Iraqi Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson explores the three largest ethnic groups in contemporary Iraq: Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens. We'll talk about some of their similarities and differences in religion, language, and culture.

Ethnic Groups in Iraq

Iraq, a country about the size of the U.S. state of California, is home to a number of different ethnic groups. In this lesson, we'll talk about the characteristics of Iraq's major ethnic groups, including their similarities and differences. We'll also cover a bit of history of how these groups formed.

Map of Iraq
map, Iraq, ethnic groups

Major Ethnic Groups

Before we discuss the three major ethnic groups in Iraq, we should note that there are a number of other ethnic groups present in the country. However, the three groups we'll discuss below account for the majority of Iraq's population. Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are the three largest groups in the country.

Although there are differences among them, they share some common religious beliefs. For one thing, each group generally believes in Allah (God) and the Prophet Muhammad. Also, most members of these groups observe the holy month of Ramadan, which involves fasting during daylight hours.

There are also small populations of Yazidis, a small minority in Iraq, but one of the oldest peoples, and Assyrians, a minority descendant from Mesopotamia.

Let's talk a little bit more about the three major ethnic groups in Iraq.


Arabs are the largest ethnic group in Iraq and make up about 75-80% of the population. Arabic is also the official language of the country. (As an aside, Arab refers to a large ethnic group found in countries across the world whose primary language is Arabic. Although there are many cultural similarities, Arabs should not be considered a completely homogeneous group of people).

Arabs are descendants of Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula, which today is comprised of the countries Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

We can further differentiate this group by discussing Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. What distinguishes these two groups is religion: Sunni and Shia refer to different branches of the Islamic faith. Sunnis represent the majority of Muslims (those who practice some form of Islam) throughout the world. However, in Iraq, Shiite Muslims are the majority.

Although these two groups both practice Islam and have a number of things in common, there are important differences in their faith. The major difference between Shiites and Sunnis comes down to their belief in the successor of Muhammad. Additionally, Shiites also believe in worshiping or following religious leaders of their choice. These differences in religious belief explain some of the tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq.

However, there are also political factors that have contributed to the conflict between the two groups. The Sunni minority ruled the country of Iraq beginning with the Ottoman Empire (which was founded by Turks). The Sunni ruled this territory well into the modern era, until 2003 when long-time ruler Saddam Hussein was removed from power.


Kurds account for about 16% of Iraq's population. For the most part, Iraqi Kurds identity as Sunni Muslims, although Kurds are not considered Arabs. Rather, they have their own language, Kurdish, and culture, though they are largely practicing Muslims. The Kurdish people are not descendants of Arabia, but rather from Iran and other parts of the Middle East.

When the Ottoman Empire was conquered by the British in 1918, the Kurdish population came under the control of the newly installed British colonial power. Later on, when Saddam Hussein came to power in the country, he launched a series of violent campaigns targeting the Kurdish minority population.

Eventually, after much violence and political upheaval, the Kurds in Iraq were granted autonomy. Today, the constitution of Iraq recognizes Kurdistan as an official territory. Generally speaking, Kurdistan is less volatile than many parts of Iraq.

Map of Kurdistan

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