A look back at 2021 in Iraq: a year of hopes and challenges

From visits by senior world leaders such as Pope Francis to security and political upheavals, Iraqis experienced ups and downs

An Iraqi supporter waves the national flag ahead of the Fifa Arab Cup 2021 group A football match between Qatar and Iraq. AFP
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Iraq has gone through an eventful year, with the hopes raised by it hosting its first papal visit and its first election under revamped electoral laws tempered by increasing extremist attacks and bitter divisions among major political players.

The year kicked off with ISIS staging a bombing in central Baghdad for the first time since the extremist group was declared defeated in late 2017. More than 30 civilians were killed and 100 wounded when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives on January 26.

Weeks later, hopes for peace were rising amid preparations to receive a special guest: Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The pontiff’s historic three-day trip in early March spread a message of tolerance, diversity, and hope in a nation ravaged by years of war and sectarian conflict.

During his visit, the pope met Iraqi officials and religious leaders, including Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani whose words carry great weight with ordinary Iraqis.

Francis called for the protection of Iraq's Christian communities, whose numbers have dropped to roughly a third of the 1.5 million who lived in the country before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, mainly as a result of persecution.

But Iraq's other troubles quickly overshadowed the atmosphere of hope and joy brought by his visit.

In April, a fire caused by an oxygen tank explosion inside a Covid-19 isolation ward in a hospital on Baghdad’s outskirts claimed at least 82 lives, highlighting the problems faced by the healthcare system and other public services in Iraq: mismanagement, corruption, and political wrangling.

Nearly three months later, another inferno in a coronavirus ward in the southern city of Nasiriyah killed at least 92 people.

In July, an ISIS suicide bomber hit another market in Baghdad, killing at least 35 shoppers on the eve of Eid Al Adha. The extremist group staged attacks throughout the year in different parts of the country.

The summer brought a succession of heatwaves with temperatures around 50°C. A combination of climate change, acute water shortages caused by the damming of rivers in Turkey and Iran, and rising salinity levels in the soil have created an environmental crisis that threatens Iraq's food security.

On October 10, millions of Iraqis cast their ballots in early national elections demanded by the pro-reform, youth-led protest movement that began two years earlier in response to rampant corruption, poor services, and a lack of jobs.

Although the major political players retained control, a handful of independent politicians and newly formed parties were able to enter parliament thanks to changes in the electoral laws demanded by the protests movement.

Followers of Iraq’s populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr emerged as clear winners with 73 seats in the 329-seat parliament. His main rival, the Fatah Alliance of politicians affiliated with Iran-backed Shiite militias, won only 17 seats, compared with 45 in 2018.

The political wrangling over the results among rival Shiite groups spilt over into violent street protests.

Two protesters were killed and more than 100 protesters and security personnel wounded in early November, raising tensions between the Iran-backed militias and prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

A few days later, Mr Al Kadhimi escaped unharmed after a drone attack on his official residence in the Green Zone, in the first assassination attempt on an Iraqi prime minister since 2003. There was no claim of responsibility and an investigation is continuing.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Federal Court is reviewing claims of electoral fraud filed by the Shiite militias and allied political parties.

As challenging as 2021 was, the past 12 months also brought some positive news for Iraqis.

The country welcomed home more than 17,000 ancient artefacts retrieved from the US and other countries, celebrated as a triumph in its long-running fight against cultural theft.

The priceless relics, some dating as back as far as 4,000 years, include a rare clay tablet that bears a portion of the Epic of Gilgamish.

In their efforts to tap vast natural resources, Iraq signed a $27 billion deal with France’s Total that includes four projects to develop an oilfield, produce gas, build large energy infrastructure and generate solar energy.

The country took its first steps in transitioning to clean energy, awarding several deals to build solar energy plants.

And for the first time in decades, Iraq regained some of its regional influence in an attempt to ease tensions and boost cooperation.

Baghdad hosted several meetings between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as a regional summit in coordination with France that was attended by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwaiti, Iran, and Turkey.

Updated: December 27, 2021, 3:00 AM