EVERY DAY IN IRAQ brings more sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia factions. Such attacks have become routine events, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds. They are now much more frequent than operations targeting the occupation forces. In Baghdad the river Tigris forms a dividing line between the largely Shia left bank, al-Rusafa, and the mainly Sunni right bank, al-Karkh.
There are certainly large enclaves on both sides, especially the districts of major religious significance, the Shia al-Kadhimiya and the Sunni al-Adhamiya. But the process of polarisation, with the emergence of genuine front lines, “presages increasingly violent and well-organised fighting”, according to a representative of the Sunni Jeish Ansar al-Sunna armed group (1).
Inside Iraq and abroad the predominant view is that two communities are competing for power: Sunni Arabs, supposedly loyal to the previous regime, who have lost their longstanding monopoly of central government; and Shia Arabs, traditionally excluded from politics, for whom the allied invasion seemed a historic chance to gain the influence they deserve as the demographic majority.
This view has the advantage of being straightforward, but it overlooks the multiple objectives pursued by the various players in the Iraqi political arena. Above all it helps to maintain a dynamic that needs to be checked rather than encouraged, reducing to their lowest common denominator communities that are in fact highly diverse (2).
The temptation to see the Shia as a homogeneous community is perceptible in the current debate on whether Shia loyalties are restricted to Iraq or may be offered to Iran. In December 2004 King Abdullah of Jordan warned of an emerging “Shia crescent” and presented the Shia communities in the Gulf, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a fifth column that was controlled by Tehran and threatened Sunni interests.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak went further, claiming that historically the Shia of the Arab world had shown greater loyalty to Iran than to their home countries. Noted academics have turned such generalisations into a theory. Vali Nasr, a leading US expert on Islam, believes the Shia victory in the Iraqi election last year will remobilise all the Shia in the region, promoting common demands and identity, which in turn will serve Iranian interests (3).
Another school of thought rejects this analysis, maintaining that Iraqi nationalism will prove a much stronger force. One experienced Iranian observer said: “Solidarity between Shia groups will not transcend the basic division separating Arabs and Persians. Everyone seems to have forgotten that the Iraqi Shia fought their Iranian counterparts for eight long years during the Iran-Iraq war, the bloodiest conflict of the second half of the 20th century. The information we are getting from Iraq suggests that Iraqis, even those who lived in exile in Iran, do not welcome Iranian influence in their country.”
This is an important debate. The resurgent Shia theory tends to influence policies adopted by the United States, Arab regimes and particularly Gulf monarchies, which see any Iranian ambition as inevitably hostile. The theory fuels hatred of the Shia, which is becoming widespread in Sunni circles, regardless of their politics. Few Sunni preachers in Iraq now refrain from referring to the Shia as rawafidh (heretics), a pejorative term which has long been associated with jihadists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq until his recent death.
Not just nationalism
Alhough nationalism is a factor to be taken into account, it is not enough to explain the behaviour of Iraqi Shia during the war with Iran. At the time the process of nation-building that had started in the first half of the 20th century still held some promise. In the 1970s the Ba’athist regime was actively re-allocating resources to Iraq’s south, and this was reflected in the large numbers of police and army recruits contributed by such towns as Diwaniya or Nasiriya. Farmers welcomed the extensive agrarian reform initiated in the wake of the coup and the regime’s progressive policies won the support of many poor Shia.
However, the regime’s totalitarian methods led to the disappearance of the religious communities in Najaf and the elimination of rival political forces, particularly communism and Islamism. A people’s army more than 500,000-strong was a far from negligible factor in mobilising the Shia against Iran.
The turning point came with the first Gulf war in 1991 and the revolts that followed, heralding a period of increasing differentiation in collective identities. Kurdistan achieved a measure of independence and began to flourish after the civil war, at least economically. Elsewhere the model of a provident government based on patronage was dropped, and replaced by a predatory economy rooted in privilege, family networks and blind loyalty to the regime.
This change particularly affected members of the Shia community — officials, soldiers and small traders — who had benefited the most from the opportunities for social advancement offered by the regime. It also affected Sunni Arabs and Christians, although they generally found it easier to access resources thanks to family networks in Iraq or
In the south a policy of economic reprisals against Shia localities involved in the 1991 uprising aggravated the deepening poverty. But the idea of a martyred “Shia community” only really gained credence after the collapse of the Saddam regime in 2003, which was described by many as the overthrow of Sunni power. Under the political process initiated by the US administration, sectarian considerations governed the allocation of jobs, leading to competition between victims. Each party based its claims to a share of power on the scale of the suffering it had endured.
Supporters of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sairi), led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, drew attention to the number of anti-Saddam martyrs in his family and his key role in the 1991 insurrection. Militants loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr accused the Sairi supporters of having chosen to go into exile, having tortured Iraqi prisoners of war on behalf of the Iranians and having abandoned the rebels in 1991 by retreating too soon to Iran. Sairi responded with accusations that al-Sadr supporters had served the interests of the regime and provided it with many informers.
The rewriting of Iraqi history to allow for a Sunni-Shia dichotomy dispelled any idea of Iraqi nationalism. Iraqis of different origins have lost the points of reference they once shared. The key events of the recent past, such as the end of the monarchy in 1958, the Ba’ath takeover in 1968, the first Gulf war of 1991 or the Anglo-American intervention of 2003, are now giving rise to bitter disputes reflecting sectarian divisions.
There is no longer any attempt to redistribute national resources. Everyone is shamelessly trying to corner them for their own ends, with public bodies being broken up and privatised under the control of specific groups. People still say Iraq will surmount its divisions, but it is no longer clear what its national identity means. In practice, the arbitrary violence, nepotism and unprecedented corruption all demonstrate how important non-national loyalties have become.
Nevertheless this does not mean that Iran is the nation, by default or by adoption, to which Iraqi Shia turn. People in the south still have mixed feelings about their “Persian” neighbours. Al-Sadr exploits the Iranian origins of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in order to criticise him. The citizens of the town of al-Amara refer to their Kut counterparts as “Persians”, which they consider a contemptuous term. Portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei, are seen more often, but few Shia politicians recognise the Iranian concept of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of jurisprudence), which is a pillar of the Islamic Republic. Statements by al-Sistani about his Iranian counterparts have always been diplomatic, carefully staying within certain limits, yet firmly independent. Indeed he seems to rank more highly in Iran than its own supreme
leader, Khamenei, when it comes to the interpretation of the holy scriptures.
Iran is playing its hand in Iraq with great subtlety, spreading its influence through many channels. Tehran has encouraged its allies to take part in the political process, the better to direct it. But it has also sought to establish links with all the political players, including al-Sadr, the sworn enemy of its ally, Sairi.
At a local level Iran sponsors smaller groups, such as Tha’r Allah in Basra, without exposing itself directly. It has given only limited support to attacks against the coalition, and held back from providing insurgents with the anti-tank weapons that Hizbullah has received in Lebanon. The Khamenei establishment provides scholarships and books in Najaf. The high standard of reporting on the Iranian satellite television channel al-Alam has won a large audience among Iraqi Shia.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has also made good use of humanitarian work and economic investment to create a positive image for itself. Unlike the Gulf emirates, it welcomes tourists and pilgrims. Its comparative prosperity and tranquillity has made a big impression, revealing a more friendly and open country than many expected.
Surprisingly, Iran’s strategy is not based on a sense of allegiance but on its understanding of the Shia, whose diversity it recognises, along with their different collective identities. Iran realises that there is a deep social divide between conservative Shia (the religious community in Najaf, traders in the holy cities, urban middle classes) and the “revolutionary” masses who support al-Sadr (4).
Each of the southern towns has specific characteristics and problems. Kut is a small provincial centre that distances itself from the devolutionary demands of much of the south. Various groups are keen to command the holy city of Najaf, currently controlled by Sistani and Sairi. In Basra, several Islamist parties and their militias are struggling to gain control of resources, especially contraband oil.
The further you get from Baghdad, where confrontation between the Sunni and Shia communities makes it easier for each side to maintain a semblance of unity, the more the potential for violence between Shia groups becomes apparent. This is in stark contrast to the constant talk of reform and new initiatives in the capital.
Originally published in French, with Hamid Yasin, by Le Monde Diplomatique, 1 September 2006.
Illustration credit: Ur mosaic by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
(1) For an analysis of the main armed opposition groups, see International Crisis Group, “In their own words”, Middle East Report, no 50, Washington, 15 February 2006.
(2) See Ahmad Salamatian, “Arab spring: late and cold”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, July 2005.
(3) Vali Nasr, “When the Shiites rise”, Foreign Affairs, vol85, no 4, New York, July-August 2006.
(4) International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr”, Middle East Report, no 55, Washington, 11 July 2006.