The Iraq War: What You Need to Know

ABC News spoke with experts in an attempt to get a better understanding of the war in Iraq, and what could be done by the United States to achieve peace in the region. The result is a comprehensive collection of frequently asked questions about the war in Iraq, definitions, and Iraq's past, present and future.

Who was in charge in Iraq before the war began? What type of government was Iraq then and what is it now?

Before the U.S.-led coalition's invasion of Iraq -- which began on March 18, 2003 -- the Iraqi government was a dictatorship led by Saddam Hussein. After he was overthrown, Hussein went into hiding and was captured by coalition forces on Dec. 13, 2003. A temporary "caretaker" government was established until June 2004.

On Dec. 15, 2004, elections for a new democratic Iraqi National Assembly were held. The seats were chosen through proportional representation, giving representation roughly commiserate to the percentages of votes. The representation was largely split between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

On Jan. 31, 2005, an election for an assembly to draft a constitution took place. Jalal Talabani was later established as president (head of state) and Nouri Kamel al-Maliki was established as the prime minister (head of government). The two men are currently struggling to maintain control in Iraq as they have yet to establish security forces and are constantly challenged by insurgents and terrorist forces.

Who are the main religious groups in the region? Who are the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and what are their differences?

The major religious groups in the region are various denominations of Islam -- the Sunnis and Shiites, who are also known as Shias. The Sunnis are the largest denomination of Islam, composing the majority of the faith, while Shiites are an estimated 14 percent of the Muslim religion.

In Iraq, however, more than sixty percent of the population are Shiite Muslims. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Muslim and his government kept Shiites from practicing their religion freely.

Kurds are not by definition a religious group, but rather an indigenous ethnic group in the Middle East and Iraq that comes from a region formerly known as Kurdistan, which comprises various areas of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but there are some Shiite Muslims as well. Most Kurds live in northern Iraq, and were also severly subjugated under Saddam Hussein.

Shiite and Sunni relations are historically tense and often violent as the two groups both strive for political and diplomatic power. This has been played out in Iraq in elections, militant groups and terrorist groups.

Where do the loyalties of the Iraqi people lie? Is it to the government, religion or family?

The situation in Iraq is about as complicated as anything the Bush administration has been involved with in its history, retired Gen. Jack Kean says. The hierarchy of individual loyalty in Iraq, while not set in stone, is based first on family loyalty, then clans (clans are groups of families -- think of them like the American version of the Hatfields and McCoys), then tribes (various indigenous people like Kurds), then religious sects (like Shiite and Sunni), and finally the nation state (Iraq).

"You have to understand that hierarchy in order to understand Iraq," Kean said. It explains, Kean says, why Sunnis will sometimes fight other Sunnis when conflict arises between families, clans or tribes. These groups all take precedence over the religious unity.

This hierarchy, however, does not always hold true. Many people identify themselves as Iraqis before their religion or province.

"I grew up in Iraq," said Zainab Salbi, the founder and president of Women for Women International. "But no one I know has a clan or tribe -- it happens in villages where Saddam came from and marginalized provinces. I would say yes, there are tribal areas in Iraq, absolutely. Is everyone like that? Absolutely not."

How does the Iraq war compare to past conflicts? Why is the U.S. government having such a difficult time giving a timetable for troop withdrawal or establishing peace in the region?

To give the mire of the Iraq conflict a sense of perspective, Kean compares it to four major historical conflicts -- but all happening at the same time and within one country.

For example, Kean says, the Iraq war is like trying to reconstruct post-World War II Germany while simultaneously trying to put down an insurgency (similar to those revolutions in el Salvador, Algeria and Vietnam), which wants to overthrow the government.

In addition, there are the warring factions between the Shiites and Sunnis -- a situation similar to what the United States faces in Bosnia when stopping Serbs and the Bosnian Herzegovina from fighting each other.

Finally, there are terrorist groups -- similar perhaps to the Irish Republican Army in Ireland. Most countries have dealt with each of these problems individually, but this gives you an idea of the scale of the problem in Iraq and the difficulty in untangling the mess of conflicting interests and groups.

Who makes up the insurgency in Iraq? Where are these fighters coming from?

The insurgency is the name for the group or groups who rebel against the current form of government in Iraq. The insurgency comprises the former members of Saddam Hussein's regime, such as the special Republican guard and militia, Kean says.

These people, those most involved in the violence under Hussein, were predominately Kurds and Shiites and became the initial foot soldiers in the insurgency. They were later joined by anti-American Sunnis who believed they would be disenfranchised by the new Shiite government.

Who is in charge now? Who controls the major areas in Iraq?

With the many conflicting loyalties in Iraq, "power is fragile and split between a lot of different groups," retired Maj. Gen. William Nash said.

"Nobody is used to the government's way of doing business," Nash said. "Democracy is new and unusual, and the government is cobbled together. It was not won by a great margin, so to govern is very difficult. … That's why [Prime Minister] Maliki has so much trouble making things happen -- because he doesn't have that much power. And he doesn't have a monopoly on force [referring to the terrorist and militant groups]. And there are no security forces [police or military] at his disposal."

The power structure can be broken down into four different groups, ABC News consultant Fawaz Gerges says.

First is the Iraqi government, which also combines with foreign coalition forces. These two formal groups are up against Shiite and Sunni militias that are not only fighting against the government and coalition forces, but also each other.

Is Iraq in the midst of a civil war? If not, what is going on? Is al Qaeda behind the violence? Is it Hezbollah?

"I think that everyone looks at Iraq and sees Iraq as already in a civil war," said Tony Cordesman, an ABC News consultant and specialist on Iraqi conflict. "But the question is not whether it's in a civil war, but what level of civil war it's in."

There are at least 12 groups within the Sunni group that are causing violence, Cordesman says. Of those, three are major Islamic extremist groups of which al Qaeda is just one.

"Al Qaeda is the symbol of Islamic extremists that use car bombings and such to deliberately try to invoke civil war," Cordesman said. "It's succeeded to the point that it's no longer acknowledgeable who's responsible. You're looking at a kaleidoscope of different groups. Many push for national unity but have been involved in responding or causing sectarian violence."

"We should spend less time on whether civil war is a domestic political issue and take action," Nash said. "Once you're sure [it's a civil war], you're too late. That's the way it is in these things. Once you're sure, you're inevitably late in reacting."

Like al Qaeda, Hezbollah is a militant Muslim extremist group. But it is Shiite and based in Lebanon, a country neighboring Iraq with a vested interested in a Shiite government.

"Hezbollah is a very capable, military force, but it's also a social force and it's had great social and political impact in Lebanon," Nash said. "You see in these groups [al Qaeda and Hezbollah] a combination of the militias evolving from purely a military force into a force that also provides social services. … They deliver government services. They're the local and de facto government."

What are the big economic interests in Iraq? And who has these vested interests there? Saudis? Syrians? Iranians?

In a word, Iraq's economy is nonexistent. After years of war, there is virtually no infrastructure, foreign investment or business.

"Iraq at this point is a very fragmented structure," Cordesman said. "It is dominated still by state-run industries -- petroleum, cement and construction. … The other basic industry is agriculture, but the only agriculture commodity exported has been dates."

While a lot of money has come into Iraq for military purposes, war doesn't feed economic development, and most of the foreign aid has been wasted.

"What's an Iraqi do when he gets up in the morning?" Nash said. "Is there an opportunity for him to be successful and care for his family?"

"Economic opportunity for the people. That's a big deal," Nash said. "And they wonder when a guy has things blowing up around him all day, how does he make a buck? Well, he doesn't."

Salbi agrees.

"The Iraqi people talk about the military," she said. "But that's only the first sentence in the conversation. Economics and education, health conditions -- people in Iraq are still talking about developing the infrastructure of the country."

The Saudis, Syrians and Iranians have almost no unified interest in Iraq. The Saudis have focused on supporting national unity and preserving stability. Their main interest is to have a unified stable neighbor to the north.

"While Iran has shown more support for Shiites. Syria has allowed almost any insurgent group to pass through Syria, but most of these groups have been Sunni," Cordesman said. "Syria has historically tried to manipulate the situation and play more of a spoiler role than anything else."

"In general what the rest of the Arab states [Jordan, Lebanon, etc.] have done collectively is to support unity to try to hold the country together to oppose division between Sunni/Shiite because if these divisions occur in Iraq, they could spread throughout the region," Cordesman said.

Soldiers from which countries are currently in Iraq?

Ten countries have sent more than 1,000 troops to the Iraq war since its start in 2003.

Those with troops still in Iraq are: The United States (250,000, with 145,000 remaining); United Kingdom (45,000, with 7,200 remaining with likely withdrawal in 2007); South Korea (3,300 with 2,600 remaining); Poland (2,400, plans to withdraw in December); and, Australia (2,000, with 1,400 remaining).

The following have withdrawn their troops: Italy (1,800 troops); Ukraine (1,650 troops); Netherlands (1,345 troops); and, Spain (1,300 troops).

What would happen if the United States pulled out of Iraq now? British, Polish and Italian troops have already expressed their desire to pull out next year, can the United States go it alone?

"If this was a sudden withdrawal, we would remove the one stabilizing force in the country," Cordesman said. "All of the factions would use violence to achieve their own interest -- whether the result would be the emergence of a strongman or unification of the country, or civil war -- we don't know. But we have to remember that there are 27 million people in this country, and in many ways our invasion gives them some responsibility for their fate."

Without foreign help, it is unlikely the United States would have much hope at establishing a stable Iraqi government and rebuilding Iraq's economy.

Economic, political, diplomatic and security forces all have to develop simultaneously in order to start creating a stable Iraq.

"If that all happens at a reasonable pace, the need for external forces will go down and the U.S. can approach a condition where they can reduce their forces," Nash said. "But none of those things have happened in the last 3.5 years -- so it's going to be tough."

Is the situation getting worse? It seems like the violence has been escalating for months.

"There's no question that the situation is getting worse," Cordesman said. "It's recognized by the command inside Iraq. There's been more than a twelvefold increase between January and October in sectarian violence. It's a clear trend towards an uncontrolled civil war."

While recognizing the deteriorating situation, there are some who still hold out hope for a better Iraq.

"I think the situation is getting worse," Salbi said. "But I think there is still hope in Iraq. We are seeing a lot of elements of hope and progress in southern [and] northern areas of the country, but Baghdad is getting worse."

"I have no reason to think we're going to have a straight line to goodness," Nash said. "But I think the vast majority of problems in Iraq lie in our footsteps, lie at our feet."

The panel of experts include Zainab Salbi, the founder and president of Women for Women International; and, ABC News consultants Fawaz Gerges, retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, Tony Cordesman, and retired Gen. Jack Keane.