, New York Times, New York Times, American Enterprise Institute)

ISIS and the Return of Foreign Militaries

In June 2014, President Barack Obama authorized U.S. troops to return to Iraq under Operation Inherent Resolve to combat ISIS. That September, the United States formed the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, which includes more than 80 countries. The coalition supports the Iraqi military in its counterterrorism efforts. (Sources: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh)

In January 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the expulsion of foreign troops from Iraq. By that month, the European Union had approximately 3,000 troops from 10 nations in Iraq. Several European nations have declared their intention to scale down their troop presence. That month, the In August 2020, the United States had more than 5,000 troops in Iraq. Ahead of an August 20, 2020, meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told the Associated Press that Iraq no longer needed direct military support on the ground from the United States. Following the meeting with Kadhimi, Trump announced the United States had few troops left in Iraq, but they would help Iraq in the face of Iranian aggression. (Sources: Al Jazeera, EU Observer, Associated Press, U.S. Department of State, Reuters, Associated Press)

Iran-backed militias in Iraq have called for the full withdrawal of all foreign forces, particularly those of the United States. On October 10, 2020, representatives from various militias agreed to suspend attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq in exchange for the Iraqi government presenting a plan for a U.S. withdrawal from the country. The United States drew down its forces from 5,000 to 3,000 in the fall of 2020 and completed a second drawdown of troops to 2,500 by January 15, 2021. NATO has had a military presence in Iraq since 2004. The organization launched a train-and-advise mission in Iraq in October 2018. On February 18, 2021, NATO announced it would gradually increase its troop presence in Iraq from 500 to about 4,000 and expand its role with Iraqi security institutions outside Baghdad. The increase comes at the request of the Iraqi government, according to NATO. In April 2021, the United States and Iraq reached an agreement on the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. According to the agreement, the U.S. role in Iraq has transitioned to training Iraqi forces and thus it was no longer necessary to maintain combat forces in the country. Both countries would negotiate a timeframe for completing the withdrawal. (Sources: Middle East Eye, Reuters, New York Times,, Reuters, Hill, NBC News)

Combating Terrorist Financing

In 2015, the Central Bank of Iraq issued a national decree to prevent transfers with banks and companies located within ISIS-held territory and halted the payment of salaries to government employees located within ISIS-controlled areas to prevent ISIS taxing those incomes. In July 2015, the Iraq government halted all payments to pensioners, civil servants, doctors, teachers, nurses, police, and workers at state-owned companies in ISIS-held regions. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Reuters

With the overwhelming rise of terrorist groups competing for power throughout Iraq, the Iraqi government has been too engaged in its own fight against terrorism to launch any significant or sustained counter-extremism efforts abroad. However, on February 24, 2017, Iraqi warplanes struck ISIS targets in neighboring Syria for the first time. An Iraqi government statement said that the strikes were in response to recent suicide bombings in Iraq. The strikes were coordinated with the Syrian government, according to the statement. The following month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that Iraqi forces would continue to strike ISIS positions in neighboring countries, but only with the permission of those governments. (Sources: Associated Press, CNN)

Combating Terrorist Financing

Since 2005, Iraq has been a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF), a regional organization that aims to combat terrorist financing and money laundering. From November 2013 to November 2014, Iraq held the MENAFATF presidency. According to the U.S. State Department, the task force reviews Iraq three times a year to address any identified deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing plans. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

ISIS has generated significant income from a range of sources, including oil smuggling, kidnapping, for ransom, looting, extortion, taxation, antiquities theft and smuggling, and foreign donations. The U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIS has taken military action against ISIS’s ability to generate revenue by targeting the militants’ energy infrastructure, including modular refineries, petroleum tanks, and crude oil collection points. Additionally, the United States has levied financial sanctions on banks, companies, and individuals across the world that have been linked to ISIS. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Security, Democracy, and General Direction

A December 2020 poll by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research found that 66 percent of Iraqis believed the country was heading in the wrong direction while 69 percent believed Iraqi youth do not have a good future. A plurality of 45 percent agreed that democracy was the best form of government for Iraq but 77 percent classified Iraq’s democracy as either very bad or somewhat bad.  (Source: International Republican Institute)


In July 2015, the BBC commissioned conflict environment research company ORB International to conduct a public opinion poll in Iraq and Syria. The pollsters surveyed more than 1,200 Iraqis across 10 of the country’s 18 governorates. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed thought that ISIS was a “strongly negative” influence in the country. Over half (56 percent), however, opposed coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS militants. (Sources: BBC News, ORB International)

With the fall of ISIS’s caliphate, Iraqis largely do not support the reintegration of ISIS fighters or their families. A 2019 poll by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute found that 79 percent of Iraqis would not accept suspected ISIS widows or the orphan children of ISIS fighters moving into their neighborhoods. Only 13 percent supported reintegration while a plurality supported placing family members into deradicalization centers. (Source: National Democratic Institute)

Iraqi Militias

A 2019 poll by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute found that about two out of three Iraqis favorably viewed the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), despite militias’ continued attacks on foreign forces. The poll also found that 73 percent of Iraqis trusted the PMF, while fewer than one in five listed the PMF as one of the two biggest security threats to Iraq. (Source: National Democratic Institute)

Iraqi Migrants

In November and December of 2015, the International Organization for Migration conducted a study called “Migration Flows from Iraq to Europe.” The study surveyed nearly 500 Iraqi migrants who departed Iraq in 2015 and were granted asylum in various European countries. Of the 473 surveyed, 80 percent cited “no hope in the future” as their primary reason for fleeing Iraq. When asked about their intentions to return, 67 percent said that they did not intend to return to Iraq, 21 percent were waiting to decide, and just 12 percent planned to return home. (Source: International Organization for Migration)

Opinion of United States

In its Arab Youth Survey 2016, the polling and market research firm Penn Schoen Berland surveyed 3,250 individuals, aged 18 to 24 years old, throughout 15 Arab countries, including Iraq. Of the 250 Iraqis surveyed across the cities Baghdad, Irbil, and Basra, 93 percent perceived the United States as an enemy, whereas only 6 percent perceived it as an ally. (Sources: Arab Youth Survey 2016, Intercept)

The Iraqi population has consistently supported the withdrawal of U.S. forces. A 2009 poll by University of Maryland found that 71 percent of Iraqis wanted the United States to withdraw within a year. The United States completed its withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 to fight ISIS. Following the death of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in January 2020, thousands of Iraqis protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad calling for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Iraqis generally viewed the targeted killing as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The Iraqi parliament called for a withdrawal of U.S. forces after the killing. The special parliamentary session comprised mostly Shiite lawmakers as Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians largely boycotted the session. (Sources: Voice of America, Washington Post, New York Times, Reuters)

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