The red-bed deposits in northern Iraq are situated in an active foreland basin adjacent to the Zagros Orogenic Belt, bound to the north by the Iranian plate thrust over the edge of the Arabian plate. The red-bed successions are composed of alternating red and brown silty mudstones, purplish red calcareous siltstone, fine- to coarse-grained pebbly sandstone and conglomerate. The red beds in the current study can be divided into four parts showing a trend of upward coarsening with fine-grained deposits at the top. A detailed petrographic study was carried out on the sandstone units. The clastic rocks consist mainly of calcite cemented litharenite with rock fragments (volcanic, metamorphic and sedimentary), quartz and minor feldspar. The petrographic components reflect the tectonic system in the source area, laterally ranging from a mixed orogenic and magmatic arc in Mawat–Chwarta area to recycled orogenic material rich in sedimentary rock fragments in the Qandel area. The Cretaceous–Palaeogene foreland basin of northern Iraq formed to the southwest of the Zagros Suture Zone and the Sanandaj–Sirjan Zone of western Iran. During Palaeogene time deposition of the red beds was caused by renewed shortening in the thrust sheets overlying the Arabian margin with uplift of radiolarites (Qulqula Formation), resulting in an influx of radiolarian debris in addition to continuing ophiolitic detritus. Mixed sources, including metamorphic, volcanic and sedimentary terranes, were present during deposition of the upper part of the red beds.