Trends in Iraqi Violence, Casualties and Impact of War: 2003-2015

The focus on the threat posed by ISIS has led to a dangerous tendency to ignore the overall patterns of violence in Iraq and the fact that any lasting peace and stability must address Iraq’s other causes of violence. A new analysis of the patterns of violence in Iraq by the Burke Chair at CSIS examines these issues in detail. It is entitled Trends in Iraqi Violence, Casualties and Impact of War: 2003-2015, and is available on the CSIS web site at, or by clicking on the above PDF.

This analysis focuses on the rising levels of violence after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and the impact of U.S. efforts to create effective Iraqi forces, the degree to which former Prime Minister Maliki’s actions triggered a new rise in civil conflict between 2011-2013, and the impact of the attacks by ISIL from later 2013 onwards.

It draws on a wide range of official U.S. reporting, Iraqi government reporting, UN reporting, and reporting by NGOs like Iraq Body Count. It shows in map and graphic form that sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite, and ethnic tension largely between Arab and Kurd, have been critical problems since 2003, and remain challenges that are as serious as ISIS.

No exact data are available on the patterns and metrics of such violence, but enough data are available to show the major rise in civilian casualties between 2005 and 2007, the drop from 2008 to 2010, and the sharp rise after 2011 as the repression, corruption, and efforts to put down Sunni protests by Prime Minister Maliki increased. It is clear that misgovernment, Maliki’s ambitions, and corruption enabled the invasion by ISIS, and that the sectarian and ethnic divisions that did so much to empower ISIS remain major threats that will threaten Iraq even if ISIS can be fully defeated.

At the same time, the analysis shows that there are major structural problems that have contributed to the rise of violence and Iraq’s deep divisions and instability. These include a massive increase in Iraq’s population, a “youth bulge” as large numbers of young men poured into an economy that could not fully employ them, major problems in a weak economy coupled to the misuse of petroleum export revenues, and a continuing history of poor governance and corruption.

The analysis is divided into sections:

o A summary of the key factors shaping Iraq’s violence and instability, and of outside assessments of critical problems in Iraq’s governance and economy, as well as growing population pressures and a level of hyperurbanization that have increased its sectarian and ethnic tensions as well as created a large pool of unemployed youth.

o A detailed examination of the patterns in violence after the U.S. led invasion n 2003, and its impact increasing the level of civil conflict and polarized sectarian and ethnic differences and tensions.

o The high continuing levels of violence at the point many saw a victory in the U.S. fighting against Al Qaida and hostile Shi’ite forces.

o The critical role the 2010 election played in dividing the country and creating new sources of sectarian and ethnic tension.

o The impact of the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011.

o The sharp rise of violence and sectarian fighting as Maliki sought to build up his power and created new levels of sectarian and ethnic violence between 2011 and 2013.

o The shift to a major sectarian conflict and new sources of Arab and Kurdish tension once ISIS began its invasion at the end of 2013, the expansion of the Kurdish “zone” into new areas, and the displacement of some three million Iraqis as IDPs – largely Sunnis – into areas where this increases sectarian tension.

At the same time, it is far from clear that these sources of conflict can be separated from the instability in Syria, Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds, and Iran’s role in Iraq and the resulting tensions with the US. and neighboring Arab states.

The defeat of ISIS does remain a critical priority, but far more attention does need to be given to helping Iraq create solutions to its deeper problems, and no defeat of ISIS can – by itself – bring security or stability to Iraq.

Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy