Under the monarchy, Prime Minister Nuri as-Sa'id dominated Iraq with the support of the upper-middle and upper classes. Tribal, religious, and local loyalties took precedence over any sense of Iraqi nationalism. Faisal I considered the existence of parties desirable for the political development of Iraq. During the decade 1935–45, however, they were ineffective as political factors. In 1946, five new parties were founded, including one that was Socialist (Al-Hizb al-Watani al-Dimuqrati, or the National Democratic Party), one avowedly close to communism (Ash-Sha'b, or the People's Party), and one purely reformist (Al-Ittihad al-Watani, or the National Union Party).
The response to these parties alarmed the conservative politicians. The Palestine War (1948) provided the pretext for suppression of the Sha'b and Ittihad parties. Only the National Democratic Party functioned uninterruptedly; in 1950, with the lifting of martial law, the others resumed work. In 1949, Nuri as-Sa'id founded the Constitutional Union Party (Al-Ittihad ad-Dusturi), with a pro-Western, liberal reform program to attract both the old and the young generations. In opposition, Salih Jabr, a former partisan of Nuri's turned rival, founded the Nation's Socialist Party (Al-Ummah al-Ishtiraki), which advocated a democratic and nationalistic, pro-Western and pan-Arab policy. In 1954, however, Sa'id dissolved all parties, including his own Constitutional Union Party, on the ground that they had resorted to violence during the elections of that year.
After the coup of 1958, parties "voluntarily" discontinued their activities. In January 1960, Premier Qasim issued a new law allowing political parties to operate again. Meanwhile, the Ba'athists, who first gained strength in Syria in the 1950s as a pan-Arab movement with strong nationalist and socialist leanings, had attracted a following among elements of the Syrian military. In February 1963, Qasim was overthrown and executed by officers affiliated with a conservative wing of Iraq's Ba'ath movement. In November, a second coup was attempted by Ba'athist extremists from the left, who acted with complicity of the ruling Syrian wing of the party. With the 1968 coup, rightist elements of the Ba'ath Party were installed in prominent positions by Gen. Bakr. Since then, the Ba'athists, organized as the Arab Ba'th Socialist Party, were the ruling political group in Iraq. In the national assembly elections of 1980, the Ba'athists won more than 75% of the seats at stake; in the 1984 elections, they won 73% of the seats. Elections were again held in March 1996, with only Ba'athists or independent supporters of Saddam Hussein allowed to run for seats in the Assembly. Altogether, 220 seats were contested by 689 candidates. Only Ba'ath Party members and supporters of the Saddam Hussein regime were allowed to run in the March 2000 elections as well. In the 1990s and into the new century, most real party activity in Iraq involved the country's Kurdish minority, which had established a number of political groups, most of them in opposition to the central government.
In 1991, the regime issued a decree theoretically allowing the formation of other political parties, but which in fact prohibited parties not supportive of the regime. Under the 1991 edict, all political parties had to be based in Baghdad and all were prohibited from having ethnic or religious affiliations.
Outside of Iraq, ethnic, religious and political opposition groups came together to organize a common front against Saddam Hussein, but they achieved very little until 2003. The Shi'a al Dawa Party was brutally suppressed by Saddam before the Iran-Iraq war; its remnants are now based in Tehran. In the aftermath of the 2003 war, certain Shi'a clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani and Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, emerged as political and religious leaders for the Shi'a community. Shi'a demonstrations were staged against US and British forces, and Western observers were concerned Shi'a groups would attempt to establish an Islamic theocracy in Iraq.
The two main Kurdish political parties as of 2003 were the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani. Long rivals, the two parties have been called upon to reconcile differences so as to provide for a viable future for Iraq's Kurds. The Iraqi National Congress, based in Salahuddin in northern Iraq and in London, is led by Ahmad Chalabi. The group aimed to unite all Iraqi opposition groups, and sees itself as the legitimate representative of the people of Iraq.