A State of violence: A sociological reading of the battle for Baghdad

THE EXTREME LEVELS OF VIOLENCE that befell the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 both exposed the city’s sociopolitical makeup and caused its deep transformation, a sea change that will have lasting consequences for the country. The dynamics of the conflict in Baghdad contain many clues for an accurate understanding of Iraq’s polity and society, as well as the relation between the two.

Reading these dynamics through the lens of a time-tested, visceral hatred dividing Sunnis from Shi‘a overlooks the practical goals of the actors in the conflict, such as holding ground, ensuring popular acquiescence, connecting strongholds, expanding control over key territory, and undermining the opponent’s footing. The struggle, one may argue, was less about religion than control of territorial and institutional domains, as well as material and symbolic resources. Although the players did not constitute disciplined armed forces, and although the violence they indulged in may have appeared blind and savage inasmuch as it often targeted civilians, they developed complex strategies informed by their intuitive, but at times highly acute, awareness of the socioeconomic factors at play. Whereas sectarian narratives came to dominate the actors’ rhetoric, they hardly account for the multiplicity of forms of violence.

Defining the violence that engulfed Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 in conceptual terms is an awkward task. A civil war is usually understood as pitting two or more segments of a country’s population against one another, with segments mobilized around a particular vision of national identity and the proper role of the state.(1) The episode under scrutiny here encompassed, to varying degrees, campaigns of sectarian cleansing, resistance to occupying forces, rebellion against a government deemed illegitimate, repression of the rebel armed groups by the occupying power and the government, coercion by these armed groups of their own social bases, rivalries among factions that were supposedly allied, and widespread criminal activity. Throughout, the wider society was less mobilized than submissive, not least because the armed groups failed to articulate a discernible collective project,(2) instead justifying their violence with reference to the supposed inhumanity of their adversaries.(3)

Symptomatically, civilians often expressed their confusion at the identity and purpose of the perpetrators, although these forms of violence more often than not cut right through neighborhood, professional, and kinship relations, and rested on an intimate proximity with the victims. I will therefore refer to a “state of violence” as a way of reflecting the diversity of the relevant phenomena, their aggregation into an indistinct climate of insecurity, and the conceptual opposite they form vis-à-vis a “state of law.”(4)

The hole in the middle

Part of my purpose is to examine the state’s central role in spawning the initial clashes and shaping the subsequent course of events. This role resulted from the state’s inability to provide peaceful mechanisms for addressing political conflicts, to form a common frame of reference, and to enforce its monopoly over the use and legitimization of violence. In this respect, the period—from April 2003 to February 2006—that preceded the outbreak of sustained violence on the streets of the capital set the scene through three interrelated processes.

The first was a noninclusive political process that was domi- nated by former exiles and Kurds—a result of the occupying forces’ bias (itself partly a consequence of the disorganization of Iraqi society).(5) A pool of anti-Saddam opposition groups, enjoying no popular base to speak of, apportioned leadership positions among themselves and consolidated their power through a specious “de-Ba‘thification” campaign aimed at stocking the state apparatus with loyalists. The Shi‘i underclass embodied by the Sadrist movement,(6) opposed both to the U.S. invasion and to the political elite emerging in its wake, was held at bay. The elections convened precipitately in 2005, under conditions adverse to a genuine Sunni buy-in, further distorted the government’s representativeness.(7) Around the same time, a new constitution enshrined backroom deals among the ruling elite rather than wide-ranging consultations.(8) While the state’s outreach and authority remained essentially restricted to the U.S.-controlled “Green Zone” in central Baghdad, “insurgent” groups flourished on the basis of popular grievances. This deep dis-connect between the returning exiles, whose understanding of Iraqi society was shaped above all by their alienation from it during their period of exile, and the majority of Iraqis was a by-product of over two decades of monopolization of the public space by the former regime.

The second process, which also started well before 2003 but consolidated thereafter, comes under the label of “sectarian differentiation.” For much of the twentieth century, while a specific Kurdish identity endured, Arab Iraq underwent a series of experiences that lowered communal barriers, from the rejection of British occupation to the ideological politics of the mid-twentieth century (namely the emergence of Arab nationalism and Communism) on through the Ba‘thist regime’s suppression of communal institutions and militant religious movements (both Sunni, starting in the late 1960s, and Shi‘i, mostly after the Iranian Revolution). The state’s propagation of mass education and its mandatory enrollment of the population within the state apparatus (including conscription), as well as its monopolization of public space, also contributed to this process. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the rapid expansion of an educated, state-employed, modernized middle class, within which mixed marriages were not infrequent, appeared to challenge communal structures and bore witness to the early success of policies geared toward national integration.

This trend soon aborted, however. Sectarianism, only eclipsed by the massive reality of the regime, resurfaced at its initiative, when the ruling elite interpreted the 1991 uprisings through a communal lens, blamed the violence on a “Shi‘i” act of treason, and reacted with the brutality we know, officializing and entrenching a sectarian narrative that reflected only one dimension of the revolt. (Indeed, turmoil initially stemmed from discontent within the army, but then took on sectarian undertones, partly due to the involvement of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iran-based opposition group, who split Iraq’s Shi‘i constituency down the urban/rural divide and helped rally Sunnis around the regime).(9) The 1990s were marked by a debilitation of state institutions and a revival of communal loyalties as the regime shifted its focus from social engineering to mere survival.(10) Sectarianism remained latent, as demonstrated by the remarkably uniform reactions to the regime’s demise and subsequent U.S. occupation among Baghdadis, who were predominantly in favor of the invasion from sheer weariness of the status quo. They were also, on the whole, distrustful of returning exiles and, quickly disillusioned with the occupation, supportive of the initial acts of resistance against the U.S. (and the UN) presence, while denouncing attacks causing civilian victims.(11)

What was left of an Iraqi state, both in institutional and conceptual terms, collapsed along with the regime in 2003. The occupying forces failed to preserve any institutional apparatus, tolerating extensive looting, dismantling the former security structure, and endorsing a purge at all levels of government in the name of the ill-conceived de-Ba‘thification campaign. The resulting vacuum restricted politics to an abstract exercise disconnected from the people’s practical concerns, namely security and the provision of services.

As the very makeup, boundaries, outlook, and even symbols of the state went up for renegotiation,(12) discussions mobilized numerous conflicting and hyperbolic visions. Most importantly, the state’s disintegration and the ensuing irrelevance of existing parties, programs, and ideologies (already weak in themselves) placed communal identities at the heart of the political struggle, which drifted from a debate over who would represent the state to the murkier realm of national identity and historical memory.(13) Worse still, it became shaped around competing narratives of victimhood. For both Sunnis and Shi‘a, the essentialization of the Other as an oppressor guilty of their suffering degenerated into indiscriminate forms of violence that reinforced those very narratives and, as the horror escalated, destroyed any sense of shared humanity.

The third process consisted of a privatization of violence, which also had roots in the Saddam era.(14) After 2003, the vacuum left in place of the state allowed private contractors and bodyguards, criminal gangs, militias, and insurgent groups to flourish. The U.S. response, driven by a need to bolster the central government’s coercive capabilities,(15) produced ever-larger contingents of men in arms sporting multiple loyalties. Rushed vetting and training procedures, deficient oversight mechanisms, and politicized command structures emerging from a highly polarized political elite all contributed to the privatization of the emerging state security apparatus itself, whose members served particular interests far more than an evasive common cause. Typically, at least up to 2007, civilians perceived their behavior much in the same light as that of the other armed elements within society—arbitrary and opaque.


The Sadrists’ Ascendancy

By early 2006, instances of sectarian killing were increasingly preva- lent,(16) but the destruction in February of the Shi‘i shrine in Samarra’ triggered a quantum leap in the levels of violence. The Sadrist Mahdi Army used this event as a cue to run amok in Baghdad. Arguably the most determining feature of the ensuing carnage was the role played by neighborhoods born out of the rural exodus Iraq witnessed under the monarchy. Turned into Mahdi Army strongholds, these neighborhoods served as a base from which the movement expanded its operations throughout large swathes of Baghdad.

In the first half of the twentieth century, mass emigration from the far south, notably the marsh areas in the current governorates of ‘Amara (whose share of the exodus was decisive), Dhi Qar, and Basra, led to the formation of slums, called sarayif in reference to the prevalence of huts made out of reeds, on the outskirts of Baghdad.(17) These shantytowns nurtured a distinctive socioeconomic group with a strong local identity, and were singled out as a place of social contention.(18) Construction in the 1950s and 1960s that pro- duced standard residential units of tightly knit quarters separated by perpendicular arteries—thus destroying the area’s informal habitat—illustrates the state’s desire to assert control.(19)

The marsh areas had hosted an insular society that was largely self-sufficient, geographically inaccessible, rebellious against outside authority and conscription, cut off from the Shi‘i religious establishment’s influence, and looked down upon in a traditional tribal hierarchy that assigned bedouin raiders a dominant position while placing marsh dwellers, who were buffalo breeders and rice cultivators, at the bottom. As they settled in the sarayif, rural migrants often congregated on the basis of family and tribal affiliation, with sections taking the name of a particular tribe. This marsh society thus maintained its own culture, religious practices, and way of life on the margins of wider Iraqi society.(20)
These inhabitants were feared in central Baghdad, exploited as cheap labor, and deprived of access to the kind of basic public services that could have facilitated their integration. Instead, the sarayif remained a breeding ground for proletarian movements (both secular and Islamist),(21) a refuge for criminals and deserters, and a home to an underground culture that thrived even under Saddam Hussein’s regime.(22)

As of 2003, the four major strongholds of the emerging Sadrist movement in Baghdad—Thawra (also called Sadr City) and Fudhayliyya to the east of the Tigris, and Shu‘la and Washshash on the west bank—were precisely the capital’s former sarayif.(23) Their insular quality enabled the movement to secure an almost unchallenged position of local leadership, with underprivileged youth serving as recruits for the Mahdi Army. Their feelings of deprivation and injustice translated into a commitment to a movement that offered legitimacy, a sense of fulfillment, and an eschatological promise that flowed from its religious rhetoric, along with the more prosaic forms of empowerment derived from its armed status.(24)

Following the Samarra’ bombings, the Mahdi Army engaged in a systematic sectarian cleansing campaign, expanding from the sarayif into mixed and middle-class neighborhoods.(25) Although the Mahdi Army’s factions enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, they operated in a coherent fashion. They set up local offices designed to assure inhabitants of their commitment to defend the area, encouraged the formation of neighborhood vigilantes, and brought in reinforcements from Sadrist strongholds when necessary. They sought to undermine predominantly Sunni areas by disrupting their socioeconomic fabric, such as through methodical attacks on shop owners as a way of forcing residents to flee for lack of supplies. They also strove to isolate Sunni bastions from each other, and, more importantly, from the Sunni hinterland. This particularly occurred in western Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army focused on the lifeline between the Ghazaliyya and ‘Amiriyya quarters, on one hand, and the nearby Abu Ghraib district, on the other.

All the while, groups more or less loosely affiliated with the Mahdi Army fueled their activities with the spoils of war, notably through ransoms and the appropriation of victims’ belongings. They also aided Shi‘a displaced from other quarters, providing them with accommodation and tapping into their intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods they hailed from, which helped the Mahdi Army mount retaliatory raids. Throughout the cleansing process, these factions enjoyed the aloofness of U.S. forces,(26) the passivity of the national army, the complicity of the local police, and the blessing of the Shi‘i ruling elite, who reportedly contributed to the effort by pointedly depriving Sunni neighborhoods of much-needed public services.(27)

Although the Sadrists’ relations with the Shi‘i elite had long been conflict ridden and bitter,(28) a temporary modus vivendi gelled in order to fight the common Sunni enemy. For the most part, the Mahdi Army laid no claims on predominantly Shi‘i middle-class neighborhoods such as Karrada, ‘Utayfiyya, or Kadhimiyya,(29) and refrained from challenging the hold of Shi‘i parties such as SCIRI or Da‘wa over state institutions. In other words, the Sadrist takeover of Baghdad stopped short of a bid for power. Rather, it degenerated into an ugly rampage aimed at immediate material gains, which became increasingly unpopular as these armed groups began preying on Shi‘a when the cleansing process reached completion.(30) This laid the groundwork for the government’s subsequent crackdown on the Mahdi Army.

The Sunni landscape

Sunni neighborhoods that resisted the Sadrist onslaught did so through their relatively strong internal cohesiveness—a rare feature in this sprawling capital, most of which emerged through oil-driven residential development schemes and the distribution of plots of land to civil servants in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.(31) The course of events underscored the near-complete absence of a Sunni counterpart to the sarayif, as Baghdad’s Sunni component was essentially middle class and state employed. The closest historical equivalent was the small neighborhood located just west of the Martyrs Bridge in central Baghdad called al-Takarta, in reference to the influx of impoverished migrants hailing from Tikrit.(32) But Saddam, who grew up there, completely overhauled the area, turn- ing it into a modern residential estate so thoroughly dependent on and associated with the regime that it never recovered from the regime’s demise.

Yet there was an exception. Parts of Saydiyya and Dawra in southern Baghdad were home to a disenfranchised Sunni population of rural extraction and shared many of the sarayif’s characteristics. In addition to their internal cohesion, these neighborhoods survived through their proximity to Albu ‘Itha, a village that was coopted into the intelligence apparatus during the 1980s, and ‘Arab Jabur, a plot of agricultural land held by former regime figures. Both areas served as a rear base for Sunni jihadi groups operating within the city, providing human and other resources to the neighborhoods’ vigilantes.

Aside from this exception, several other Sunni neighborhoods were more or less successful at holding off the Sadrists for a variety of reasons. The ancient neighborhoods of al-Fadhil and al-‘Adhamiyya displayed considerable cohesion. The former is a popular Sunni quarter set in one of the oldest parts of Baghdad, whose longtime residents have formed a strong local identity and tightly knit society. Although surrounded by areas that fell under Sadrist control, it became an enclave impenetrable to the Mahdi Army.The latter, a relatively affluent commercial hub centered around the ancient religious sanctuary of Abu Hanifa, shares similar characteristics, displaying a particularly dense social(33) and urban fabric going back generations.

The infamous Haifa Street, a long stretch of residential blocks that cut through poor, predominantly Shi‘i neighborhoods along the western bank of the Tigris (Shawwaka and Kraymat), is by contrast an example of disruptive modern urban planning. When this large boulevard lined with residential buildings was opened in 1985,(35) the destruction of old buildings and empty promises of resettlement left an enduring feeling of resentment among the original Shi‘i inhabitants.(35) Up to 2003, Syrian dissidents coopted by the regime and mostly Sunni Iraqi employees inhabited the flats lining the avenue. After the invasion, class contentions between the original and newer residents quickly fed into sectarian strife, while the presence of the Syrians facilitated an influx of foreign fighters.

A third and last case study can be found in the Ghazaliyya and ‘Amiriyya quarters on the western fringes of the capital. These are originally mixed, sprawling residential areas built on land distributed in the 1960s and 1970s to government employees, and their initial residents included officers in the state’s security apparatus and armed forces. Many sold off their properties soon after receiving them. Punctured by large avenues and devoid of any deep economic or interpersonal neighborhood ties, these districts could have suffered the same fate as most areas of equivalent makeup. What made the difference was the area’s close relationship with the governorate of Anbar—a hub of Sunni insurgent activity.

Before the U.S. invasion, a fraction of the neighborhoods’ inhabitants were migrants from Anbar who had settled, as is usual in such cases, in the urban setting geographically closest to their original dwellings. The link deepened as a result of an influx of displaced residents from Anbar caused by escalating U.S. counterinsurgency operations in that area in 2004. Increasing levels of violence in Baghdad also subsequently pushed Ghazaliyya and ‘Amiriyya residents to seek refuge in vicinities nearby, notably Abu Ghraib. Sunni insurgent groups supporting the fight for the capital used these quarters as a gateway to others. All in all, this part of Baghdad progressively fused with Anbar, whose eastern tip became wedged in the midst of the city.(36) Although the neighborhood had intrinsic vulnerabilities, its connection to the rural hinterland ensured the flow of resources necessary to hold off a determined Sadrist attempt to cleanse the area.(37)

Armed groups, both Shi‘i and Sunni, extended their outreach and operations in surrounding areas, leading to the sectarian cleansing of numerous middle-class residential quarters.(38) Whether they fell under the influence of Sunni or Shi‘i groups often was related to the concerned district’s particular makeup. For instance, the two contiguous, mixed neighborhoods of Andalus (better known as Dawudi) and Yarmuk, both made up of comfortable villas and large streets, came under control of Sadrist Washshash and Sunni Ghazaliyya and ‘Amiriyya, respectively. The decisive factor was the high percentage of senior officers and high-ranking former regime officials in Yarmuk, whereas civil servants, notably from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as doctors and the like, dominated Dawudi. The latter categories were particularly prone to emigrate, leaving the area largely deserted and thus vulnerable. Yarmuk’s population had fewer prospects abroad (due to political considerations), closer interpersonal ties, stronger connections to people and parts of the country involved in the insurgency, and the experience, very early on in the occupation, of harassment by U.S. forces. As a result, the neighborhood, which never became an epicenter of Sunni insurgent activity, nonetheless held out against the Sadrists as a satellite of the Ghazaliyya/‘Amiriyya nexus.

The large area called Jihad, adjacent and in many ways similar to ‘Amiriyya, initially fell to Sunni insurgents but was progressively taken over by Shi‘i militias. This process stemmed in part from Jihad’s internal division between middle- and upper-class districts built on land distributed to professionals in the 1970s and lower-class areas given to the rank-and-file of the Iraqi army in the 1980s. While all segments were initially mixed, the former were essentially emptied by a combination of Sunni extremism and Shi‘i cleansing; the latter turned into an advanced base for the Mahdi Army, supported by the nearby poor rural area of Abu Dshir.

In Hurriyya, where sectarian cleansing raged well into 2007, a strong minority of Sunnis of tribal extraction, enjoying tight relations with the Sunni hinterland in the north of Baghdad, lost ground in the face of an overwhelming Shi‘i mobilization that drew on resources from the neighboring Sadrist strongholds.(39) As these various examples show, the battle for Baghdad, composed of opposing armed groups hailing from a limited number of strongholds, engulfed much of the capital, with large swaths of the city serving as battlegrounds that were up for conquest and cleansing by one side or the other.

The missing middle classes

These conquests were reversed in the second half of 2007, as the territorial hold of militias and insurgent groups regressed due to numerous factors. The most obvious one is the armed factions’ tendency to overreach as they began to coerce and plunder their own social base. Others include the systematic erection of walls to cut off quarters from each other, shifts in U.S. strategy (notably the deployment of more troops with a mission to protect the people rather than search and destroy an evasive enemy), the unilateral ceasefire decreed by the Sadrist leadership, and a new willingness in Sunni circles to collaborate with the United States.(40) It should also be said that a number of districts were spared from thorough cleansing because of heavy security measures (Jadiriyya), their proximity to the U.S.-controlled Green Zone (some parts of Mansur), or a particularly strong sense of local solidarity (the ancient, mixed neighborhood of Bab al-Shaykh was, reportedly, a rare example)—or simply because the conflicts’ overall dynamics changed before their turn came.

The bulk of Baghdad’s districts, however, suffered massive emigration, numerous killings, and a process of sectarian consolidation. These open residential areas, often devoid of any strong local identity, difficult to defend, and inhabited by a bourgeoisie prone to emigrate rather than join the fight, were an easy prey for armed groups of both sides and were rapidly depopulated.

Such neighborhoods were the defining feature of Baghdad, which had drawn Iraqis from across the country into a highly centralized, rapidly expanding bureaucratic apparatus, and had incorporated them into a state-employed middle class. This middle class of recent provincial extraction espoused a national identity that both concealed resilient traditional loyalties and was largely dependent on the sense of pride and fulfillment derived from the state—hence its gradual weakening in the late 1980s, as the regime went financially and politically bankrupt in the course of fighting Iran,(41) and then under the gruelling U.S.-led embargo,(42) which sapped the very basis of state governance. (Ironically, the U.S. administration’s project of raiding but not ruling Iraq was premised on the belief that a body of qualified, effective civil servants could readily be harnessed into running daily business once the apex of power had been excised, while earlier U.S. policies had gutted Iraq’s civil service.)

In contrast with Basra, Mosul, or other Iraqi cities such as Najaf or Falluja, the capital never developed and sustained an urban elite with a cohesive identity that was independent from the state. In the early twentieth century, what educated, urban class existed in Baghdad was predominantly Jewish,(43) but most Jews had left by 1951.(44) The non-Jewish landed elites and well-to-do families that thrived under Ottoman rule and the monarchy disappeared with the advent of the republic, as illustrated by the declining fortunes of the al-Haydari, al-Madfa‘i, al-Chadirchi, al-Khudhayri, al-Pachachi, al-Daghestani, and al-Orfali lineages. Then, the ideological politics that took hold in the 1950s fostered the social and political ascension of outsiders; as such, the elite did not stem from an established urban group.(45)

The paradox of Baghdad lies in its rapid accession to modernity, as it evolved from a plague- and flood-ridden provincial town(46) of around 150,000 souls at the turn of the century(47) into a symbol of Arab emancipation approximately five million strong.(48) Driven first by British imperialism(49) and then by oil, this trajectory, regardless of the country’s far-reaching history and claims to be the birthplace of urban civilization, places Iraq’s capital in a similar category as Riyadh or, for that matter, ‘Amman,(50) and draws a sharp contrast with other Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo, or Beirut. Baghdad is an urban center dominated by relatively recent in-migrants and is a misleading blend of architectural modernity and traditional social structures.
Westerners’ fascination with (and the lucrative contracts entailed by) the former regime’s bold urban development schemes in the late 1970s and early 1980s(51) helped forge a lasting but deceptive perception of Baghdad as the seat of a uniquely modern Arab state. The expansion of vast residential districts composed of villas or flats reflecting social standing rather than communal belonging, which came to be the city’s most defining feature, appeared as a historic rebuttal to the mahallat of early twentieth-century Baghdad, namely small, self-contained neighborhoods divided along sectarian, ethnic, or tribal loyalties.(52) The state building process, however, never went beyond the metaphor of Haifa Street: although the initial project laid out ambitious plans for the area’s comprehensive makeover, the high-rise buildings filled with civil servants that flanked the street merely eclipsed the decaying but densely inhabited traditional habitat that remained behind.

Communal boundaries were subdued, and, within small segments of the capital, erased. Revealingly, those districts that did show cohesion as Baghdad fell into a state of violence were not archetypical products of the state-building process. Quite the opposite, the state-employed middle class proved troublingly susceptible to sectarian narratives—not only failing to resist, but very often embracing them. In sum, Iraq’s capital was a weak center, permeable to values and dynamics conflicting with those that should define the seat of power. This explains to a large extent the endurance of districts enjoying either a compelling local identity or strong ties to the rural hinterland, and of actors hailing from outside.

Repeating a historical pattern described by the Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi,(53) “outsiders” were indeed at the heart of the violence that came to pass when in 2003 the existing social order—itself imposed by a previous generations of outsiders—collapsed. In post-invasion Iraq, the reference to outsiders makes geographical sense, as former exiles, U.S. forces, foreign fighters, recent immigrants, and internally displaced populations all assumed distinctive roles in the course of events. But this outsider status is perhaps most relevant when considered in a social sense. The exercise of violence was a means of social ascension and a response to social marginalization. Unable to legitimate their rule, returning exiles strove to enforce it. Former regime officials, despondent and denied a future, mobilized to challenge them. Militias and armed groups recruited within the capital’s underclass and among its desolate youth.(54) Interestingly, in many cases self-made commanders were themselves ousted by even more wretched outcasts, such as teenagers and petty criminals, as ruthlessness increasingly became the primary factor of success.(55)

Although the events outlined here are widely understood as sectarian cleansing, it is tempting to describe them as “class cleansing.” The capital’s middle class was not simply more vulnerable to dislocation due to the nature of its social fabric and urban setting; it was also targeted very systematically. Local “notables” (e.g., doctors) were not only kidnapped for ransom but also assassinated for no other discernible reason than their mere status. Teachers and intellectuals particularly came under attack. Shop owners and entrepreneurs were racketeered and pressured to the point of hampering business. In many districts, the mutually reinforcing radicalization of armed players forced the middle class either to take sides and seek protection—thereby losing, often irreparably, its ability to embody a cohesive society—or to opt out and resort to exile.(56) Many a mixed family (intermarriage was common in some parts of Baghdad) actually split.

The apparatus of the state itself was deeply purged. Nepotism and clientelism were already pervasive when the intensification of violence further emptied institutions of their long-serving bureaucrats. In the absence of genuine parties endowed with cadres that could be recycled into ministry managers, subsequent appointments were, more than ever, based on blind loyalty, cronyism, family ties, and sectarian affiliation. In other words, the lower levels of the executive were gradually but profoundly contaminated by the ills that had characterized the political elite from the onset: its highly divided and politicized nature, its preoccupation with particular interests rather than any cross-cutting mandate, and its lack of managerial skills. The state’s institutions had been, despite the setbacks caused by the embargo, the site of a mixed, relatively progressive, and qualified population. This population was in many ways both the product and the basis of a modern state. The “class cleansing” mentioned above, although not the most visible, may be the phenomenon with the most lasting consequences for the future of Iraq, given its impact on the capital’s social and institutional landscape.

What the future holds

As of mid-2007, armed groups and militias were partly routed and partly collapsed under their own weight as a result of self-consuming dynamics.(57) The erection of “blast walls,” combined with the absence of any serious policy designed to facilitate the reintegration of returning displaced citizens, essentially froze Baghdad’s new social makeup in place.(58) Thus statements made by officials and the mainstream media of a situation “returning to normal” were stunningly shallow. The city is changed, and deeper reflection on the nature of the nascent Iraqi state, notably at a time when the occupying forces’ withdrawal is already under way, is want. Just as the rural exodus toward the capital more than half a century ago determined contemporary dynamics, as seen in the role played by the Sadrist movement, the magnitude of Baghdad’s recent transformation may have far-reaching effects that one can only guess at today.

The violence Baghdad underwent was a defining moment for the Iraqi state. The seat of power was purged of its relatively modern, secular component, and the state expanded considerably in one area—security. The rapid growth of the security apparatus, designed both to field more troops and to drain the armed groups and militias, occurred even as its most obvious problems (rushed vetting and training procedures, deficient oversight mechanisms, and politicized command structures) were essentially left unaddressed. One can only wonder what legacy a security apparatus over a million strong entails for a state that remains weak, dysfunc- tional, and divided.

The rejection of sectarianism expressed by Iraqis in recent pro- vincial elections has been brandished as evidence that the violence that wracked Baghdad was an anomaly, caused by a minority of extremists and unreflective of wider popular feelings. That may well be. But there are reasons to doubt the depth and even the relevance of any national sentiment many Iraqis currently share. First, national unity does not flow from national sentiment, but from a national contract (in principle enshrined in the constitution) upheld by legitimate institutions—a tall order in a country where an agreement on the distribution of power, territory, and resources has yet to be worked out.

Second, Iraq is home to a brutalized society, which for the bet- ter part of several decades has known little else than political turmoil, repression, war, and economic deprivation. As a result, it has shown, above all, a great degree of confusion. A majority of Iraqis embraced sectarianism just as strongly as they now denounce it, having paid such a tragic price for its (however predictable) consequences; worse, they appear just as susceptible to an anti-Kurdish Arab rhetoric that could come at a greater cost still.

Third, perhaps more than an abstract “national unity,” Iraqis crave a state capable of responding to their very concrete demands for security and services. Rejecting forms of violence that undermine the existing state while offering no credible alternative, they tend to reinvest in an idealized vision of the state as assured and assertive. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deftly exploited this desire, posing as a decisive leader. Through military victories and nationalistic rhetoric, he strengthened his individual position within the political arena, but not only did he fail to consolidate the state itself, his power actually rested on its shortcomings (notably a weak parliament, security forces susceptible to political interference, and reliance on U.S. support). As the political elite adjusts superficially, mostly for electoral reasons, to the people’s aspirations, while con- tinuing to divvy the country up among itself, there is a risk that “nationalism” will soon inspire as much contempt as “sectarianism” or “Ba‘thism.”

Finally, national sentiment is no substitute for ideological politics. Under the surface, much of Iraqi politics remains communalist, centered around the interests and solidarities of religious groups, regions, tribes, and families, as has long been the case.(59) Although coalitions of such interests and solidarities do coalesce over specific issues, that does not imply their sublimation into stabilized, programmatic formations. It is hard to imagine a genuine evolution in that direction given the discredit of ideologies (including Islamist currents of thought), the absence of parties per se, and the nature of the nascent state, which has shown itself to be an object of manipulation within the elite and a source of clientelism more than a tool to implement policy.

Originally published in Chris Toensing et Mimi Kirk (edit.), Uncovering Iraq: Trajectories of Disintegration and Transformation, 2010.

Illustration credit: Gustave Doré Destruction of Leviathan by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.  

1 Hamit Bozarslan and Peter Harling,“L’Irak : Violence et Incertitudes,” Critique Internationale 34 (2007): 9–15.

2 Bozarslan and Harling, “L’Irak.”

3 International Crisis Group, In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency (Brussels, February 15, 2006); International Crisis Group, The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict (Brussels, Feb-uary 27, 2006).

4 Bozarslan and Harling, “L’Irak.”

5 Peter Harling, “Les Dynamiques du Conflit Irakien,” Critique Internationale 34 (2007): 29–43.

6 Peter Harling and Hamid Yassin Nasser, “La Mouvance Sadriste en Iraq: Lutte de Classes, Millénarisme et Fitna,”in Les Mondes Chiites et l’Iran, ed. Sabrina Mervin (Paris: Karthala, 2007): 267–286; International Crisis Group, Voices from the Iraqi Street (Brussels, December 4, 2002).

7 Roel Meijer, “The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq,”Middle East Report 237 (Winter 2005).

8 International Crisis Group, Unmaking Iraq: A Constitutional Process Gone Awry (Brussels, September 26, 2005).

9 Faleh A. Jabar, “Why the Uprising Failed,” Middle East Report 176 (May–June 1992): 2–14; Peter Harling, “Saddam Hussein et la Débâcle Triomphante: Les Ressources Insoupçonnées de Umm al-Ma‘ârik,” Revue d’Etudes des Mondes Musulmans et Méditerranéens 117–118 (2007): 157–178.

10 David Baran, Vivre la Tyrannie et lui Survivre : L’Irak en transition (Paris: Mille et Une Nuits, 2004); Harling, “Saddam Hussein et la Débâcle Triomphante.”

11 International Crisis Group, Voices from the Iraqi Street; Peter Harling, “The Falluja Syndrome: Taking the Fight to the Enemy that Wasn’t,” Campaigning Journal 4 (2006): 26–30; Bozarslan and Harling, “L’Irak”; Baran, Vivre la Tyrannie.

12 Loulouwa al-Rachid and Édouard Méténier, “À Propos de la Violence ‘Irakienne’: Quelques Éléments de Réflexion sur un Lieu Commun,” A contrario 2 (2007): 114–133.

13 Peter Harling, “Beyond Political Ruptures: A Historiography of Social Continuity,” in Writing the History of Iraq. Historiographical and Political Challenges, ed. Hamit Bozarslan (London: World Scientific Publishing Co and Imperial College Press, forthcoming).

14 Baran, Vivre la Tyrannie.

15 Harling, “Les Dynamiques du Conflit Irakien.”

16 International Crisis Group, The Next Iraqi War?

17 Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba‘thists and Free Officers (London: Saqi Books, 2004); Pierre-Jean Luizard, “Baghdad: Une Métropole Moderne et Tribale, Siège de Gouvernements Assiégés,” Maghreb-Machrek 1 (1994): 225–242.

18 Batatu, Old Social Classes; Françoise Rigaud, “Irak : L’impossible Mouvement de L’intérieur?” in Résistances et Protestations dans les Sociétés Musulmanes, ed. Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi and Olivier Fillieule (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 2003): 197– 217.

19 Luizard, “Baghdad.”

20 Harling and Nasser, “La Mouvance Sadriste en Iraq.”

21 Batatu, Old Social Classes.

22 Rigaud, “Irak.” In 1991, these were the only Baghdad neighborhoods engulfed in the upheaval that followed Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait; in 1999, they took part in the unrest caused by the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of the firebrand imam Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement. Before the U.S. invasion, Baghdad’s middle classes, Shi‘i and Sunni alike, feared that toppling the regime would unleash the “mob” (ghawgha’) contained in the former sarayif, which indeed played some role (although not dominant) in the subsequent looting.

23 Other former sarayif, such as ‘Iwadhiya, along the Tigris, had long lost their original traits. ‘Iwadhiya became prime building land for wealthy families and regime officials.

24 Harling and Nasser, “La Mouvance Sadriste en Iraq.”

25 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser? (Brussels, July 11, 2006); International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists, and the Surge (Brussels, February 7, 2008).

26 U.S. forces occasionally intervened but because they had no sustained presence on the ground, their hit-and-run operations had little impact on the overall dynamics.

27 See in particular the memo written by U.S. national security advisor Stephen Hadley, leaked to the New York Times and published on November 29, 2006.

28 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr.

29 In the latter case, Mahdi Army elements collaborated with other Shi‘i armed groups to secure the shrine area around which Kadhimiyya is organized.

30 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Civil War.

31 Luizard,“Baghdad.”

32 Ibid.

33 Many of al-‘Adhamiyya’s original inhabitants are descendants of the Arab tribe ‘Ubayd (Batatu, Old Social Classes). The ‘Ubayd, along with the ‘Azza, also form the ancestry of many original residents of al-Fadhil (author’s e-mail communication with Loulouwa al-Rachid, February 19, 2010).

34 A detailed description of the project’s design, along with a remarkable set of illustrations, can be found at the ArchNet digital library: http://www.archnet.org/library/documents/one-document.jsp?docu- ment _id=9242.

35 The initial development plan provided for a comprehensive overhaul of the entire area, but was never carried out. See the ArchNet digital library at: http://www.archnet.org/library/documents/one-docu- ment.jsp?document_id=9243.

36 The expression is borrowed from a combatant with the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Author’s interview, January 2008.

37 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Civil War.

38 For instance, al-‘Adhamiyya’s influence encompassed Slaykh/ Qahira/Waziriya/Bab al-Muadhdham; Ghazaliyya and ‘Amiriyya’s ex- tended eastward to Jami‘a/‘Adil/Khadra’/Yarmuk.

39 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Civil War.

40 Ibid; International Crisis Group, Iraq after the Surge 1: The New Sunni Landscape (Brussels, April 30, 2008).

41 Harling,“Saddam Hussein et la Débâcle Triomphante.”

42 Pierre Darle, Saddam Hussein Maître des Mots : Du Langage de la Tyrannie à la Tyrannie du Langage (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003).

43 Batatu, Old Social Classes. Sami Zubaida describes the large presence of Jews in Baghdad’s educated middle class: “The Jews, being among the most educated and prosperous of Iraqis, constituted the major part of the urban middle class, especially of Baghdad, in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Their business community and intelligentsia played a crucial part in the formation of the modern Iraqi state and society. Apart from their prominence in trade, finance, and industry, they also participated widely in the public sphere, as civil servants (many of high rank), lawyers, including prominent judges, teachers and professors, journalists, editors and poets, and as medics. They were particularly prominent in the world of music.” Sami Zubaida, “The Rise and Fall of Civil Society in Iraq,” in Citizenship and Ethnic Conflict: Challenging the Nation-State, ed. Haldun Gülalp (London: Routledge, 2006). Christians, on the contrary, were few in number at the start of the twentieth century. Their numbers expanded considerably as rural immigrants embraced the state-building project and moved to Baghdad. But they also left the country in growing numbers. The post-2003 violence capped an emigration process that depleted their ranks over several decades. See Peter Harling, Bagdad Chrétienne à L’heure du Ba‘th Saddamien: Exil, Action et Passion des Chaldéens (2000), unpublished study.

44 Sami Zubaida, “Every day Cosmopolitanism: Jews and Others in Iraq,” ISIM Review 22 (2008): 6–7.

45 Zubaida, “Rise and Fall”; Adeed Dawisha, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

46 Batatu, Old Social Classes. The population of Baghdad reportedly reached a low point in 1831, when it fell to 27,000 inhabitants (Luizard, “Baghdad”).

47 Luizard,“Baghdad.”

48 The 1947, 1957, and 1965 censuses registered, in Baghdad province, 817,000; 1,313,000; and 2,124,000 inhabitants, respectively. Metropolitan Baghdad counted 1,745,000 souls in 1965; see L.W. Jones, “Rapid Population Growth in Baghdad and Amman,” Middle East Journal 2 (1969): 209–215. Official Iraqi statistics put the population of Baghdad province at 5,424,000 in 1997 and an estimated 7,145,000 in 2007; see the website of the Central Organization for Statistics and Information Tech- nology at http://cosit.gov.iq/index.php.

49 Caecilia Pieri, “Bagdad, 1921–1958: Aspects d’un Paysage Urbain et Architectural ‘Moderne,’” Villes et Territoires du Moyen-Orient 1 (2005).

50 Jones, “Rapid Population Growth.”

51 Sherban Cantacuzino, “Baghdad Resurgent,” Mimar 6 (1982): 56–71; Kanan Makiya, The Monument: Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

52 Batatu,Old Social Classes.

53 Al-Rachid and Méténier, “À Propos de la Violence ‘Irakienne.’”

54 “Iraq’s Lost Generation,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, December 11,2007.

55 A parallel can be made with Algeria in this respect; see Luis Martinez, La Guerre Civile en Algérie, 1990–1998 (Paris: Karthala, 1998).

56 Armed groups used techniques reminiscent of violence in Algeria—notably the desecration of bodies dumped in residential neighborhoods—to terrorize the people into essentialized loyalties. One interviewee recounted the example of a head of a dog sewn onto the remains of a decapitated captive. On armed groups and violence in Algeria see Abderrahman Moussaoui, De la Violence en Algérie: Les Lois du Chaos (Paris: Sindbad, 2006).

57 International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Civil War; International Crisis Group, Iraq After the Siege.

58 Mona Damluji, “Securing Democracy in Iraq”: Sectarian Politics and Segregation in Baghdad, 2003–2007,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21 (2010): 71–87.

59 Sami Zubaida, “Rise and Fall.”