Iraq is the 36th most populous country on earth with 38.9 million people, just behind Algeria but ahead of Poland and Canada (35th, 37th, and 38th, respectively) (CIA). However, despite being both a relatively populous country and a geopolitical hotspot, research into Iraqi demographics is hindered by scant census efforts and an overall weak government. The last census was in 1997 — the eighth census after 1927, 1932, 1947, 1957, 1965, 1977, and 1987 — but as the 1997 census merely estimated the autonomous Kurdistan Region, some consider the last nationwide census to have been in 1987, and also some sources do not include the pre-independence population registration in 1927 as a regular census either (Research Directorate, 1998; al-Ansary and Loney 2010).
Israel, on the other hand, is the 99th most populous country with 8.7 million people. Iraq is 435,052 km2 while Israel is 22,145 km2, which means Iraq has almost 20x as much land but with only 4.5x as many people (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2013; The World Bank 2020). Israel is an important comparison country for two reasons. First of all, many of the political issues that complicate Iraqi demography are at least as significant for Israeli demography as well. This makes a comparison between the two countries interesting when looking at methodologies, challenges, solutions, and frameworks. Second of all, Iraqi Jews totally left Iraq and nearly all of them are living in Israel, as are their children, grandchildren, and further generations. There are approximately 500,000 Jews of Iraqi origin in Israel; before their expulsion and exodus, there were over 100,000 Jews in Iraq (Chmaytelli et al. 2018; Alexander 2004). Consistently maintaining an integrated look at Iraqi demography that includes Iraqi Jews in Israel — no matter how crudely — could lay the groundwork for arguments that Jews, like other minorities in Iraq, should be recognized as part of the country’s character. (After all, the prophet Abraham was born in Iraq; and in cases where the Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud disagree, it is the Babylonian Talmud — written in modern Iraq — which is considered definitive. Iraqi Jews are at the core of the Iraqi population, despite their exile, and they are also foundational for Judaism itself.)
A word of caution
Iraq’s Ministry of Planning oversees the Central Statistical Organization (CSO, cosit.gov.iq); also, the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has its own Ministry of Planning which oversees the Kurdistan Region Statistics Office (KRSO, krso.net). On the Iraqi side, the CSO website has numerous broken links even at the top-level navigation, and unfortunately the KRI side of course does not have Iraq-wide statistical information. Collection, cooperation, and dissemination for data is deeply broken.
Aside from the 1997 census results, leading sources for modern Iraqi demography are the World Bank, tha CIA World Factbook, and the United Nations. While the World Bank and the CIA provide centralized resources, publications from the UN are sometimes harder to find because the UN disseminates a large number of topical reports via numerous UN sub-agencies and partners.
The quality and reliability of official demographic data are also affected by public trust in the government, government commitment to full and accurate enumeration, confidentiality and protection against misuse of census data, and census agencies' independence from political influence. (The World Bank 2020)
Unfortunately, many non-Iraqi resources interpolate incomplete information from various sources and must make certain assumptions in forming estimates. Therein can be a problem: some mortality events may be grossly underreported in media and semi-official sources, such as military deaths inflicted by the Islamic State. As a result, the data and any insights drawn must be interrogated cautiously, critically, and repeatedly. This is beyond the scope of this report, but is important to note as a word of caution.
Issues of non-federal autonomous regions and sectarian concerns are relevant to the Israeli census as well. For federal Israel, resources are primarily governmental, in particular the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS, cbs.gov.il). However, Israel has not conducted a census in the West Bank since 1967 despite the West Bank being a mix of areas administered by Israel, administered by the Palestinian Authority, and co-administered between both (Shezaf 2020). The Palestinian Authority’s own Central Bureau of Statistics (pcbs.gov.ps) performed a census in 2017, but states that there are zero Jews living in Palestine despite alluding to Jewish settlements (PCBS 2018). While the Israeli government conducts a census for federal Israel and the Palestinian Authority conducts a census for autonomous Palestinian territory, co-administered and Israel-administered of the West Bank face poor records. However, the total of the population of Israeli nationals based on records of birth, death, and immigration is reported in the CBS’ Monthly Bulletin of Statistics.
Iraq’s population growth
According to the annual population estimates from The World Bank Data (data.worldbank.org), the data portal of The World Bank, Iraq’s population has grown from 7.3 million in 1960 to 39.3 million in 2019 . This is a geometric growth pattern and the scale of its impact is hard to describe succinctly: it is a remarkable shift toward a country that is overwhelmingly young and fast-growing. However, population growth has not been totally consistent. There are slight flattenings in the 1980s (the time of the Iran-Iraq War) and especially in the 2000s (amid the turmoil of the US-led invasion).
Iraq population, 1960 — 2019
When looking at this growth, it is important to study it within the framework of demographic transitions. However, the First Demographic Transition (FDT) cannot be observed directly from the population totals from 1960 to 2019: based on the persistently geometric growth from 1960 onwards, the FDT must have already taken place on or before 1960. To pinpoint the window of the FDT, it will be necessary to obtain population totals from earlier years or to infer it from other data.
Population in millions in 1997, by age
0 — 4
5 — 9
10 — 14
15 — 19
20 — 24
25 — 29
30 — 34
35 — 39
40 — 44
45 — 49
50 — 54
55 — 59
60 — 64
65 — 69
70 — 74
75 — 79
80 — 84
Some observations about population by age groupings help indicate the timings of the demographic transitions. The population by age in 1997 shows that there were almost twice as many people ages 25 - 29 (born 1968 - 1972) as there were ages 35 - 39 (born 1958 - 1962). That was only an age difference of ten years, but double the number of people. We do not see that sort of doubling repeat itself from 45 - 49 compared to 55 - 59, nor even for senior groupings such as 55 - 59 and 65 - 69 where higher mortality would be an extra consideration. This suggests that the First Demographic Transition was completed by 1960, and based on the massive differences in population from 50 - 54 to 55 - 59 (23%) but relatively small differences from 60 - 64 to 65 - 69 (8%), had not begun during 1928 - 1937.
Thus, the population totals by age groupings in 1997 seem to narrow down the FDT in Iraq to the period from 1940 to 1960, when it likely began first in the densest urban areas with better infrastructure and services, then over some years spread to provincial towns and ultimately to the countryside as well. Indeed, the period 1940 - 1960 was one of remarkable modernization, when the grip of infectious diseases was greatly weakened: for instance, the incidence of malaria went from 740,000 cases in 1946 to less than half that in 1954, when there were 360,000 cases. This circumstantial data aligns with what would be expected if the FDT indeed did take place in the period 1940 - 1960. Furthermore, it is worth noting that consistently high geometric growth through 2019 indicates that the Second Demographic Transition (SDT) has not occurred yet. However, favorable security and economic conditions in the autonomous Kurdistan Region may be behind lower birth rates in the KRI, suggesting that it is on the cusp of the SDT and if so, may enter the SDT before the rest of the country (Whitcomb 2014).
Iraq’s gender ratio
In 1997, the gender composition by age had several unusual features. At the youngest ages, there is a fairly normal imbalance towards boys among children, followed by the flipping of this imbalance towards girls during adulthood. However, there are three noticeable irregularities: the dip in males ages 30 - 34 (born 1963 - 1967) and ages 70 - 74 (born 1923 - 1927), and the dip in females ages 50 - 59 (born 1938 - 1947).
Gender ratio in 1997
0 — 4
5 — 9
10 — 14
15 — 19
20 — 24
25 — 29
30 — 34
35 — 39
40 — 44
45 — 49
50 — 54
55 — 59
60 — 64
65 — 69
70 — 74
75 — 79
80 — 84
The first dip for males occurs for ages 30 - 34, which corresponds with a massive wave of deaths for men of military age during the Iran-Iraq War (1980 - 1988). Somewhere between one quarter and one half of a million Iraqis died in the conflict, mostly conscripts into the Iraqi military. This massive mortality event created a massive gender imbalance in one age group, which largely disappears in adjacent age groups. There was also the Anfal (1986 - 1989) during this time — the genocide against Kurds — but it is unclear what impact this may have had because Kurds are a minority compared to the overall Arab population of Iraq, and the Anfal may have impacted men and women more equally, as it was by a military against civilians rather than by a military against another military.
The second dip occurs for men ages 70 - 74, who would have been born 1923 - 1927 and been of military age in the 1940s. There are 81,818 males and 110,811 females, for a gender ratio of 0.74. The reasons behind this are less clear, but several hypothetical reasons come to mind why there are particular few men born in the 1920s when compared to adjacent age groupings. First of all, although Iraq had some political significance and intrigue in World War II, it did not incur heavy losses and thus World War II can be ruled out as an obvious and direct possibility for this particular age group having especially few men. Second of all, people born in the 1920s in Iraq had a life expectancy that was perhaps as low as thirty-something years, meaning that anyone who was born during that time and who managed to stay alive as late as 1997 was a remarkable exception to the norm. Thus, when looking at men who survived to 1997, there may be a sort of selection bias toward male urbanites with access to better health care. This helps to further narrow down the question: why were young urban men born in the 1920s dying off or emigrating away so much more than their brothers who were just a few years old or younger? There are several possible answers to these questions, focused on emigration from Iraq during and immediately after the World War. (The exodus of Iraqi Jews took place during this time but would have impacted entire families, meaning that it unlikely had an acute impact on any particular age or gender groupings.) It is worth noting that despite conflicts over British influence and the Iraqi monarchy’s increasingly strict security measures during that time, it seems unlikely that death was the primary reason for then decrease in young men of college age in Baghdad and other cities. Also, it seems likely that emigration (almost exclusively of men due to conservative gender roles) was a major event due to political and economic reasons. During World War II, there would have perhaps been incentives to immigrate to the Allies and especially the United Kingdom. The economic collapse in Iraq after World War II may also have driven the exodus of young men in their middle and late twenties. Furthermore, political persecutions against increasingly anti-monarchical young adults may have driven urban men to leave Iraq in particularly high numbers during this period.
There was also a major dip in women ages 50 to 59, who would have been born 1938 to 1947. This is particularly odd for two reasons: primarily, because women have longer life expectancies than men and we typically see an increasingly female gender ratio as ages progress; and secondarily, because it is a sort of aberration which seems to disappear in adjacent age groups. An initial hypothesis about elevated mortality rates for women in a particular age group must interrogate issues of women’s healthcare during the years they were reproductively active. More specifically, it should be studied whether or not maternity care somehow worsened during the 1960s and 1970s and as a result there may have been a spike in death due to pregnancy complications. However, in fact the 1960s and also the 1970s in particular were marked by general progress for health and technology in Iraq. It is possible — but mostly speculative (as was the case with the second dip for males, described above) — that perhaps maternity care remained only stagnant, while nutrition and overall healthcare vastly increased life expectancies and pregnancies. This would have meant more women could have spent more years bearing more children, in fact increasing their exposures to risks for pregnancy-related deaths and also to certain menopausal diseases (for the latter, due to having had more children in their reproductive years). This would account for a particularly low number of women surviving in that age group; women who were slightly younger and seemed to have fared much better may have benefited from improved maternity care in the 1980s and onward, or from less pregnancies in the 1950s and earlier. This hypothesis may be studied further at some point by examining pregnancy rates, birth rates, and access to reproductive healthcare over those decades.
Rural and urban
Notably, the Iraqi government demarcates rural and urban populations. Although this is not unique to Iraq, in the Iraqi context it has additional importance as there are sometimes outrageously extreme differences between these two populations. Even in the present day, there are rural Bedouin populations without access to electricity or plumbing, while in the urban areas there are skyscrapers dozens of stories high with Starbucks and Burger King just minutes away.
These rural and urban differences can be catastrophic: the Iran-Iraq War in particular seems to have greatly impacted rural regions much more than urban regions. While the overall gender ratio dipped 9.6%, for rural populations it dipped 20.9% and for urban populations it dipped 7.1%. This suggests extraordinarily higher death rates for rural men during the Iran-Iraq War, compared to urban areas.
30 — 34
35 — 39
40 — 44
Especially in the context of the Iran-Iraq War (between the Sunni-led Iraqi and the Shia-led Iranian governments), the rural and urban divide may also have shades of the broader Shia and Sunni conflict. Baghdad and Mosul, the principal urban centers in Iraq, are significantly Sunni cities; in this way, Sunnis may dominate the population totals for urban areas even though the majority of Iraq is Shia. The south of Iraq — which is majorly Shia — may be over-represented in the rural totals. Thus, the overwhelmingly rural impact of the Iran-Iraq War may have been in part due to a pronounced and punitive focus of the conflict on the predominantly Shia south.
Demographic change in Iraq — as well as in Israel — is a highly contentious issue. Fertility, conflict, and migration are the major drivers of these shifts. In turn, ethnoreligious shifts raise questions about self-determination and political representation. Furthermore, decentralization causes issues of under-representation (e.g. Israel and Iraq failing to conduct census in the West Bank and the autonomous Kurdistan Region, respectively) and over-representation (e.g. the Palestinian Authority counting a total of zero Jews, and Iraq registering all non-Kurds as Arab). Different populations may also have unequal birth rates, which can politicize natural population growth itself, aside from conflict and migration (Aderet 2019).
Israel and Iraq
The birth rates in Iraq and Israel are 29 and 21 births per 1,000 people, respectively, while the life expectancies are 70 and 83 (The World Bank 2020). This shows that Iraqis are having more children, but that life expectancy is worse, compared to Israel. Generally, a pattern emerges of Iraq consistently demonstrating worse indicators regarding length and quality of life.
However, where the comparison between these two countries becomes more compelling is examining the political landscape of Iraqi and Israeli demography. As described earlier, both have autonomous territories where no federal personnel are present, as well as co-administered (disputed) territories where the federal and separatist governments co-administrate. In both cases, issues of religious and ethnic identification figure prominently into how these issues relate to the reliability and coverage of demographic reports. While the Israeli government’s census overlooks the West Bank (although it meticulously records Israeli nationals in general), the Palestinian Authority overlooks any Jews living in the governorate boundaries it defines: it says there are zero Jews living in Jerusalem governorate nor anywhere else (PCBS 2018). Regardless, census efforts are in themselves a meaningful attempt to look at the population and must be studied, albeit critically, and the model in Israel and the autonomous Palestinian territories (where no Israeli personnel operate, similar to the banning of Iraqi personnel from the autonomous Kurdistan Region) is important to recognize. In Israel, censuses are consistently conducted no matter how limited.
Furthermore, aside from separatist movements, Iraq and Israel share in common a hectic landscape of conservative traditionalism and progressive secularism. Israel’s birth rate is largely propelled by the ultra-religious, and anecdotal observations in Iraq suggest a similar pattern there of conservative families having higher birth rates.
Iraq is a tremendously young country, after undergoing the First Demographic Transition in 1940 - 1960. Rather than enter the Second Demographic Transition yet, it seems to be arrested with high birth rates and an increasingly young population. Two major events, the Iran-Iraq War and the US-led invasion of Iraq, have had major impacts on Iraqi demography. Unfortunately, data is scant: the last census was in 1997 excluding the autonomous Kurdistan Region, and the last truly nationwide census was in 1987.
Israel is similar in many ways, despite being much smaller and somewhat more elderly. The most important comparison between Israel and Iraq is in the political systems, and also potentially in the social structure which sees ultra-religious communities maintaining high birth rates and moderate communities shifting toward the Second Demographic Transition. Anecdotal observations indicate the same phenomenon may be occurring in Iraq, with one major difference. In Israel, the population largely self-segregates into several urban centers: the ultra-religious in Beit Shemesh, the ultra-leftist in Tel Aviv, the moderately conservative in Ashdod, and so forth. However, in Iraq the various communities often live alongside one another which has resulted in a major hemorrhaging of traditional, conservative, and religious power structures. Examining the complex interplay of age, gender, birth rates, and death rates in Iraq with the sociological environment there will require a tremendous amount more research along with, ideally, a new 21st century census. Along the way, the system of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, tense as it may be, may prove to be a meaningful framework.