MESOP : Origins Of Iraq’s Ethnosectarian Quota System / MUSINGS ON IRAQ BY JOEL WING

Iraq’s ethnosectarian quotas are a mainstay of the country’s political system. There are arguments going on about it right now as Prime Minister Haidar Abadi is unsuccessfully trying to name his own ministers without having to follow them. Most people blame the American Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for institutionalizing the quotas when it put together the Iraqi Governing Council based upon sect and ethnicity, which was then duplicated in the interim government led by Iyad Allawi and every administration afterward. What is far less known is that the opposition to Saddam came up with quotas long before the U.S. invasion.

Blame for Iraq’s ethnosectarian quotas usually rests with the United States, and for good reason. In July 2003 the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) created the Iraqi Governing Council. The 25 member group was made up of 13 Shiites, 5 Sunnis, 5 Kurds, 1 Turkmen, and 1 Assyrian Christian. In doing so, the U.S. institutionalized the idea that the government should be broken up proportionally according to the country’s different groups. The cabinet of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi followed that pattern, and every government that came afterward. Because of that history most would think that was the start of the practice, but it actually began years beforehand amongst Iraqi exiles.

During the 1990s there were several conference of Iraqi parties opposed to Saddam Hussein, one of which took place in Vienna in June 1991 that was based upon quotas. Most of the major groups except for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) attended. There were 170 delegates that were determined by a quota system to try to balance the Islamist parties with the others. The religious parties got 35.5% of the representatives, the western style liberal democrats and independents, received 35.5%, the Kurds 23.5%, and the Turkmen 5.8%. The meeting led to the creation of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which was supposed to be an umbrella organization. The decision on the representatives, while not completely based upon ethnicity and sect nonetheless set the stage for more explicit ones later on.


Massoud Barzani called for another conference to be held in Kurdistan in October 1992 dubbed the Salahaddin meeting. Again, the organizers came up with fixed numbers for those attending, this time more explicitly mixing religion and ethnicity along with political ideology. There were to be 33% Shiite Islamists, 25% Kurds, 16% Arab nationalists, 6% Turkmen, 4% democrats, 4% liberals, 4% Iraqi tribes, 3% Communists, 3% Assyrians and Christians, and 2% Sunni Islamists. In total, 234 people showed up that included the Iraqi National List, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Iraqi Democratic Party, the Independent Iraqi Authority, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Dawa, the Islamic Action Organization, the Iraqi National Turkmen Party, and others that covered 90% of the opposition parties. At the end a three man presidential council was decided upon to lead the Iraqi National Congress. Again, the presidents were given to one Shiite, one Kurd, and one Sunni, which were Mohammed Ibrahim Bahr Uloom, Massoud Barzani, and General Hassan Mustafa Naqib. The Salahaddin conference showed that the anti-Saddam groups believed they needed quotas to include the wide variety of groups committed to the cause. They were also moving towards having those based more upon ethnosectarian criteria, than politics, which was the original reason they were used at the Vienna meeting.

In February 1993 there was another meeting of the INC’s presidential council in Irbil. It was decided that a consultative committee should be formed. Originally that was made up of 10 people, but then expanded to 26 to become an executive council, which was led by Ahmed Chalabi. Of those members, 33% were given to Shiite Islamists, 25% to Kurds, 7% to Sunnis, 6% to Turkmen, 6% to Assyrians, and 3% to secular and liberal parties. Here the participants were almost all based upon ethnosectarianism.


Many of these parties would return to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and become involved in politics. Some would gain seats on the CPA’s Iraqi Governing Council, and then the governments formed after 2005. It’s not clear whether they suggested quotas to CPA head Paul Bremer or the Americans thought of it their own. What the 1990s meetings showed was that the exiles were all familiar and comfortable with them as they had been using them for over a decade.


Aaron, Daniel Meyers, Marisa, “Cost of Exile: The Role of the Returning Exiles In Post-2003 Iraq,” The Institute for Middle East Studies, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, May 2014

Al-Ahram, “Untying the knot,” 2/19/03

International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Shiites Under Occupation,” 9/9/03

Al-Shamrani, Ali, “The Iraqi Opposition Movement: The Post-Gulf War Era 1990-1996,” Department of War Studies, King’s College, 2001