The Specter of Sectarian and Ethnic Unrest in Iraq

by Nicholas Blanford | published January 7, 2004

The ominous specter of sectarian and ethnic unrest in Iraq is growing more visible as the country struggles to forge a new identity and system of rule in the wake of Saddam Hussein's downfall. Though such unrest did not explode immediately after the end of the former regime, as some commentators had predicted, in the past few months, Sunni and Shiite Arabs have clashed in Baghdad. Tensions are also on the rise between Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkomans in the ethnically mixed and oil-rich regions around the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. The intercommunal strife is aggravated by the aggressive counter-insurgency tactics employed by the US military in the "Sunni triangle" where most attacks upon occupation soldiers have occurred, occupation policies which seem to favor the Shiites and the Kurds, and the failure of the occupying powers to restore stability.

Political divisions related to Iraq's diverse ethnic and sectarian composition are not new. Traditionally, Sunni Arabs have dominated the central government of Iraq since the country gained formal independence from Britain in 1932. Sunni hegemony was reinforced during Saddam Hussein's brutal tenure when the Kurdish and Shiite Arab communities were viewed as potential threats to the regime and persecuted mercilessly. Nor have communal tensions necessarily been foremost in the public mind since the conclusion of "major combat." The complaints heard from all Iraqis, regardless of faith, creed or ethnicity, concern the frustrations of daily living—the lack of security, jobs, electricity and fuel, compounded by spiraling prices. The ouster of Hussein's Baathist regime and the vagaries of the US-British occupation, however, have thrown the political future of Iraq into doubt. In this atmosphere, the often competing agendas and interests of the various communities are expressed consciously and forthrightly in sectarian or ethnic terms.

Reversal of Fortune

Under Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arab political power was mainly vested in the Baath Party, the security services and the army. Following the disintegration or dissolution of these institutions, the Sunnis fear marginalization at the hands of the Shiite community, the largest sect in the country. According to most estimates, Shiites comprise 60-65 percent of the population while Sunnis (Arabs and Kurds) comprise 32-37 percent, with the remainder made up of Christians and smaller minorities. Some Sunni Arabs have launched attacks upon the US-led occupation, which they view as leading to Shiite domination of positions of power. The weakness of the Sunni polity is evident in the composition of the US-appointed interim Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Of the five Sunni Arabs represented on the 25-member council, only two belong to political parties, neither of them carrying much weight.

By contrast, the main Shiite and Kurdish political parties are well-represented. The two main Kurdish parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani and the older Kurdistan Democratic Party headed by Masoud Barzani—enjoyed a degree of autonomy following the 1991 Gulf war in the twin Kurdish enclaves of northern Iraq. After the fall of the old regime, the Kurdish members of the IGC are pressing for greater autonomy in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, a position which other communities perceive as weakening the consensus that Iraq should remain whole rather than split into ethnic and sectarian statelets. The Shiite religious parties who sit on the IGC are centered around the traditionally powerful Shiite clergy. They include the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which fields a military wing called the Badr Brigades, numbering about 10,000 fighters, al-Da'wa, one of the oldest Shiite parties in Iraq, and the Iraqi Hizballah, composed mainly of "marsh Arabs" living in the south of the country. After decades of oppression, the Shiites expect a leading—if not the leading—role in the country's governance.

Apprehensive about the prospect of Shiite dominance, in the last week of December 2003 Sunni Arabs representing three Islamist trends, as well as urban professionals and tribal leaders, convened a national consultative (shura) council. The council aims to present a unified Sunni voice to the occupation authorities and to fellow Iraqis. "We never needed a body like the shura council before," Sunni cleric Harith Dhari told the Washington Post. "But now we need it to look after our political, social and religious affairs." Spokesmen for the body have declined to back or denounce the insurgents, though they rhetorically support an Iraqi right of resistance to occupation. The overtly communal basis of the council finds echoes in other recently constituted bodies which appear more ready to take up arms. On January 5, 2004, al-Hayat, a pan-Arab daily based in London, reported that the Sunni "Clear Victory Movement" plans to establish a militia in response to the "Mahdi Army" assembled by the young Shiite cleric Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been a vocal critic of the occupation from early on. The Movement has sworn to oppose the US military presence if the Sunnis are not better integrated into the existing political order. These events followed several instances of intercommunal violence in the preceding month.

Shattered Communal Peace

Simmering hostility between Sunnis and Shiites boiled over in an incident in the Hurriyya district of western Baghdad which largely went unreported. The residents of the neighborhood, more or less equally divided between Sunnis and Shiites, say that the two communities formerly lived in harmony, with intermarriage commonplace. On December 9, three Sunnis were killed in an explosion at the Ahbab al-Mustafa mosque. Sheikh Faruq al-Batawi, imam of the mosque, claimed that two rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the building from the roof of an adjacent school, killing three men standing in the courtyard shortly after dawn prayers. He blamed the attack on Shiite "outsiders," naming the Badr Brigades and al-Da'wa, who spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in exile. "The relations with the Shia have always been very good here," he said. "Only the Shia who have come from outside Iraq want to cause problems." The Shiites in the neighborhood had a different take on what happened. They said that the victims were "Wahhabi" resistance fighters, referring to the austere branch of Sunni Islam that is prevalent in Saudi Arabia. Iraqi Shiites often inaccurately describe Iraqi Sunni Islamists as Wahhabis. The men died, the Shiites claimed, when a bomb they had manufactured exploded prematurely as they were placing it in a car beside the mosque.

The two versions were irreconcilable, both sides preferring to believe the worst of each other. Communal peace in Hurriyya was shattered by one violent incident. Both Sunni and Shiite clerics urged calm and reconciliation. But there was little disguising the distrust felt by Sunni clerics toward their Shiite counterparts, as well as the numbers commonly cited to show Shiite majority status. "In their [Shiite] mosques, they announce their enmity to the sahaba [the term given to the companions of Muhammad, used in a derogatory sense by the Shia]," said Sheikh al-Batawi. "They think that the Sunnis are a minority in Iraq. But if you connect all the provinces and the Kurds, we are 64 percent of the country." Reflecting the new sectarian consciousness of the Sunni Arabs, Batawi went so far as to assert that, "If there is a sectarian war, the Kurds will side with the Sunnis." He claimed that similar attacks against Sunni worshippers had occurred in Baghdad in previous weeks.

Hooded Sunni gunmen wearing identity badges declaring them to belong to the "Khalid ibn Walid Forces" flooded the district. The morning after the bombing, the gunmen stormed a husseiniyya, a Shiite prayer house (formerly a Baath Party headquarters) some 300 yards from the mosque. The gunmen ransacked the husseiniyya, tearing up pictures of Imam Ali, smashing the minbar, the black-painted pulpit from which Shiite clerics deliver sermons, and ripping out the loudspeaker system. Furious Shiites clamored for revenge. "I am facing a lot of pressure to let my people fight them," said Sheikh Mahdi al-Muhammadawi, a local Shiite cleric. "But I reject this and call instead for a peaceful solution because otherwise the results will be seen in the graveyards and the hospitals." Tensions subsided over the following days, but the series of events soured relations in Hurriyya and was indicative of a growing sectarianism on the streets.

The explosion and the despoliation of the prayer house were not isolated incidents. On December 16, two days after Saddam Hussein was captured, Shiite residents of Baghdad's Kadhimiyya district entered the Adhamiyya neighborhood to celebrate. Sunni residents of Adhamiyya resented the intrusion and clashes broke out, leaving more than a dozen people dead. On December 24, four Sunni worshippers were shot dead in a drive-by shooting as they emerged from a mosque in the Shiite-dominated Washash district. The Board of [Sunni] Muslim Clerics accused a "foreign power," a reference to Iran, of engineering the killings "in the context of instigating sectarian warfare."

In Search of Balance

Leaders of both communities tend to underplay the depth of sectarian sentiment in the country. Sheikh Kardom al-Awadi, a Shiite cleric from the town of Samawa in southern Iraq, ruled out the prospect of sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites. "We get closer to God by loving the Sunnis," he said. "It's obvious we have been suffering but that doesn't mean that we want to get the better of others." Sheikh al-Awadi is a close aide to Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr. Despite assurances from the Shiite community, Sunnis remain wary of Shiite political aspirations. "If it happens that the Shia and Kurds rule Iraq, the country will never be safe and stable, not for hundreds of years," said Sheikh Abd al-Karim al-Qubaysi, a prominent Sunni cleric in Baghdad. "This is not a threat. The Sunnis are not declaring war. We always call for brotherhood and dialogue. But we will not allow anyone to cancel out our role in Iraq. Just as Iraq needs Shia clerics and leaders, so Iraq needs Sunni clerics and leaders. There must be a balance between the two. Iraq will never calm down unless the two sides are equal."

The main reason for Shiite magnanimity toward the occupation forces is the expectation that they will reap the rewards in the new Iraq by virtue of their superior numbers. Indeed, it is only the powerful Shiite clergy that is keeping the community in check. The average Iraqi Shiite has as little regard for his occupiers as his Sunni countrymen. It would be a serious mistake to assume that Shiite quiescence is a sign of approval for the occupation. "Patience has its limits and we are waiting because we are tired of seeing tanks and soldiers and listening to the sounds of explosions," Sheikh al-Awadi said. "The existence of the Islamic clerics exerts a spiritual control over the people. If these people were released, there is no one that could stop them. The wisdom of the hawza [the highest institute of Shia religious learning] is holding the people back."

Shiite political ambitions are on a collision course with Sunni Arab fears of being left out. If the Shiites fail to receive what they feel is their due and if the poor state of basic services is not drastically improved, there is a very real risk of a Shiite resistance emerging. That would effectively sound the death knell of the foreign military presence in Iraq. While the current insurgency may be fragmented and ad hoc, the well-organized Shiite groups—some of which were trained by the Iranian military and have combat experience—would make the occupation untenable. Yet an Iraq in which the Shiites have a greater say than the Sunnis will feed the latter's fears of isolation and possible persecution, undermining any motivation to cooperate with the new order. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and their bosses in Washington and London are aware of this dilemma. Following Saddam Hussein's capture on December 14, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a point of addressing Iraq's Sunnis. "To the Sunnis, whose allegiance Saddam falsely claimed, I say there is a place for you playing a full part in a new and a democratic Iraq. To those formally in Saddam's party, there by force and not by conviction, I say we can put the past behind us," he declared.

Paramilitaries in Place

Yet the policies of the US-British occupation have to some extent served to reinforce ethnic and sectarian tensions. In northern Iraq, elements of the peshmerga, the militias of the two Kurdish parties which number 35,000 men in total, conduct security operations with the US military, usually against Sunni Arabs. The Kurds remain staunch allies of the occupation authorities, who view them as a useful ally against Sunni militants. But there is a price to be paid. The northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, both of which have mixed Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations, as well as minorities of Turkomans and Christians, have witnessed spurts of ethnic violence in the past six months. In early January, several Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk were killed in clashes with Kurdish militias, furthering resentment among the local Sunni community which fears Kurdish efforts to incorporate the city and its petroleum-producing environs into a partially autonomous Kurdish entity.

In early December 2003, US troops accompanied by Kurdish militiamen sealed off the town of Hawija, 35 miles west of Kirkuk, arresting residents, seizing weapons and partially bulldozing the house of a suspected militant. The Sunni Arab residents of Hawija viewed the day-long operation in ethnic terms, arguing that the Kurds were seeking to incorporate the town into the Kurdish area. At times, the occupation authorities can appear surprisingly oblivious to the consequences of their actions. For example, in December, the US military announced a plan to establish a new battalion composed of volunteers drawn from mainly Shiite and Kurdish militias to conduct counter-insurgency operations. The militias slated to participate in the new battalion include the Badr Brigades, the peshmerga of the two main Kurdish parties, and the military wings of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) led by Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite businessman close to the Pentagon, and the Iraqi National Accord of Iyad Allawi, another Shiite and former exile with ties to the CIA and the State Department. The leaders of all five parties sit on the Iraqi Governing Council.

Back on August 31, 2003, Chalabi had written an editorial for the Washington Post urging the US to put INC and Kurdish paramilitaries to work helping the Marines find what were then still known as "regime remnants." The idea was summarily dismissed at the time, but five months later, the US adopted it. This plan immediately came under fire from Sunnis who viewed the Shiite-Kurdish military unit in sectarian terms. "This organization put forward by the political parties is a bomb that could explode at any time," said Sheikh Abd al-Karim Qubaysi, a Sunni cleric. In fact, the battalion would probably have a negligible impact on the insurgency. But its planned creation unnecessarily reinforced Sunni Arab fears of isolation and persecution.

Vicious Cycle

The US military's counter-insurgency tactics in the "Sunni triangle" north and west of Baghdad is having a similar effect. It is not lost on the Iraqis that the US military has embraced some of the tactics used by the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza. Massive displays of firepower, sealing off villages with razor wire, mass arrests and bulldozing houses of suspected militants have become commonplace. Sunni mosques have been raided and senior clerics detained. While those tactics have helped temporarily reduce the number (if not the lethality) of attacks against US troops in the "Sunni triangle," they have only increased the sense of resentment among Sunnis toward the occupation. The Americans are falling into the same vicious cycle that ensnared the Israeli army in south Lebanon in the early 1980s: cracking down on the guerrillas fuels support for the resistance, which leads to more repressive measures, and on and on. The US army views its counter-insurgency efforts largely in military terms. However, political measures are equally, if not more, important for diminishing the violence of opposition. The efforts of the CPA are concentrated on the quite different goal of managing the transition to an indigenous interim government, selected by complicated caucuses, on the White House's electoral timetable. But the new Sunni shura council has echoed the demand, widespread among the Shiites, for direct elections.

Unless Sunni Arabs feel they have a stake in the new Iraq, it is difficult to see how their various kinds of resistance to the military occupation and its political program can be defeated. The signs for the future, as the Sunnis organize explicitly under the sectarian banner, are not encouraging. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan voiced the worries of many Iraq watchers when he observed upon the announcement of the Clear Victory Movement: "That's all we need, another communally based militia."

Filed under: