Status and Relations of Iraqi Ethnic-Religious Groups

Published October 18th, 2021 - 07:03 GMT
The complexity and diversity of Iraq's demographic composition and structure have created dense and overlapping gaps in ethnic and religious dimensions.
The complexity and diversity of Iraq's demographic composition and structure have created dense and overlapping gaps in ethnic and religious dimensions.

By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Iraq has been home to various ethnic and religious groups since the ancient times. The situation in Iraq and the circumstances of the past few decades have also changed the population of Iraqi ethnic religious groups.

The complexity and diversity of Iraq's demographic composition and structure have created dense and overlapping gaps in ethnic and religious dimensions. Iraq is now made up of three ethnic-religious blocs. Cultural-ethnic characteristics of Iraq are composed of three different geographical areas. Its central area is occupied by Sunni Arabs, the south by Shiites and the Kurds are in north.

In terms of ethnic-racial diversity, there are Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen in Iraq. There are also religious groups of Shiite and Sunni, Assyrian, Christian and Yazidi, etc. in Iraq.  Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages ​​in Iraq, and in addition to these two languages, Azerbaijani Turkish is spoken by the Turkomans of Iraq and Aramaic is spoken by the Assyrians.

According to reliable estimates, 99 per cent of Iraqis are Muslim, of which 60-65 per cent are Shi’a and 32-37 per cent are Sunni. The remaining population is composed of various religious minorities. Before the rise of ISIS, there were an estimated 350,000 Christians in Iraq, 500,000 Yezidis, 200,000 Kaka’i, less than 5,000 Sabean-Mandaeans and a small number of Bahá’í. In terms of ethnicity, Arabs make up between 75 – 80 per cent of the population and Kurds a further 15-20 per cent. Ethnic minorities include Turkmen, Shabak, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, black Iraqis and Roma.

During Saddam's tenure, most non-Sunni groups did not participate much in the country's political structure. But after that, the ground was prepared for the participation of all ethnic and religious groups in the political arena. In this regard, in addition to the presence of Shiite and Kurdish groups in the power structure of the Turkmen, Christian and Assyrian minorities, etc., they were able to play a role in the power structure.


Large ethnic-religious groups

The Iraqi Shiites are the largest political and religious group in the country. However, they are not united, and some Iraqi Shiites are secular and some follow different religious leaders. Shiites are also divided according to their region, class, tribal affiliation and ethnicity. Most Shiites are Arabs, but some Kurds, Turkmen, and others are Shiites. Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Al-Sistani is a high-ranking Iraqi Shiite leader and cleric.  Political groups and parties such as the Sadr Movement, State of Law Coalition,  Fatah Coalition are among the largest Shiite political groups. They have played a major role in establishing governments in Iraq over the past two decades.

Kurds live in mountainous regions in northern Iraq with separate languages, cultures and ethnic tendencies. The Kurds have their own local government in the Kurdistan Region. They live in four provinces under the rule of Kurdistan: Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk and Halabja, as well as parts of Kirkuk, northern Mosul, Diyala and parts of Saleh Al-Din. The Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union, the New Generation, and the Islamic Union are among the most important Kurdish political groups in Iraq.

From the beginning of the work of the Iraqi government in 1920 until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the ruling elite consisted mainly of the Sunni Arab minority. Most Sunni Arabs follow the Hanafi method. The Sunni Arabs in different parts of Iraq have some discrepancy with each other. Some urban dwellers are secular and highly nationalistic, while others in other areas are religious and have tribal and even extremist motives. Following the defeat of ISIS, Sunni elites have split and some have been allied with Shiite groups. ISIS is also a long way from its peak of power in 2014 and has little to offer to Sunni Arabs. Seventy Sunni Arabs won parliamentary seats in the 2018 elections. The Sunni Arabs have also achieved success in the parliamentary elections.

Small ethnic-religious minorities

The Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq after the Arabs and Kurds. Turkmens include a wide range of Shiites, leftists and Sunnis. Christianity is the second largest religion in Iraq after Islam, which includes: Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, and Armenian Christians. Most of the Christians are concentrated in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, Kirkuk and the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Most Assyrians speak Aramaic. The Iraqi Christian population has shrunk to less than 300,000 from more than 1.2 million

Yazidis live in both Ninawa and Dohuk provinces. Yazidis have been influenced by Zoroastrian elements, Christianity and Islam with their unique religious composition. Sabean-Mandaeans are also in Baghdad and the southern provinces. Shabak Kurds  are another small minority. Most of the Shabaks are Sunnis and some of the Shabak Shiites live in Ninawa. There are also some Baha'is and Jews

Ethnic-religious groups’ relations

Iraq should be considered one of the countries with religious and ethnic pluralism. After 2003, and due to the emergence of insecurity, kidnappings, attacks on churches, and numerous threats from fundamentalists, many minorities began to emigrate. The sudden rise and power of ISIS in Iraq also led to internal migration, the departure and migration of small Iraqi ethnic religious minorities. As if, Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Turkmen were sometimes considered as apostates, the fifth pillar of the West, etc.

At the same time, the danger of a possible revival of ISIS and other extremist groups, the approaches of Iraqi minority groups and parties to encourage migration, the relationship between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the dispute over Nineveh as a province, etc. have led to the desire of minorities to migrate.  

In addition, Yazidi, Turkmen, Christian, and Shabak politicians are trying to establish new provinces like Sinjar, Tal Afar, and Tuz with their population is made up of minorities. Relations between communities in Iraq are also tense. In northern Iraq, Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs are embroiled in controversy over geographical sovereignty. The mass displacement of Christians (nearly 60%) and the genocide of Yazidis, etc. by ISIS are among the realities.

In fact, sectarianism, the ISIS attack and the recent changes in Iraqi society, have forced 25-30% of people to leave their homes. The percentage of minority refugees is higher, and approximately 1.2 million people are internally displaced, mostly in the provinces of Ninawa, Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. In the meantime, while Turkmen and Shabak Shiites want to stay in Iraq, Christians and Yazidis are increasingly willing to emigrate. Iraq has a large immigrant community and almost 2 million people have been displaced in the country. 


The Iraqi constitution protects the ‘Islamic identity’ of the Iraqi people and recognizes the participation of ethnic and religious groups in the political and social life of the country. Different groups are recognized and, apart from the three main groups of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, 9 seats have been dedicated to the country's minorities. After the suppression of ISIS, the Iraqi government has significantly focused on stability, reconstruction and immediate recovery. However, the need for cultural transformation is much deeper.

Security is still improving in many parts of the country, but some scattered violence continues. Under these circumstances, the government can also support the right of participation of all ethnic and religious groups in Iraq by pursuing reconstruction, economic development, support for pluralism, stability and national security, and so on.

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