Sectarian violence in Iraq

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Historical background[edit]

Before the creation of the Iraqi state, Iraq’s territory belonged to the Ottoman Empire and was divided into three vilayets (provinces): Mosul Vilayet, Baghdad Vilayet, and Basra Vilayet. After the First world war, the modern state of Iraq was established under a British mandate. The three vilayets together were home to a wide variety of different ethnic and religious groups. In contrast with relatively ethnic and religious tolerance under Ottoman rule, the British unified the population of the three vilayets in one nation-state and appointed, in consistence with their ‘Sharifan Solution’, the Sunni Islam oriented Faisal I of Iraq as king. The decision to implement Sunni leadership, despite a Sunni minority in Iraq, created an exclusion of other religious and ethnic groups such as Shi’ites, Kurds, and other religious minorities.[1]

With the granted independence of the state of Iraq in 1932, the struggle to create an Iraqi national identity became more apparent. Although Faisal I repeatedly tried to bring cultural values and uses of Sunni, Shi'ite and other populations together within the context of Pan-Arabism, the outcome was a more visible distinction between the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq.[2] On the one hand, Shi'ites, Kurds and other sects refused to give up their cultural values and uses. While on the other hand, the Sunnis in power tried to abolish these values and uses in cohesion with Pan-Arabism. Eventually, this has led to a clearer consolidation of the different communities which resuted in the enhancement of division among Iraq its population.[3] Furthermore, Iraq its independence and the struggle to create a national identity resulted in different unsuccessful tribal uprisings and clashes in the 1930s. The government repeatedly managed to knock down the riots and maintain its hegemony.[4]

The first officially documented attempt to outline sectarian frustrations after the establishment of the Iraqi state came with the Najaf Charter document in 1935. In this 12-point manifesto, a group of Shi'ite lawyers expressed their discontent about sectarian discrimination against the majority of the Shi'ite population and called for appointing Shi'ite judges and courts in predominantly Shi'ite areas and development projects throughout the country, especially in the South. Although this manifesto was the first effort to present the sectarian elite with political frustrations, aspirations, and demands of the Shi'ites, they remained unheard.[4]

After 1932, the Iraqi government kept expending its bureaucracy and thus, enhanced Sunni control over the state's machinery. Although greater control of the government meant fewer uprisings and rioting, sectarian tensions of the Iraqi population kept growing.[5] In 1958, a group of army officers under the leadership of General Abd al-Karim Qasim overthrew the monarchy and installed the Republic of Iraq. General Abd al-Karim Qasim was from a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite background and abolished the practice of limiting Shi'ites and other ethnic backgrounds into the military. This made him partly popular but the implementation of other policies meant tension between his regime and religious leaders.[6] Land reforms and reforms regarding family law undermined the power of religious leaders and landlords. This eventually led to a bloody overthrowing of the Qassim regime in February 1963.  A variety of Arab Nationalist army officers, primarily Sunni affiliated officers, restored not only loyalties of communalism and sectarianism but also the political power of Sunni Arab nationalists.[7] Although Abdul Salam Arif was appointed president due to its popularity, real political power was in the hands of the Ba’ath Party, which started a reign of suppression, prosecution, and executions. Approximately 3000 people were executed by the paramilitary force of the Ba'ath Party, the National Guards. Abdul Salam Arif became increasingly discontented about the excessive use of violence by the state and overthrew Ba’ath rule with a coup in November 1963. However, sectarian policies remained in place and further enhanced sectarian and inter-communal tensions.[4] Within this tense atmosphere, different officers and cliques planned military coups to overthrow Arif's rule and seize power. Eventually, by the use of two consecutive military coups in 1968, the Ba’ath Party seized power for the second time in a decade.[7]

The making of national identity under Ba'ath rule[edit]

With the resurrection of power by the Ba’ath Party, Iraq entered a new stage of nation-building. In the 1970s the government under the leadership of then vice-president Saddam Hussein nationalized Iraq's oil industry. With the revenues from the export of oil, Iraq started a project of modernization and nation-building.[8] At that time Hussein was not yet the head of the state but was widely seen as the dominant political actor. Apart from investments in infrastructure and its industry, the Iraqi government launched a program to invest in basic public goods such as schools, Universities, and hospitals.[5] By doing this, Iraq developed itself as a welfare state and encouraged the growth of the middle class at the cost of tribal allegiances. The economic expansion in Iraq pathed the way to the process of nation-building. Citizens throughout Iraq benefited from economic advancement, incomes rose and social mobility became possible, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.[9] Lisa Blaydes, a professor of political science at Stanford university describes two main strategies of cultivating national identity under Ba’ath rule throughout the 1970s and 80s. The first strategy was to enhance social integration through the success of state-sponsored development programs, which were made possible by the growth of the Iraqi economy. The second strategy was to de-emphasis sectarian identity.[10] From the start of the Ba’ath rule, the party's legitimacy was strongly bound to the tribal and regional allies of Hussein. Foremost, because without these allies, a coup was always around the corner. From 1972 onwards, Hussein actively tried to abolish the emphasis on a sectarian identity by incorporating figures from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in his governmental apparatus. Hereby Hussein made appointments based on loyalty and trust rather than on people's ethnic or religious background. While the Shi'ites and Kurds did not reach the highest levels of political power, they still managed to reach high levels of influence within the regime.[10]

Sectarian violence at the beginning of Ba’ath Rule[edit]

Under Hussein's rule, the system in which citizens, organizations, and parties were monitored intensified. The strategy behind the extensive monitoring of figures was linked to the fear of losing political dominance over Iraq.[11] Figures who were suspected of being disloyal to Ba’ath rule could face years of imprisonment.[12]

Although the Ba’ath party managed to include different ethnic and religious groups in their governmental system after 1968, opposition and violence with a sectarian nature did occur and was at times highly vocal.[13] For example, different Kurdish rebel groups unsuccessfully tried to initiate rioting and independence in northern Iraq known as the second Iraq-Kurdish war. During the same period, the Shi'ite Da’wa party gained popularity in Iraq. After its establishment in 1970, party activists initiated different riots, most noteworthy the riots in 1974 and 1977. The riots were quickly repressed by the regime due to its scale and scope.[13] So, on the one hand, the Ba’ath party propagated national identity and included different ethnic and religious groups in their government, while on the other hand, constructing a tense atmosphere where there was no room for disloyalty or opposition. When violence did break out, the Iraqi government was able to quickly crackdown the outbreaks due to its military supremacy and resources.[14]

Sectarian violence from 1979 until 2003[edit]

From the 1970s, sectarian tensions brewed underneath the surface. Primarily a vast majority of the Shi'ites were discontent about their governmental exclusion. Although Hussein propagated the abolishment of sectarian ideologies and the inclusion of different sects in the military and other governmental institutions, by 1977 only Sunnis maintained positions in the Revolutionary Command Council, the highest form of authority. Moreover, the pursuit of enemies and disloyal people to the regime intensified. For example, Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Iranian citizens were being deported out of Iraq with the motivation of being foreigners, which was often referred to as an act of sectarian cleansing at that time.[15]                                                        

The sectarian tensions surfaced with the outbreak of the Iranian revolution and the Iraq-Iran War in 1980. In 1979 the Iranian revolution took place under the leading of Shi'ite Grand ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Iranian monarch Shah Reza Pahlavi was overthrown, pathing the way to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini started a propaganda campaign aimed towards Shii'tes in Iraq to follow the ideologies of the Iranian revolution and to revolt against the Sunni dominated regime of Hussein to eventually overthrow it.[16] In 1980, Hussein declared war on Iran and tried to annex the oil-rich Iranian Khuzestan province. Although Hussein had political and economic motivations to go to war with Iran as he later declared in a series of interviews with the FBI: ‘Iran had broken the 1975 Algiers agreement concerning the waterway and interfered in Iraqi politics, this left Iraq no choice but to fight’.[17] The war was also fought on religious grounds. As Hussein later recalls: ‘Khomeini believed the Shi'ite population in Southern Iraq would follow him, especially during the war with Iraq. But, they did not welcome him and remained loyal, fighting the Iranians’.[17]

During the eight years of war, Hussein and his Ba’ath party tried to gain support from citizens with a Shi'ite, Kurdish, and Sunni background by making generous contributions to their communities. For example financial support to  Shi'ite Waqf's and the restoring of Imam Ali’s tomb.[18] Despite far-reaching efforts by Hussein and his Ba’ath party to gain support among different sects, sectarian tensions kept rising, mainly due to the Iraq-Iran War..

During the war years, Shi'ite soldiers, officers, and citizens flew the country and sought refuge elsewhere, primarily in Iran and Syria.[19] In addition, war casualties on both the Sunni and Shi'ites sides further enhanced rivalry among these groups.[20] Although the majority of people with a Kurdish background were not subjected to high casualty rates during the war, Hussein saw the activities from Kurdish political groups as a betrayal against his regime. The groups were being accused of cross-border military and intelligence cooperation with Iran. The Ba’ath regime punished these activist groups in northern Iraq by using extensive violence. This echoed further into their community, contributing to a stronger sentiment of sectarian division.[21]

In the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran War, sectarian distrust exploded and became more visible during the first Gulf War, initiated by the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Coalition forces responded by bombing Iraqi targets, mainly in the southern regions of Iraq. These counterattacks affected particularly Shi'ites, which endowed both casualties and damage to infrastructure.[22] Following the retreat from Kuwait in 1991, uprisings erupted throughout 14 of the 18 provinces in Iraq.[15] The rebels were mainly Shi'ites and attacked the existing political power but also their social exclusion under Ba’ath rule. The uprisings were predominantly religious in nature with the protesters showing pictures of Shi'ite religious leaders, such as Khomeini, and religious symbols.[15] As researcher and journalist Khalil Osman describes the uprisings:

"The rebellion in southern Iraq was marked by a vigorous assertion of Shi’ite identity, featuring overtly Shi’ite religious symbolism and rhetoric.… But the passionate and strident assertion of Shi’ite identity vis-à-vis the despotic Ba’athist state gave rise to fears and feelings of exclusion among Sunnis, which resulted in their loss of sympathy for the rebellion."[23]

The uprisings were eventually suppressed by the use of brutal force and extensive violence by the regime.[15] Although the restoration of Sunni state control and security proofed to be a hurdle for the Ba’ath regime, they managed to restore order.[24] Besides different assassinations on political and religious influential figures in the 1990s, widespread sectarian violence in Iraq exploded again after the removal of Hussein from office in 2003.

Sectarian violence between 2003 and 2005[edit]

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq in which Hussein and his Ba’ath party were removed from office, sectarian violence increased and later exploded following the parliamentary elections in 2005 into a Civil War.

Due to the political power vacuum after the removal of Hussein, different factions with different religious and ethnic backgrounds tried to gain power.[25] The major parties where: The Mahdi Army, The Ba’ath Loyalist, Kurdish Separatists, and Al-Qaeda. The Shi’ite Mahdi army under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr fought against the US-led coalition forces following their ideology of an Iraqi state without Western influence. In turn, Al-Qaeda and other Sunni orientated militias fought against the Mahdi army, smaller Shi’ite factions, and the coalition forces.[26] During the power vacuum from 2003 to 2005, attacks between the parties, militias, and coalition forces occurred frequently, causing tremendous amounts of casualties on all sides although, exact numbers are uncertain.[27] After the parliamentary elections of 2005 in which a coalition of Shi’ite parties won, sectarian violence exploded, pushing Iraq into a Civil War (see also: Sectarian violence in Iraq (2006–2009)).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Preston, Zoë (2000). The crystallisation of the Iraqi state: Geopolitical function and form. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. p. 25. ISBN 9783039100675.
  2. ^ Masahla, N. (1991). "Faisal's Pan-Arabism, 1921-33". Middle Eastern Studies. 27 (4): 679–693. doi:10.1080/00263209108700885. JSTOR 4283470.
  3. ^ Preston, Zoë (2000). The crystallisation of the Iraqi state: Geopolitical function and form. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. pp. 235–242.
  4. ^ a b c Osman, Khalil (2014). Sectarianism in Iraq: The Making of State and Nation Since 1920. London: Routledge. pp. 72–73. ISBN 9781315771267.
  5. ^ a b Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 62–65. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  6. ^ Sassoon, Joseph (2012). Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party, inside an authoritarian regime. Washington: Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–25. ISBN 9781139042949.
  7. ^ a b Osman, Khalil (2014). Sectarianism in Iraq: The Making of State and Nation Since 1920. London: Routledge. pp. 76–80. ISBN 9781315771267.
  8. ^ Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  9. ^ Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  10. ^ a b Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 69–70. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  11. ^ Sassoon, Joseph (2012). Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. Washington: Cambridge University Press. p. 195. ISBN 9781139042949.
  12. ^ Tripp, Charles. (2007). A history of Iraq (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 190–200. ISBN 978-0-521-87823-4. OCLC 137221655.
  13. ^ a b Blaydes, Lisa, 1975- (10 July 2018). State of repression : Iraq under Saddam Hussein. New Jersey. pp. 70–74. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3. OCLC 1037351972.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Bengio, Ofra. (1998). Saddam's word : political discourse in Iraq. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-19-535418-8. OCLC 57365454.
  15. ^ a b c d Alkifaey, Hamid (2018). The failure of democracy in Iraq : religion, ideology and sectarianism. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-429-44215-5. OCLC 1057243408.
  16. ^ El Azhary, M.S. (2012). The Iran-Iraq war : historical, economic, and political analysis. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-136-84176-7. OCLC 802047333.
  17. ^ a b Piro, George L. (8 February 2004). "Interview session 2" (PDF). The National Security rchive. Archived from the original on 1 July 2009. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  18. ^ Bulloch, John (1991). The Gulf War : its origins, history, and consequences. Morris, Harvey. London: Methuen. pp. 75–76. ISBN 0-413-61370-4. OCLC 26096939.
  19. ^ Alkifaey, Hamid (2018). The Failure of Democracy in Iraq: Religion, Ideology and Sectarianism. London: Routledge. p. 126. ISBN 9781315771267.
  20. ^ Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 84–88. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  21. ^ Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  22. ^ Blaydes, Lisa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  23. ^ Osman, Khalil (2014). Sectarianism in Iraq: The Making of State and Nation Since 1920. London: Routledge. p. 84. ISBN 9781315771267.
  24. ^ Blaydes, LIsa (2018). State of Repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 91–93. ISBN 978-1-4008-9032-3.
  25. ^ Owen, Roger (2014). The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 111–112. ISBN 978-0-674-50489-9.
  26. ^ Pirnie, Bruce, 1940- (2008). Counterinsurgency in Iraq (2003-2006). O'Connell, Edward., National Defense Research Institute (U.S.). Santa Monica, CA: Rand. pp. 21–28. ISBN 978-0-8330-4584-3. OCLC 234317859.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  27. ^ Bump, Bump (20 March 2018). "15 years after the Iraq War began, the death toll is still murky". The Washington Post. Retrieved 21 May 2020.