Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Living Conditions in Iraq: A Reflection of the Post-War Urban Situation

The deterioration of living conditions in Iraq reflects the challenges within the depleted post-war urban landscape of the country.

Living Conditions in Iraq
IRAQ: A colorful painting is shown on a wall in Baghdad, on October 24, 2021.

Dina M. Abdulrazzaq

Iraq’s urban conditions have greatly changed since the 2003 invasion. The post-war changes have influenced a variety of urbanism subjects across the country.

This article will present an overview of Iraq’s postwar landscape and its impact on numerous urbanism challenges, linking them to social status and reflecting on the quality of life.


Iraq‘s urban and architectural identity has long been celebrated for its beauty, elegance, and unique engineering.

However, the urban situation of a city is a reflection of the economic, social, and political aspects of society. Unfortunately, Iraq’s urban status weakened as a result of years of wars and conflict, and it is now plagued by a variety of issues and illnesses.

This deterioration is particularly evident in larger cities with rich cultural histories, such as the capital, Baghdad. The majority of Baghdad’s neighborhoods have been impacted by informality, fragmentation, and building violations, resulting in a compromised urban infrastructure that poses significant dangers to its residents and gives rise to environmental and health hazards.

As a result, this article will provide a review of the most significant current urban challenges that Iraq – and in particular Baghdad – are experiencing due to years of conflicts and wars.


Iraq was a middle-income, fast-growing country with a well-developed healthcare system before the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. The eight-year Iran-Iraq War was followed by the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, which resulted in 13 years of harsh sanctions.

In 2003, US coalition forces launched a military invasion, which was followed by civil war, sectarianism, administrative failure, and corruption. This finally culminated in yet another armed confrontation against the Islamic State, which lasted from 2014 to 2017.

As a consequence of this cycle of conflicts, Iraq and its people have endured numerous challenges, resulting in significant urban damage and crises. Informality, irregularities in both the core of cities and suburbs, and limited access to basic services have contributed to a decline in the quality of life for residents during and after the conflicts, leaving many struggling to meet even their most basic needs.

Baghdad City's Post-War Urban Fabric Changes

Throughout history, wars and conflicts have caused fundamental political, economic, and social changes, influencing urban structure and growth. This is most visible in places with a unique identity and rich historical background, such as Baghdad. Wars and conflicts throughout history have left an indelible mark on the city’s political, economic, and social landscape, leading to a dispersed urban structure with an ailing infrastructure and a host of urban issues and challenges.

During the period of conflicts and instability from 2003 to 2018, security concerns prompted the erection of concrete walls to segregate and reduce violence and crime in the city.

These barriers first appeared in 2005, when they served as protective walls surrounding main public and commercial buildings, important roadways, and residential areas – thus reducing the extent of explosions and terrorist activities.

However, over time, these walls spread throughout the city and brought about adverse effects on the overall urban configuration, distorting its appearance and contributing to traffic congestion. They were a cover for building violations and urban sprawl because it was difficult to notice and evaluate what was going on behind these barriers.

The initiation of the process to lift these concrete walls in 2018 marked a significant step towards addressing the challenges they had posed in Baghdad; , It also highlighted the problems of informality and building violations that have been festering behind those walls.

Baghdad, Iraq, concrete T-wall, on April 21, 2009.

Informal Residential and Urban Sprawl in Baghdad

The governmental entities in charge after 2003 were and are unable to keep up with the city’s fast development. They have been unable to provide affordable housing or manage the urban sprawl. The rise of informal urbanization was caused by weak state administrations, outdated urban planning, mismanagement, and corruption.

Informal housing can be found on agricultural land that has not been permitted for development and on government property. This issue requires immediate response since it gives way for more issues to form in major cities. This is especially true in Baghdad, where many build houses and residential settlements on agricultural and state properties without official licenses or adherence to building and planning regulations.

The housing shortage and the lack of government controls are abused by people who attempt to produce the highest possible number of housing units with the lowest investment from these illegal build-up plots in order to maximize their profits. Meaning that the houses that are built often do not meet the security, safety, and quality of life requirements for the residents.

The unregulated use of agricultural lands exacerbates the situation, giving rise to a range of urban challenges, including damage to the urban fabric, environmental and health crises, economic risks, social and security dangers, and the emergence of incompatible structures that do not align with the character of Iraqi cities.

These issues have been further intensified by rapid population growth and internal migration from rural areas to major cities, driven by economic factors. Moreover, a shift away from agriculture, weak deterrent laws, and poor government management have aggravated the problem.

As a result of these numerous conflicts and wars, urban growth in Iraq did not proceed in a balanced and structured manner, significantly impacting the development process as well as causing serious damage to the residential environment in general.

Architectural Identity Crisis and Land Subdivision

The destruction during the war in Baghdad was primarily limited to public infrastructure and government buildings. While residential areas and some monuments also endured damage, the city of Baghdad survived the wars relatively intact compared to other major cities like Mosul.

However, the years that followed severely weakened its unique and historic character. Due to the fragmentation of units and the emergence of informal construction activity.

The housing shortage has had far-reaching consequences, not only affecting agricultural lands but also leaving its mark on Baghdad’s residential areas, where the increasing housing shortage and demand have severely changed the architecture of the city. Informal houses can also be found inside Baghdad city, as people have resorted to subdividing residential lands to create smaller dwelling units in an attempt to cope with the housing crisis.

Until recently, the concept of dividing a large housing unit into smaller units was unfamiliar in Iraqi society. Prior to 2003, houses were traditionally constructed in the center of the plot, and families owned both the front and back gardens.

These private gardens held considerable importance and value for Baghdadi families, playing a vital role in their daily lives. Not only did these gardens contribute significantly to the preservation of the environment, but they also enhanced the overall quality of life for Baghdad’s residents, providing a green and serene oasis within the urban setting.

Owners began to subdivide their housing units extensively. Houses that initially ranged in size from 200 m2 to 800 m2 were divided into small residences that did not exceed 50 m2 per unit, without considering building laws.

Therefore, a large number of homes currently violate many construction regulations, including front and side setbacks, permissible building area, legal height, number of stories, and building over private gardens and parking spots. This has increased the pressure on urban infrastructure, creating a potentially unsafe urban environment in the capital.

Furthermore, these practices have a massive influence on residential district planning and architecture and could lead to a house being transformed from a spacious 300 m2 into six little units in a short period of time. This also necessitates adapting the building entrance as the property now requires multiple improvised doors, typically six individual entrances to accommodate the newly created smaller units.

Since the majority of citizens do not have the means to hire architects and professionals during the construction and design processes, these houses have sprung up all over the city. The emergence of these architectural violations and many little entrances had negative consequences on the aesthetic of the city, and left it looking rugged and out of touch.

post war urban situation in Iraq
These figures show how residential land subdivision and fragmentation in Baghdad, Iraq, transformed a large house with a private garden into four small homes. That violates various building regulations, including violating setbacks, infringing on sidewalks, and Building over the space allocated for the garden and the garage.

Environmental Challenges

Indeed, Iraq’s post-war challenges extended beyond planning and architectural issues. Several environmental crises also began to affect both the health and well-being of its population. Water problems, climate change, and desertification are at the forefront of these challenges.

The MENA region is characterized by dry climate with hotter climate, fewer rivers, and less rain than the rest of the world. Iraq, on the other hand, is one of the most water-rich countries in the region due to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries. Despite this natural advantage, millions of Iraqis, particularly in the southern regions of the country, continue to face challenges in accessing safe drinking water, and water scarcity remains a pressing issue for them.

For over 30 years, the Iraqi government has struggled to effectively manage and control the country’s water resources, leading to significant consequences for its citizens, particularly those in the southern governorates. This deprived Iraq’s citizens of their human right to clean drinking water.

Since the 1980s, several government failures, including poor management of primary sources, pollution, and sanitation, coupled with neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructure, caused a steep decline in the water quality of the rivers.

However, a major factor behind Iraq’s water shortage is due to neighboring states’ actions toward Iraq, particularly Turkey. They interrupt the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, causing the country to lose almost 40% of its water. Moreover, Iraq’s water reserves are being significantly impacted by climate change’s rising temperatures and decreased rainfall.

Increasing water salinity and rising sewage and agricultural and industrial pollution have aggravated the water loss further, with several tributaries and lakes drying up. According to Human Rights Watch, this ongoing water mismanagement has led to algae bloom causing a health crisis in 2018 in the Basra Governorate, which was largely ignored by the authorities.

A stranded boat on the fractured earth that used to be Lake Hamrin in Iraq, on May 20, 2022.

Spatial Disparities

Internal migration from Iraqi governorates toward Baghdad occurs for various reasons. Security is the main driver of migration, followed by rough economic situations, such as a lack of high-paying jobs in rural areas. In addition, deteriorating infrastructure, a lack of basic needs, as well as a lack of health and educational facilities in villages, rural areas, and several other Iraqi governorates serve as a push factor toward Baghdad.

Notably, according to the Standard of Living Index, poverty rates in rural regions reached 58% in 2012, far higher than in cities and metropolitan areas in Iraq, where poverty rates reached 17%. These and other causes had a significant influence on the high rates of internal migration, which had catastrophic consequences on housing in the main cities, as previously described.

Urban Mobility Challenges in Baghdad

The capital city of Baghdad faces persistent challenges in urban mobility, characterized by frequent and unpredictable traffic peaks. This is caused by several issues, some of which have already been mentioned, such as increased population growth, internal migration, and incompetent management by the government authority.

The lack of adequate regulations and the failure to develop a robust public transportation system have compounded the problem, leading to a significant surge in the number of private vehicles on the roads since 2003. This increase has put a significant load on the road infrastructure, which was not designed to handle this amount of traffic.

In addition to the challenges mentioned earlier, Baghdad’s urban mobility is further hindered by security checkpoints at the entrances and exits of main roads, which can cause significant traffic slowdowns. Moreover, there are instances of random closures of public main and secondary roads due to security concerns or, at times, abuse of authority.

Furthermore, the misbehavior by citizens causing traffic jams is fueled by insufficient controls and a lack of deterrents or punishments. Fines or penalties for traffic offenses like running red lights, driving on the wrong lane, or blocking traffic by false parking are often not prosecuted or can be averted through bribery.

Baghdad, Iraq, traffic congestion, on March 14, 2012.


Investing in urban infrastructure is a critical step towards improving the quality of life in Iraq. However, achieving this goal necessitates significant investment in various other factors, such as the economy, social services, and healthcare.

This is only possible with intelligent management and solid policies. Iraq’s enormous natural and human resources can be a useful source for rebuilding the country’s economy and social cohesion. This would cause Iraq’s contribution to regional growth to grow substantially.


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The effects of the housing crisis and house division alter the city’s civilized appearance of the capital.

Baghdad as first place in slums, in 2021.

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