What is Iraq?

The Republic of Iraq, generally known as 'Iraq', is a country in the Middle East bordering the Persian Gulf, between Iran and Kuwait. Straddling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq occupies what was once ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilisation known as the 'fertile crescent'. In the Middle Ages, Iraq was the centre of the Islamic Caliphate, with Baghdad being the cultural and political capital of an empire extending from Morocco to the west and as far as Pakistan to the east.

More recently, after the invasion by an American-led coalition of forces in 2003, Iraq is officially a developing parliamentary democracy following multi-party elections which took place in 2005, the first in 50 years. However, Iraq has since been on the verge of becoming a failed state with the outbreak of brutal sectarian violence between religious sects and militias. According to the 2007 index of failed states, it was the world's second most unstable country, after Sudan, as insurgents continued to target civilians, security forces, and international agencies.

Ethno-religiously, nearly 60 per cent of Iraqis are Shia Muslims living towards the south of Baghdad, while roughly 30 per cent are Sunni Muslims living in the central-western part of the country, and a small ethnic minority (ten to 15 per cent) of Kurds live in the northern mountain regions near Turkey.


US and British interests were fixed on Iraq after discoveries of petroleum. Historically, the UK controlled the majority of the oil resources under the Iraq Petroleum Company. Iraq became independent from Britain in 1931 under King Faysal and Nuri-as-Said who maintained a pro-British regime. Its oil sector was not nationalised until 1972. A pro-Axis coup was reversed by British intervention in 1941.

After the second world war, during which Iraq was occupied by the British forces, the US attempted to make Iraq the anchor of a Nato-like pro-Western alliance known as the 'Baghdad pact' to counter Soviet influence. In 1958, however, the pro-Western government was overthrown by Abd al-Karim Qasim, only to be overthrown again ten years later by a Ba'athist coup encouraged by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Following the coup, Saddam became president of the Ba'ath party and consolidated power into a dictatorial regime. Saddam invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, the latter resulting in UN sanctions and military action by a US-led multinational force set to liberate Kuwait.

In late 2002, US president George Bush, along with UK prime minister Tony Blair and Spanish prime minister José Aznar, claimed that Saddam Hussein was in violation of UN sanctions by actively developing 'weapons of mass destruction' and so represented a threat to regional and global stability. This was the main rationale used to justify the invasion which began on March 19th 2003 and succeeded in toppling the regime less than two weeks later. France, Canada, Germany and Russia vehemently opposed the invasion, encouraging diplomacy instead.

Although it could not be ratified by the security council (due to opposition from the aforementioned countries), the coalition determined a pre-emptive strike necessary. The invasion initially involved a 'shock and awe' bombing campaign, targeting the Iraqi leader, followed by a wave of ground forces from the south. All remnants of the Ba'ath party were subsequently removed from power completely and replaced by the coalition provisional authority until sovereignty was officially handed over to the Iraqi interim government in late 2004.

The post-invasion atmosphere has led to asymmetric warfare between insurgent groups and coalition-backed Iraqi forces. This has, as a consequence, led to the outbreak of civil war among rival Sunni and Shia factions as well as fighting within these numerous and loosely aligned groups. As 2006 came to a close Mr Bush sacked his defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and instigated a review of strategy in the country. The ensuing 'troop surge' saw 26,000 additional troops sent to the country and, by the end of 2007, appeared to be making significant improvements towards reducing security issues. However the Iraqi government's clashes with Shia militia groups threatened to undermine the gains in early 2008.

In July 2009, UK combat operations in Iraq were declared complete and UK combat troops withdrew from the country under an agreement between the Iraqi and UK governments. However, the two countries also agreed to have a long-term defence relationship.

The UK government signed a bilateral defence Training and Maritime Support Agreement with the Iraqi government under which British forces continued to train the Iraqi Navy and Royal Navy ships continued to protect Iraq's offshore oil platforms. This agreement came into force in November 2009 to last for one year. British Forces are also involved in NATO's Training Mission in Iraq (NTM-I) which operates under a separate Long Term Agreement between the Government of Iraq and NATO.

The last US combat troops left Iraq in August 2010 under an agreement between the US and Iraqi governments. Around 50,000 troops remained in the country to provide support and training until the end of 2011.

The UK-Iraq Training and Maritime Support Agreement came to an end on 22 May 2011, marking the conclusion of Operation TELIC – the name for UK operations in Iraq that began with the invasion and subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein.

However, the UK will continue to support the NATO Training Mission in Iraq as the second-largest contributor, leading on officer training and education. According to the MOD, this training together with the defence presence in the British Embassy in Baghdad, will form part of the UK's strong, long-term defence relationship with Iraq, helping to create a stable Iraq that can meet the security needs of its people and the region.


The invasion itself was, of course, extremely controversial. Firstly, many accused the US, UK and others of dubious motives for their intervention in Iraq, namely, the desire to control Iraq's largely untapped oil reserves. This was an especially popular critique given the failure of weapons inspectors to find evidence of WMD production or exportation. Following the invasion, there were massive protests around the world, with some of the largest taking place in the UK.

Furthermore, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which pictures showing soldiers subjecting detainees to sexual humiliation and harassment were leaked to international media, sparked widespread concern over human rights abuses by Coalition forces against Iraqis. This reflected a wider debate about torture, what constitutes it, and the treatment of detainees as 'enemy combatants'.

With widespread criticism about the handling of the war in Iraq, administrations in both the US and the UK faced mounting pressure to withdraw their troops from Iraq. Following Tony Blair's departure as prime minister, Gordon Brown promised in September 2007 the number of UK troops in Iraq would be cut from 5,500 to 2,500 by the following Spring. The Bush administration, on the other hand, refused to set out a timetable for the extraction of American troops despite repeated pressure from the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Aside from concerns about casualties in general, there was also disagreement about the number of civilian casualties resulting from the invasion. The Lancet put the figure over 650,000 while the Iraq Body Count put it at 81,000. The Economist said the civilian death toll "almost certainly exceeds 100,000". The data varies widely due to the fact that complete records of civilian casualties are not kept by coalition forces.

Before the fifth anniversary of the initial invasion Mr Brown confirmed an inquiry would take place into the use of intelligence before the war, conduct during the conflict and the prolonged reconstruction period after Saddam was ousted. That followed the information tribunal allowing the publication of a draft intelligence dossier and the publication of Cabinet meeting minutes from March 2003.

The Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot was launched officially in July 2009 and covered the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, looking into the run-up to the invasion, the military action and the aftermath. The public hearings began in November 2009 and concluded in July 2010; both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were called as witnesses.  After a break for the general election, the Inquiry resumed its public hearings in June for a period of five weeks. The Inquiry held its final round of public hearings between 18th January – 2nd February 2011.

Initially the Inquiry had hoped to publish its report in early 2011, but later advised the Government that it would need "at least until summer 2012" in order to do justice to the issues involved. In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, in October 2011, Sir John Chilcot said that: "Pulling together and analysing the evidence and identifying the lessons, for a report that covers so wide and complex a range of issues and a time period of some nine years, has proved to be a significant task." He added that "very considerable progress" had been made but there was "still much to be done."

In July 2012 the Inquiry announced a further delay in publication of the report. Writing to the Prime Minister, Sir John explained that he and his colleagues had now concluded they would be in a position to begin the 'Maxwellisation' process – (whereby individuals criticised by the Inquiry are offered the opportunity to make representations) – by the middle of 2013, and that the report would be published "as soon as possible" after that process was complete.


The total expenditure for the Iraq Inquiry from 2009 to 2012 is £6,130,600.

Source: Iraq Inquiry –  July 2012

DFID completed its bilateral development programme in March 2012.

Achievements over the past year include:

Helping the Iraqi government publish its three-year Strategic Government Programme 2011-2014, with clear priorities including on service delivery.
Delivering four expert diagnostic assessments to help the Government of Iraq undertake reforms making it easier to do business and invest in Iraq.
Supplying professional development opportunities and courses for over 3,357 staff and students, through 35 partnerships between Iraqi, UK and other universities.
Providing over 3.3 million vulnerable Iraqi children and their families with humanitarian support, including over two million Iraqi children vaccinated against measles, and 450,000 Iraqis provided with a safe water supply.

Source: DFID – 2012


"Whilst Iraq continues to recover from conflict, it is a middle income country with large reserves of oil and gas. The country has the potential to deliver its own development over the next decade, and no longer requires direct assistance from DFID.

"Although DFID's direct activity in Iraq has now ended, this is by no means the end of the UK's support.

"We will continue to help Iraq address some of the challenges which remain, through our core funding to multilateral organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union…..also through regional initiatives with the International Monetary Fund, the International Finance Corporation and the Arab Partnership Initiative. This support will help Iraq with reforms for a stable, democratic and prosperous future."

DFID – 2012