Iraq conflict: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

Iraq’s political, social, and economic instability make it one of the world’s most fragile contexts, creating an environment vulnerable to regional unease. The country has a large population of displaced people — more than 3 million — including  250,000 Syrian refugees. About 8.7 million people in Iraq need humanitarian aid.

From 2014 to 2017, Iraq was deeply mired in conflict with ISIL, which staged a violent insurgency of large swaths of territory. Fighting forced more than 6 million people to flee their homes at the peak of hostilities. Families displaced by conflict trekked for days to find safety in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Most of the ISIL-occupied territory was retaken by the end of 2017, including Mosul, which was recaptured in June. The fighting left massive destruction in its wake. The recovery will be a long one, not least because the land is littered with unexploded bombs and munitions. Iraqis still need food, healthcare, water, sanitation, and programs focused on child protection. World Vision and other aid agencies continue to work with local partners to provide relief.

History of the Iraq conflict

The current humanitarian crisis in Iraq began when militants attacked Christians and other ethnic minorities. However, Iraq has suffered from decades of conflict with other nations and internal conflict among different ethnic and religious groups.

2014 — Insurgents attack

  • June to September: Militants seize Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and other key areas. Minorities are targeted for atrocities and flee to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a semi-autonomous region in the country’s north.

2015 — Iraq fights back

  • Iraqi forces and allies fight to restore government control, targeting Anbar province and Ramadi.

2016 — Iraq consolidates territorial gains

  • February: The last of the militants are expelled from Ramadi. As security improves, some families look to return home and rebuild communities.
  • October: The military operation to seize Mosul from ISIL begins.

2017 to 2018 — Fragile control is established

  • July 2017: The Iraqi government declares that Mosul has been retaken. The city is in ruins and strewn with mines and munitions.
  • 2018: The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 2 million displaced Iraqis will return to their homes this year. They will need aid to support themselves and rebuild.
In Iraq, refugees, displaced people and aid organizations that serve them are concentrated in the north.
Refugees and services for refugees are concentrated in northern Iraq near the borders with Syria, Turkey, and Iran. (©2018 map courtesy of UNHCR)

FAQs: What you need to know about the Iraq conflict

Explore facts and FAQs about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and learn how you can help Iraqis in need:

Fast facts: What is happening in Iraq?

Iraq is reclaiming territory and yet faces internal conflict and a long road to recovery. Explosives and debris must be cleared from areas that have been retaken so that water and electric services can be restored.

  • About 3 million people are displaced within the country.
  • Because of prolonged conflict, 8.7 million people out of a population of 37 million need aid.
  • About 250,000 Syrian refugees are in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, making life harder among host communities with limited resources. Key needs: clean water, sanitation, food, shelter, healthcare, education, emotional support, and essential items to help face winter.


How can I help Iraqis in need?

You can help bring hope and healing to people displaced by violence in Iraq:

  • Pray for children, families, and humanitarian workers in Iraq.
  • Help World Vision meet the most urgent needs of Syrian and Iraqi children.
  • Engage your church by hosting a Refugee Sunday.
  • Provide emergency aid to displaced children and families.


Why did Iraqis flee from their homes? 

ISIL, the militant group known for its brutality in Syria, moved swiftly to take and hold territory in western and northern Iraq, starting in June 2014. Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities fell in rapid succession. Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic groups fled the violence.

After four years of fighting, 3 million people remain displaced within the country. About half of them settled in camps for internally displaced people, within host communities, or in churches in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Some are beginning to return to their home communities as the Iraqi government gains control of more territory.

Read how Hada’s family escaped on foot through mined fields and about their lives in a camp for displaced people.


Little boy in Iraq holding pencils
Ali, 3, from Syria, shows off new pencils and a notebook at the camp where his family lives in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. (©2015 World Vision/photo by Steve Jeter)

How has the Iraq conflict affected children?

Children and families have suffered from targeted violence as well as indiscriminate attacks. The communities that nurtured them are destroyed.

Many children were forced to flee with only the clothes they had on. They are out of school and vulnerable to violence and health issues due to unstable and unhygienic living conditions.

As families escaped from ISIL-occupied Mosul arrived at camps, World Vision staff members were horrified at the condition of the children. They were petrified, struggling to express themselves, and in some cases too terrified to speak, according to staff based outside of the city. Their physical and mental health was badly affected by two years living under a brutal occupation and then facing landmines, snipers, and fighters when they fled.


What are Iraqis greatest needs?

Iraqis displaced by conflict need everything: clean water, food, shelter, hygiene supplies, and basic household supplies like mattresses and blankets. They also have a range of healthcare needs, including chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, plus others caused by poverty, exposure to the elements, and poor living conditions, including malnutrition, cholera, or diarrhea.

Children and adults who have lived through the horrors of war and persecution need long-term help coping with their experiences.

“Many children have been stuck in their homes while bombings, sniper fire or chaos ruled around them. Others have witnessed the death of family members,” says Aaron Moore, World Vision’s programs manager in northern Iraq.


What is World Vision doing to help?

World Vision began responding to the current crisis in Iraq in August 2014. Our staff have served more than 1 million people in Iraq with:

  • Access to clean drinking water
  • Health services
  • Education programs, including assistance to rebuild schools in Mosul and support to teachers
  • Child protection services
  • Food provisions
  • Food vouchers
  • Cash (for most urgent needs)

We work with the church in Iraq, providing food vouchers to people who fled Mosul in August 2014 and are living in Christian camps. We have assisted these camps with generators and water systems. We’ve also created spaces for children to play volleyball, basketball, and on swing sets.

Some of our work focuses on the church. However, our overall aid efforts focus on helping the most vulnerable people, regardless of their religion, race, or gender.

World Vision’s youth empowerment and family relations programs help families rebuild their lives.


World Vision’s work in Iraq

World Vision’s work in Iraq started in the 1990s. Between April 2003 and September 2004, World Vision staff focused its efforts on rehabilitating schools and rural water and sanitation systems. We also provided medical supplies to clinics and hospitals and supported displaced families with clothing, food, hygiene kits, blankets and mattresses, and cooking sets.

Our response after the 2014 insurgency began in September of that year. Families who had fled to the Kurdish region found shelter in abandoned buildings, schools, or churches. Some set up improvised tents or slept in the open. Our initial work focused on meeting immediate needs — food, health, water, sanitation, and child protection. Extreme winter weather in northern Iraq posed more needs: waterproofing, insulation, and carpets for shelters, heaters and fuel, blankets, boots, and coats.

As time went on, World Vision’s contributions expanded to include water systems, education and recreation for children, and mobile clinics that travel to provide medical care to displaced families. In 2017 alone, World Vision reached more than 930,000 people with aid. In January 2018, the organization completed its registration with the government of Iraq to expand operations into more areas of the country.


Chris Huber and Kathryn Reid of World Vision’s staff in the U.S. contributed to this article.

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