Beyond political ruptures: Towards a historiography of social continuity in Iraq

ATTEMPTING TO UNDERSTAND present-day Iraqi tribal, religious, class, political, generational, geographical, and social fault lines makes little sense without taking the longer view. In the wake of the 2003 invasion and subsequent ill-conceived U.S. occupation policies, the collapse of the Iraqi state created a sociopolitical discontinuity — indeed an aberration — leaving a vacuum that quickly filled up with identity politics, ethno-sectarian entrepreneurs, social outsiders and communal structures. None of these, however, appeared ex nihilo, but rather constituted indices of continuity, albeit distorted. This article will attempt to illuminate the underlying dynamics of contemporary sociopolitical trends in Iraq by connecting them to several profound transformations the country witnessed under the former regime.

To date, few scholarly works have successfully incorporated Iraq’s pre- and post-2003 eras into a meaningful historiographical continuum. Although Saddam Hussein has departed this realm, the legacy of his regime has not yet faded, and indeed still affects Iraq. The period between the 1968 coup d’état and the 2003 U.S. invasion was formative, yet remains understudied. Scholars and policymakers alike tend to simplify the complexities and ambiguities of this 35-year period, arguing that the former regime erased both society and politics, leaving post-invasion Iraq a blank slate. A vast body of emerging work either overlooks the previous era completely, treating it as a Dark Age of social immobility and debilitation, or relies on generalities and assumptions that are just as sweeping as they are questionable.[i]

Regrettably, the academic body of knowledge on the Saddam era is patchy; even its corner stone studies are decontextualized and unsupported by related pieces of work (Aziz-Chaudhry 1991, Fernea and Louis 1991, Graham-Brown 1999, Rigaud 2003, Steavenson 2009, etc.). Clearly, Iraq’s inaccessibility to scholars and researchers from 1968 to 2003 contributed to the dearth of sociological studies. The literature that does exist centers on the issues of power, the regime’s repressive social engineering, and its antagonistic foreign policies. Iraq studies are not much different, though, than Middle Eastern studies in general (Khalidi 1991), most of which have focused on the politics of regime-society relations and elites rather than larger segments of society and informal social structures and processes. This scholarly bias was magnified in the case of Iraq because Saddam’s regime was viewed through the lens of a deterministic and totalitarian school of thought imported from the field of Soviet studies (al-Khalil 1989). Furthermore, academic scrutiny of social trends unrelated to the regime ran the risk of being dismissed as trivial, naïve, or worse– malevolent, by focusing on anything other than the severity of repression.

Such theoretical and ideological limitations, as well the practical obstacles to conducting field research, have made it tempting and expedient to ignore the Saddam era altogether. In very practical terms, the assumption that Iraq’s society was defeated and chaotic greatly influenced the United States’ post-invasion attempts at social engineering.

A serious sociological analysis capable of bridging the 2003 rupture must examine historiographical continuities, whereas analyses focused narrowly on the sole issue of power tend to emphasize political discontinuity and social dysfunction. In Iraqi historiography, attention to political disruptions at the national level too often occludes processes of identity formation and social organization at the infra- or supra-national levels.

The 2003 Rupture/Transition

Much can be learned from the abrupt 2003 transition itself, particularly the depth of what can be termed a “national deconstruction process” (Harling, 2007a), which was only prolonged by a highly disruptive U.S. occupation. The fall of the regime gave way to a desolate landscape: state institutions were thoroughly looted, often by employees ransacking their own sources of income,[ii] revealing a powerful survival ethos focused on instant gain in the face of uncertainty. Previously powerful tribal leaders appeared bewildered and helpless;[iii] exiled Islamist parties returned, and upon discovering that they had no significant social base, turned to U.S. sponsorship, militia activity and sectarianism. Former regime officials were at pains to reorganize themselves into an effective opposition.[iv] While the traditional Shiite marja‘iya was challenged by an expansive Mahdist movement,[v] the Sunni religious establishment, which was by and large associated with the regime, was overtaken by a rising, if disorganized, Salafist undercurrent.

The 2003 rupture created an extraordinary “bestiary” of political and religious tendencies,[vi] the proliferation and weaknesses of which paved the way to the U.S. administration’s social engineering pipedreams (Harling, 2007a). The former regime’s monopoly of the public sphere, which had rendered Iraqi society largely invisible to itself, gave way to a multitude of political players espousing fragmented, conflicting, and hyperbolic identities. All were striving to distinguish themselves from each other by stressing their “genuine” Iraqi credentials (as opposed to the allegedly “false pretences” of rivals), in order to carve out a share of the emerging public space.

This unstable political environment of fading institutions and surplus symbols was vulnerable to the occupier’s own intentions and designs. Not only was the United States in a position to fill in the void left by the former regime, but large swaths of Iraq’s political elite, disoriented and fractured as they were, also expected it to do so. Ordinary citizens themselves, who often were suspicious of the elite’s background and intentions, at first pinned their hopes on the possibility of a benevolent occupation (Baran, 2004).

The establishment of a political system based on simplistic ethno-sectarian calculations was the outcome of both U.S. misconceptions and the returning exiles’ need to endorse whatever power-sharing agreement could entrench their positions. Communal narratives flourished throughout the diaspora during the 1990s, as exiled politicians failed to articulate any credible vision in the ideological realm. Long before the regime was toppled, ethno-sectarianism had become the organizing principle structuring relations between various opposition groups.

The challenges posed by the exiles’ lack of a social base in post-2003 Iraq became obvious as the country’s socioeconomic fabric, political institutions, and national identity quickly unraveled. This state of affairs initially precluded any structured opposition from the inside and generated indeterminate and easily exploitable rifts (Gordon 2008). In this context, sectarianism emerged as a resource offering nominal representativeness to figures devoid of social backing, thus enabling them to displace the dominant fault line which, in the first few months after the regime’s collapse, opposed “exiles” to “insiders.”[vii]

Arguably, the dismantling of what remained of the state, through the decreed dissolution of the security apparatus and the infamous “de-Baathification” project, reflected the new elite’s desire to foreclose any potential resistance to their flimsy hold on power. The opposite, in fact, happened. De-Baathification was made to fit partisan ambitions and sectarian narratives rather than the requirements of state-formation and transitional justice. Demotions were frequently based not on past crimes, but rather, on the need to make room for political appointees in reaction to the Sunnis’ alleged domination of the former regime. Although sectarian narratives had already appeared in the wake of the 1991 repression (al-Rachid and Méténier 2007), the regime had simultaneously manipulated and contained them. The former exiles’ resort to these narratives breached what was left of the dam of a unified Iraqi nationalist ideology.

Narratives of victimhood hardened along ethno-sectarian lines as the U.S. occupation discriminated against Sunnis allegedly beholden to Saddam (Harling 2006), nurtured uncompromising Shiite claims of “ownership” over the Iraqi state, and acquiesced to unrealistic Kurdish ambitions (both territorial and ideological). The 2005 polls and a rushed constitutional process anchored these dynamics within the political system, guaranteeing enduring violence pending a sustainable agreement on power sharing, resource allocation, and territorial dispute resolution.

As Iraq began to founder, U.S. officials, rather than taking stock of the side effects of their policies and correcting course, developed their own narrative of externally driven violence, focusing on al-Qaeda and regional spoilers. U.S. policies clearly contributed to a number of other troubling trends, of which we can list but a few.

The Sadrist current developed a dialectic relationship with the occupier (Harling and Nasser 2007). The United States responded to the politicization of Iraq’s Shiite under class, animated by social grievances, political exclusion, patriotic feelings, and Mahdist inclinations, by furthering its marginalization while simultaneously ensuring its utmost visibility (to others and to its nascent self) in the mainstream media. An intra-Shiite struggle for power deepened when Washington took sides with a coalition of conservatives against these revolutionary masses (Malley and Harling 2006). Furthermore, the occupation’s view of Tehran’s interference solely through the lens of subversive action overlooked an Iranian strategy of influence over and investment in both militant groups and “legitimate” players. While the U.S. focused single-mindedly on so-called “special groups,” Iran exploited multiples channels of leverage, from humanitarian aid to theological scholarships to religious tourism (Harling and Nasser 2006).

The occupation factor, however, should neither be overstated nor ignored. It may be tempting, for instance, to reconstruct sectarianism as an exogenous and manipulative device introduced by the United States (Ismael and Fuller 2009), or, on the contrary, as the consequence of centuries of hatred and decades of totalitarian rule that the occupier simply “inherited” and now had to contain (Bremer 2006). The invasion revealed, enabled, and exacerbated pre-existing phenomena more often than it generated them in and of itself. Ironically, many of the challenges that U.S. authorities confronted after 2003 derived in part from past U.S. policies, e.g., blind support for Saddam in the 1980s and a blanket chastisement of his people after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Contemporary socio-political trends generally have deep roots in earlier periods, as every historian knows. Some of the more dramatic recent developments in Iraq stemmed from undercurrents largely unnoticed during the former regime, which only accelerated as the post-invasion power structure evolved. To be sure, Saddam Hussein’s initial, oil-fuelled drive toward national modernization, mobilization, and aggrandizement suppressed alternative social trends such as tribalism, Islamism (both Sunni and Shiite), non-Baathist forms of Arab nationalism, and of course Communism. The mechanics of Baathist repression have been the focal point of academic and journalistic literature alike since the early 1990s, obscuring nuanced and systematic shifts in the regime’s rapport with society.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein’s personal power was built at the expense of the country’s institutions, including the regime’s own social foundations, such as the president’s tribe and family, the security apparatus, and the Baath party, not to mention the state (Baran 2004). This process went against Baathist ideology, the oil rent, and an assertive foreign policy as sources of legitimacy. Around 1990, Iraq moved away from its earlier, quasi-totalitarian model toward a less ambitious and normative system, turning mere survival into an organizing principle of both polity and society (Hiltermann 1999, Harling 2007b).

Devoid of an organizing and integrative project, and increasingly the object of its own violence, the regime was consumed by a need for demonstrations of loyalty. Thus, as the threat of the U.S./U.K. invasion materialized in 2002, Iraqi military preparations had little connection to any military rationale; rather, they were driven by the need to display zealous steadfastness.[viii] Saddam’s overwhelming distrust of his own armed apparatus, and the latter’s valuation of cronyism over professionalism, seriously undermined the Iraqi military’s performance during the 2003 invasion (Baran 2003; Woods 2006). Tellingly, the regime’s inner core put up the least resistance, proving that pageantry had pervaded the system, substituting itself for any other form of cohesion (notably the notion of ‘asabiya). Saddam’s perpetuation, regardless of predictable cost, of the last remnant of his greatness–the myth of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (Duelfer 2004)–dramatically revealed the extremes to which the regime was willing to go to assert an image of power to the detriment of the state’s institutional capabilities to uphold it.[ix] This transformation provided an expanding space for social dynamics that the regime, instead of repressing, sought more often to contain, arbitrate, and manipulate. Many of these trends, which have yet to be fully identified and understood, were themselves rooted in socioeconomic developments that long-predated the Saddam era.

Tribal “loyalties”

The “tribe,” as a social subunit as well as a theoretical construct, has witnessed so many profound transformations and diverse uses in both academic and lay literature since the nineteenth century that the word has become semantically slippery. As the United States struggled to find a “unified field theory” through which to understand and control Iraq, “the Tribe” assumed disproportionate importance and erroneous meanings among policymakers and media analysts.

The tribe’s early role was primarily one of protection from the hazards of nature (illness and death), as well as threats posed by other tribes (raids, vendettas, displacement provoked by competition over trade routes or fertile land), and later by forms of state authority (levies and conscription). Cohesion derived from common descent, biological or fictive, which provided collective solidarity and sociopolitical capital in a highly formalized “pedigree” system structured by professed lineage (for instance, claims to descend from the Prophet or from a number of prestigious pre-Islamic tribes). Reconstructed narratives (stories of bravery, munificence or acumen) also established the tribes’ credentials, and geographical differentiation (Bedouins, semi-nomadic sheep and camel breeders, sedentary cultivators, and Marsh Arabs) determined a caste-like social hierarchy. A tribal leader’s authority was established not simply by lineage, but more importantly, by his ability to serve the community’s interests by upholding the tribe’s reputation through rituals of honor, generosity, and (in some cases) combat, while mitigating disputes and violence through negotiation skills and marital strategies.

In the late Ottoman period and under the monarchy, tribal chieftains (shuyukh) forged a de facto alliance with the government. They gained tax exemptions, ownership of the land, and discretionary rule over their subjects in exchange for assuming functions of social control that transformed their clansmen into an indebted working force, preyed upon by their leaders’ private armies who exerted new forms of violence aimed at dominating rather than protecting the tribe (Batatu 2004). The emergence of a state further alienated the shuyukh from their social base by incorporating them into a centralized apparatus of power and urbanized elite.[x]

Early Republican policies put an end to this state of affairs by redistributing the land and challenging tribal frames of reference that still enjoyed a quasi-monopoly over Iraq’s rural society. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, Saddam Hussein’s regime gave renewed prominence to the tribes by co-opting some within the security structure and ostensibly promoting tribal culture (Yaphe 2000; Jabar and Dawod 2003). Wrongly understood as a “resurgence” or “revival,” this was in fact a novel phenomenon (Baram 1997). The shuyukh’s basis of authority was neither protective nor predatory now. In this new configuration, the regime provided the shuyukh with resources (employment, social recognition, tolerance of criminal activities–notably smuggling–and occasionally weapons) from which they derived their newfound power in the context of a two-tier patronage system. Only by becoming the regime’s clientele could the shuyukh secure access to assets indispensable to inducing their tribesmen’s support (Baran 2004).

The shuyukh’s clout was thus conditioned on absolute loyalty to the regime’s core interests, rather than traditional sources of their authority (i.e., the lineage and the capacity to protect the tribe), or more recent bases (land tenure and internal coercion). There were in essence no “powerful” tribes; the more affluent ones were simply the most dependent on the regime’s benevolence. At the same time, while tribal pageantry came dramatically to the fore in the regime’s media, actual practices systematically demeaned the tribal value system, degrading the legitimacy of the shuyukh and forcing tribes to betray their kin rather than to defend them (International Crisis Group 2008b).

The dynamics of this complex relationship can illuminate much of Iraq’s tribal landscape since the 2003 war. Tribal “loyalty” to Saddam Hussein dissolved as soon as the prospect of his demise became tangible; tribal delegations from cities like Falluja or Bayji attempted to negotiate their surrender in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad’s takeover.[xi]

Although some U.S. officials viewed the tribes, intuitively and early on, as both potential allies and real threats (thanks to erroneous conceptions of revenge as a key component of tribal ethos),[xii] they failed to engage with them effectively and thus missed an important opportunity to foster political cohesion. They were confused by the proliferation of self-proclaimed shuyukh volunteering their services, each one of them boasting “hundreds of thousands” of supporters,[xiii] and were consequently reluctant to invest seriously in any of them. When they did decide to extend them resources, however, they failed to understand that tribal “loyalty” could only be durably bought if betrayal came at great cost, hence the unsuccessful attempts at co-opting tribes to protect pipelines, in a context where “guards” were inclined to stage attacks themselves to maximize their profits. Finally, the United States opted above all for the notion of tribal “representation” within the nascent political system, as if the few figures they handpicked meant anything to the many they had not.

Revealingly, whereas the extent of shaykhly authority and autonomy historically had been an antithetical function of the expansion or retreat of central power (Baran 2004), the complete collapse of the state left the shuyukh helpless. Accusations of opportunism and self-interest were rife among their tribesmen. Tribal leaders in and around Basra were subdued by Islamist parties and militias in an expression of vendetta dynamics, which the latter won.[xiv] In the alleged tribal stronghold of Anbar, lack of popular support in an increasingly dangerous environment forced many previously “powerful” shuyukh into exile — notably to Jordan and Syria. Others threw in their lot with Islamist insurgent groups.[xv] An illuminating example is that of the case of Sattar Abu Risha, a pioneer of the struggle with al-Qaeda in Iraq. He succeeded in maintaining influence thanks to autonomous resources, namely the spoils of banditry along the Baghdad-Amman highway–competition over the control of which was, incidentally, the tribe’s initial bone of contention with al-Qaeda (International Crisis Group 2008b; Biddle 2008).

The sahwat phenomenon[xvi] enabled a wider tribal elite to return to power through a binding relationship with a new sponsor, the United States, which was now willing to provide them with necessary resources. The tribes’ loyalty was further assured by their own fear of al-Qaeda’s retribution if coalition backing were to be withdrawn. Although Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has proved reluctant to embrace the Sunni tribes’ participation in the sahwat, he has made good use of his control over state resources to secure his own tribal base through the isnad councils – whose members receive stipends in exchange for their support of Maliki’s security-related (and electoral) undertakings — in the South and along the Kurdish-Arab boundary, particularly in the run-up to the January 2009 provincial polls (International Crisis Group 2009). In those elections, tribes entered the race independently in scattered places, such as Ramadi, Tikrit, and Samawa, regions of the country where tribal structures remain predominant. Elsewhere, tribes put themselves up for auction, eliciting patronage from a range of parties and lists in exchange for their pledges of ”loyalty.”

Another interesting trend is the replication, in a disjointed and ad hoc fashion, of a model of rurally based control of the cities, a distinctive feature of several authoritarian regimes in the region. In 2008, a frequent complaint voiced by inhabitants of towns such as Falluja, Mosul, and Ba‘quba was that local security forces (namely the police in Mosul and the sahwat in the other cases) were staffed by individuals hailing from peripheral areas, who were perceived as unwelcome interlopers by the urban elite.

The relevant fault line, however, is not between tribalism and more “civil” forms of social organization, in as much as tribes are dependent upon and transformed by the civilian apparatus of state more than they are capable of challenging it. What requires greater attention is an urban/rural divide playing out in numerous arenas, and even within the boundaries of the capital. Despite a history going back centuries, modern Baghdad was shaped by two sociopolitical processes interacting intensively in a relatively short time frame. On the one hand, the capital city grew quickly thanks to rapid urbanization fuelled by the rural exodus. This resulted not only in an expanding state bureaucracy, but also the construction of middle-class neighborhoods to house the influx of people from the countryside. These still dominate the city’s structure to this day (Luizard 1994). On the other hand, the well-established elites that existed in early nineteenth century Baghdad (Ottoman-era notables, Jews, traders, and craftsmen) were soon to be decimated.

Thus the seat of power in Republican Iraq was never home to deeply rooted urban elites, in contrast with Damascus. In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq’s urban/rural divide opposed not so much the capital against the country’s rural areas, but rather, a recently urbanized elite against more venerable ones (within Baghdad itself as well as in towns such as Najaf, Kerbala, Hilla, Falluja, Tikrit, and Mosul).

Sunni Arab trends

The existence of the tribes as specific social actors enjoying particular ties with the state is evidence enough to dismiss any vision of an amorphous Sunni Arab “community” defined, as much of the literature available on contemporary Iraq suggests, by the collective loss of power in the post-2003 period. As argued elsewhere (Harling 2006), this pervasive misconception among U.S. officials led to a self-fulfilling prophecy; prejudiced policies fostered a shared Sunni Arab identity informed by a narrative of victimhood.

If one postulates that Sunni Arabs were by and large the beneficiaries and backers of the former regime, it becomes difficult to comprehend their limited appetite for defending it, their surprisingly arduous struggle to reorganize in any meaningful opposition after its demise, and the rise of Salafism as the driving force behind a nascent insurgency over Baathism, tribal and professional networks, as well as the non-Salafist versions of Islam promoted under Saddam. Part of the explanation can be found in the regime’s aforementioned inclination to undermine its own ideological and institutional pillars, and to undercut the tribes as autonomous and coherent social subunits (Baran 2004).

Other segments of Sunni Arab society were also undermined during the former regime. Saddam Hussein promoted a new rural elite at the expense of the old urban classes in such towns as Baghdad, Mosul, and even in his hometown of Tikrit. What middle classes emerged through the state-building process were later debilitated by the collapse of the oil-rent patronage system during the grueling decade of the U.S.-imposed embargo (Darle 2003). The Sunni Arab business class, a mix of long-urbanized families and nouveaux riches hailing from the countryside (Khafaji 2004), had become too intertwined with the regime and reliant on crony-capitalism to prosper in the post-Saddam environment. For its part, Iraq’s Sunni religious establishment was weakened both by the regime’s thorough repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the systematic manipulation of all other homegrown trends of religious thought thereafter.

Nonetheless, while Saddam Hussein flaunted the much-publicized “National Faith Movement,” a crude form of propaganda that did great harm to many prominent preachers (Baran 2004), he partly tolerated a Wahhabi undercurrent that percolated into Iraq throughout the 1990s.

Salafist attire, notably the characteristically short dishdasha, became increasingly stylish around some mosques, even in Baghdad.[xvii] Incidents of religiously-motivated violence against Christians were reported, particularly in the city of Mosul, while attacks on liquor stores and cinemas occurred, for instance, in Falluja (Hashim 2006).[xviii] As of 2000, the introduction and possibilities of the Internet were not lost on a number of religious figures that, by the time the regime was toppled, had already become active members of a globalized umma.[xix] Moreover, despite the authoritarian nature of the regime, it was not completely insulated from the “Afghan Arab” phenomenon, as later evidenced by the itineraries of some insurgent leaders in Falluja (Hashim 2006).

The security apparatus sought to track down and suppress known Jihadist figures (Rohde, forthcoming). Salafi figures within the elite itself were harassed if not arrested (Steavenson 2009). But few paid attention to the social ramifications of this phenomenon. In parts of the country, quietist forms of Salafism filled the gap left by a retreating regime, the ideological tenets of which were increasingly difficult for Iraqis to identify with. A town like Dhulu‘iya, North of Samarra’, became a Salafist stronghold after its inhabitants were purged from the security apparatus following the repression of a plot involving some of their kin.[xx]

As the regime collapsed, this social disorganization left the Sunni Arabs, in a now sectarian-oriented political setting, devoid of any credible political representatives, in contrast with the Kurds and the Shiites. Their comprehensive marginalization on the basis of the Kurdish and Shi’i victimization narratives and resulting U.S. support, combined with the fact that the occupation took more antagonizing forms in predominantly Sunni Arab areas, quickly led to a situation in which a Sunni Arab identity could only assert itself in radical opposition to the political process. This also meant that Sunnis could only organize “underground,” making it all the more difficult for any clear representation to emerge.

One should not, however, envisage an atomized Sunni Arab society. The insurgency initially grew out of a myriad of professional, familial, tribal, religious and neighborhood networks, and small-scale systems combining several of these categories.[xxi] Baathists, although discredited and struggling to rationalize the Party’s crimes and failures,[xxii] formed a web of outcasts loosely held together by their common predicament. Former colleagues, sacked from the military and security apparatus, offered a source of invaluable know-how (more so than leadership, given the culture of blind obedience nurtured under Saddam’s regime). The existence of strong local bases of identity (in Falluja, Mahawil, Albu ‘Itha, Abu Ghrayb and Mosul, among others) also played a role. Mosques provided legitimacy and connected people of different backgrounds.[xxiii] Finally, a significant pool of recruits was to be found among the country’s despairing youth, whose hopes of social fulfillment had been ruined by a debilitated educational system, a maimed and humiliated national army, an economy under embargo, and, as a consequence of all the foregoing, diminished marital prospects.

In this complex and fragmented landscape, Salafism became the easiest common denominator of political organization, given its remarkable plasticity in mobilizing the armed struggle. Both foreign and domestic enemies (the United States, Iran, Shiites parties, former exiles) could readily be labeled infidels, whereas other frames of reference could never have encompassed these trends into one enemy category. The considerable financial assets accessible to Jihadists, the spectacular nature of their deeds, and their mastery of communication tools within a globalized media sphere, contributed to the inordinate role of Salafism as the insurgency gained speed. All alternative narratives–Baathism, nationalism and anti-imperialism—receded from the public eye as insurgent propaganda emphasized an ever-more Salafist image. But these narratives also buttressed individual perspectives among fighters animated by many different motives – some of them as undramatic as revenge or unemployment.

As examined in more detail elsewhere (International Crisis Group 2008b), Salafism also served as a springboard for outsiders who, in their drive to insert themselves into the insurgency and wider Sunni Arab society, resorted to an increasingly rigid and coercive form of Salafism at the expense of its doctrinal foundations. They challenged the social order by turning their violence against traditional elites (tribal shuyukh, the non-Salafist religious establishment, modernized urban middle classes, what remained of the business class, etc.), and thus alienated the very segments of society that resistance movements usually are careful to placate.

In a dislocated society, extreme forms of violence became a primary source of social mobility, financial gains and political capital (notably for menial workers in both rural and urban settings, as well as youth). Interestingly, the pauperized masses, as a reservoir for mobilization, have been as crucial to Sunni as Shia militant organizations. Empowered Salafist militants dismissed deep-seated frames of reference, brushing aside Iraq’s national identity (by supporting the establishment of a sectarian Islamic state), tribal customs, popular religious practices, a measure of cross-sectarian conviviality, and numerous other codes of behavior such as deference to elders, the well to do, and the learned. Tellingly, some attempted to forcibly marry themselves into the local tribal society, against the shuyukh’s will (Kilcullen 2007).

This upheaval prompted a conservative backlash, which came to be known under such labels as Concerned Citizens, Awakening Councils, and Sons of Iraq. This hodgepodge of actors crystallized in reaction to the social disruption described above, a dynamic that U.S. forces, in the context of the “surge,” quickly capitalized upon. The notion that the United States would prove a far more powerful, wealthier, and less brutal ally against Iran than al-Qaeda could ever be, certainly played a role in the success of the surge, if only as a convenient rationalization. Naturally, along with the conservative component of Sunni Arab society, a number of opportunistic outsiders also joined in, dropping the Salafist mantle as easily as they had adopted it (International Crisis Group 2008b).

It is yet to be seen whether elections progressively will allow not only for a fair representation of the Sunni Arab constituency on a national level, but also instate a sustainable balance between diverse Sunni elites struggling to reassert themselves. Tribes co-opted by the United States–often those that enjoyed a similar relation with the former regime–are challenged by those left out, who flaunt their “authenticity.” Finally, homegrown religious elites have yet to recover from nationalization under the former regime and marginalization as a result of an imported Salafist trend.

This picture is still far from complete without factoring in strong local identities. Mosul’s ethno-sectarian makeup, its military traditions, and commercial ties to Northeast Syria and Turkey make it infinitely different from a town like Ramadi. Mosul’s resilience as a centre of armed opposition owes much to its geographical location (straddling the Arab-Kurdish fault line), remoteness from Baghdad, and scarce resources (justifying the lack of interest demonstrated until recently by both the Iraqi government and U.S. occupation forces), tribal and family connections in neighboring Syria, and mountainous topography.

Other examples of potentially significant local dynamics abound. The longstanding rivalry between Samarra’ and Tikrit, the latter having been promoted by Saddam over the former as the seat of power within Salahuddin governorate, has re-emerged since 2003. The indiscriminate targeting of individuals hailing from Samarra’ in retaliation for the February 2006 bombing of the city’s Shiite shrines forced many to relocate to their town of origin, provoking a consolidation of local identity, the effects of which are yet to be understood. In Diyala and in the Sunni enclaves South of Baghdad, even less is known about the manner in which sectarian-consolidation may impact socio-political mobilization. Falluja’s tightly knit society, both victimized and galvanized by resistance to the occupation, presents another identity crucible deserving greater scrutiny.

As the scramble for power and resources shifts from an armed conflict opposing sectarian coalitions and centered on the capital and its institutions, to more diverse and localized struggles, often pitting kin against kin, the abovementioned social fault lines will likely come to the fore.

An intra-Shiite struggle

Within Iraq’s Shiite Arab society since 2003, a class struggle, suppressed under Saddam but nevertheless dating decades back in time, has opposed the so-called Sadrist phenomenon to a conservative coalition comprising the marja‘iya, its tribal following, formerly exiled Islamist parties, and urbanized elites.

The Sadrist current’s powerbase is geographically centered in areas that received the bulk of the rural exodus under the Monarchy (Batatu, 2004). Particularly affected were the current governorates of Maysan and Dhi Qar, especially the population living in the marshes. The exodus spawned shantytowns on the periphery of Baghdad, Basra, and other towns throughout the South, where rural migrants settled in makeshift neighborhoods called sarayif, in reference to huts built out of reeds.

As described elsewhere (Harling and Nasser 2007), Marsh Arabs traditionally formed an insular society, geographically isolated and largely self-sufficient, differentiated in culture and cult, cut-off from the influence of both the religious sanctuaries of Najaf and Karbala and the modernist powerhouses of Baghdad and Basra. They were also positioned disadvantageously in the traditional tribal hierarchy, in which Bedouin raiders occupied the dominant position and Marsh dwellers (who were buffalo breeders and rice cultivators) the lowest. As outsiders simultaneously feared and exploited by urban elites, they retained this insular quality in the slums where they settled in urban areas (Sluglett and Farouk-Sluglett 1987).

The development projects that turned these slums into genuine neighborhoods in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which reflected an effort at social control rather than urban integration, did little to alter this state of affairs. Residents often retained strong ties to their cultures and villages of origin, and were thus slow to integrate into their new environment. Popular forms of religiosity, tribal customs, and a tradition of civil disobedience in the face of state authority translated from the marshes to the outskirts of major cities. From the beginning, the sarayif were a breeding ground for proletarian movements (both secular and Islamist), and a refuge for criminals and deserters. Al-Thawra, also called Saddam City, or more recently Sadr City, and perhaps the best example of the sarayif phenomenon, developed its own, very specific, and partly underground culture under the former regime (Rigaud 2003).

Following the 1991 war and the state’s breakdown as a result of the embargo along with the regime’s withdrawal from the social sphere, these neighborhoods only became increasingly insular.[xxiv] Their youth in particular were denied any prospects of social mobility through education or even incorporation in the army, where wages barely sufficed for a recruit to survive as an individual, let alone establish a family. Limited financial and social capital hampered opportunities for emigration, leaving menial jobs and criminal activity[xxv] as the only viable economic choices.[xxvi] With the U.S. military build-up in late 2002-early 2003, inhabitants of central Baghdad, regardless of confessional identity, were fearful that the aftermath of the regime’s fall would unleash the “mob” (al-ghawgha’), emerging from the suburbs to prey upon upper- and middle-class neighborhoods.[xxvii]

Casting blame on the suburbs for the looting of Baghdad only hid a more troubling reality: a pauperized middle-class had ransacked the state’s bureaucratic infrastructure, of which–tragically–it had been a product. Sophisticated operations mounted by organized criminal networks, a systematic Kurdish razzia on consumer goods and construction materials whisked off to the North or smuggled into Turkey and Iran, the frenzied efforts of former regime officials to grab as much as possible before all was lost, and the keen interest shown by outside powers and profiteers, all contributed to a complex situation irreducible to the actions of the ghawgha’.[xxviii] The looting of Baghdad revealed a predatory culture spawned by the decade-long embargo (al-Rachid and Méténier 2007), which was in no way an outgrowth of the suburban under-class alone.

The emergence of the Sadrist current in 2003 revealed the existence of new crosscutting fault lines within Iraqi Shiite society. Sadrist militants and cadres were most often very young, in their 20s and early 30s, meaning they belonged to a generation deeply fashioned by the embargo (Harling 11 December 2007). The grueling effects of U.S.-sponsored sanctions, which permeated every aspect of their daily lives and epitomized the perceived viciousness of Washington’s policy, planted the seeds of a bitterly anti-American worldview. If there were any defining political moments to their lives, these were the decay, in the late 1980s, of the army that many of them had been recruited into,[xxix] the repression of the 1991 revolts, in which youthful urbanites were let down both by the United States and the Iranian-based Islamist militia Badr (Cockburn 2008), the advent and assassination of the populist Ayatollah Muhammad Sadr, dubious U.S. strikes such as Operation Desert Fox in 1999, and the charade of haggling and tensions over weapons of mass destruction. Neither the quietist marja‘iya in Najaf nor the Islamist parties now returning from exile had ever meant anything to these Sadrists in the making.

Rather, they brandished their sufferings in the face of such parties as SCIRI (since renamed ISCI) and Da‘wa, whose claim to monopolize Shiite representation and control the state was generating a strong and wide-ranging reaction of popular rejection.[xxx] (As a result and as seen above, Shiite parties first leaned heavily on U.S. support, later resorting to sectarianism as a source of legitimacy. A Sunni/Shiite fracture soon replaced the insider/exile divide.)

Similarly, Sadrists vocally challenged the marja‘iya’s own claims to religious leadership on the basis of its silence under Saddam and estrangement from ordinary people. Instead, they invoked the example of Muhammad Sadr, a figure first promoted by the former regime to outshine ‘Ali Sistani, and later assassinated once he had succeeded in doing so (Baran 2004; Visser 2008). By eradicating the Islamist parties in the early 1980s, hemming in the marja‘iya, and retreating from society, the regime had guaranteed the huge appeal of the particular form of religious-based mobilization engineered by Sadr in the 1990s. His plebeian, nationalistic, anti-American, and anti-Iranian rhetoric electrified Iraq’s Shiite under-class. Tellingly, his assassination prompted riots, especially in the former sarayif.

When the Islamist parties and the marja‘iya resurfaced in 2003, they progressively coalesced Iraq’s Shiite middle class, the commercial elite living off the pilgrimage industry, and tribes that historically enjoyed close ties with the sanctuaries of Najaf, Karbala, and Kadhimiya.[xxxi] One of the most seminal and vicious conflicts since 2003 has been an intra-Shiite class struggle opposing social outsiders, represented by the Sadr current and other formations of similar extraction, to this coalition of conservatives (International Crisis Group 2006). Although this coalition seems to have evaporated, as a result of the Sadrists’ disarray and rivalry among former exiles, the assertiveness of Iraq’s Shiite under-class is unlikely to diminish. (An interesting analogy may be drawn, tentatively, with Iran, where a proletariat of Mahdist inclinations appears very much at odds with the traditional religious elites and the Bazaar.)

In Iraq, another deeply ingrained Shiite fault line opposes the Middle Euphrates to the far South. Shiite representation has long been the preserve of elites originating from central Iraq and resented by the periphery (Visser 2007). Besides the marsh areas, the city of Basra has developed its own strong local identity as a cosmopolitan seaport and the country’s economic powerhouse, commandeered and exploited by Baghdad (Visser 2005). Here we see a degree of continuity between the former regime’s practices and those that now prevail in the post-2003 order, nurturing an unremitting if subdued conflict (International Crisis Group 2007; International Crisis Group 2009).

Yet, regardless of the divisions described above and despite the suppression of its religious and political representatives under Saddam, Iraq’s post-2003 Shiite society has displayed a relatively high degree of social organization at least in comparison with the Sunni and–even more so–the progressive components of Iraqi society. Its demographic weight aside, this advantage contributed heavily to its recent ascendency. The fight for control of the capital illustrates the changing sociopolitical positioning of Iraq’s Shiites.

What the civil war revealed

The term “civil war” will be used here, somewhat inadequately,[xxxii] to describe one of many forms of violence within a multilayered and ever-shifting state of conflict (Bozarslan and Harling 2007). Implicit to this analysis is the contest over territory between two sectarian coalitions mobilizing–often coercively–the symbolic, financial, and paramilitary resources of their respective powerbases. This particular episode of the Iraqi conflict took place in and around Baghdad throughout 2006 and 2007.

For the armed groups involved, the fight consisted in holding ground, building or enforcing popular acquiescence, connecting strongholds, securing control of key positions, and undermining the opponent’s own footing. In doing so, they resorted to gruesome practices against civilians, the commission of which was rooted in complex strategies informed by the combatants’ intuitive, and at times sophisticated, understanding of the socioeconomic factors at play. Indeed, civil war dynamics revealed the complexity and diversity of Baghdad’s make-up, which to a large extent determined the course of the fighting.

Arguably the most remarkable and decisive feature of the civil war was the role played by the aforementioned sarayif. The four Baghdad neighborhoods in which the Sadrist current established itself (al-Thawra, al-Fudhayliya, al-Shu‘la and al-Washshash) are all former sarayif, the youth of which filled the ranks of the Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army.[xxxiii] Densely populated, socially cohesive, and economically underprivileged, the sarayif constituted impenetrable strongholds and unlimited reservoirs of recruits that the Mahdi Army utilized to expand into mixed and middle-class quarters.

Within conquered territories, these competing forces engaged in systematic sectarian cleansing, while deftly administering the needs of those displaced from other quarters. In taking over predominantly Sunni districts, Mahdi Army fighters sought to “soften up” these areas by disrupting their economic fabric, using methodical attacks on shop owners to erode social cohesion, by forcing residents to flee in search of basic goods, and thereby cutting opponents off from their own social base. Finally, they strove to isolate Sunni bastions from each other, and more importantly, from the Sunni hinterland.

Sadrists easily and fully rationalized these tactics, which were carried out in collusion with state institutions controlled by the more “legitimate” Shiite parties; police forces either turned a blind eye or facilitated the Mahdi Army’s freedom of movement, while some ministries contributed to social dislocation by selectively denying the provision of basic services (Dodge 2008). Although Baghdad has been routinely described as the seat of Sunni power, the Sunni landscape was in fact far more diverse and fragmented. Only a few strongholds were cohesive enough to resist.

The al-Ghazaliya and al-‘Amiriya quarters in Western Baghdad were originally mixed, built on land distributed by the former regime to government employees, including officers in the security apparatus and armed forces (many of whom rapidly sold off their properties).[xxxiv] A number of inhabitants were migrants from neighboring al-Anbar, a connection strongly revitalized in 2004 by a massive influx of displaced persons from that violence-ridden governorate. As middle class Iraqis — more inclined to and capable of seeking refuge abroad — left the area, the latter came to look as the eastern edge of al-Anbar, wedged deep into the capital.

Al-Saydiya and parts of Dora offer a rare case of disenfranchised Sunni neighborhoods in a city whose Sunni component was largely middle class and mostly state-employed. A strong connection developed with the nearby rural surroundings, particularly Albu ‘Itha (a village co-opted into the intelligence apparatus in the 1980s) and ‘Arab Jbur (agricultural land held by former regime figures).

Al-Fadhil, a Sunni quarter in the oldest part of town, characterized by a strong local identity and tightly-knit society, also became a Sunni stronghold, as did another historical neighborhood, al-‘Adhamiya, a commercial hub centered on the religious sanctuary of Abu Hanifa.

These exceptions aside, large swathes of Baghdad fell into the hands of Shiite forces, primarily the Mahdi Army. The Iranian-born Badr brigade, for its part, maintained its hold on older, central, middle class neighborhoods characterized by a well-established, Shiite constituency, such as al-Karrada and Shaltshiya. Al-Kadhimiya, the Shiite counterpart of al-‘Adhamiya, on the other hand, was the site of a modus vivendi between various Shiite armed factions.

The civil war was anything but an ahistorical event. Multiple and intersecting dimensions of past identity formation- and social organization trends informed the course and the practices of the war. More fundamentally, the civil war profoundly transformed the capital’s social landscape, along with the make-up of the state institutions it shelters. Indeed, the neighborhoods most severely affected were mixed, middle class quarters, many of which were built on land distributed by the former regime in the 1970s and 1980s to civil servants of all kinds–doctors, Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees, teachers, military officers, bank employees, intelligence personnel, etc.–as well as Christian neighborhoods.

These mixed residential areas, often lacking a cohesive local identity, difficult to defend, inhabited by a typically non-combative and already depleted bourgeoisie, were easy prey for armed groups of all sides. The hemorrhaging of these quarters’ populations was aggravated by their inhabitants’ ability to find refuge abroad. Moreover, armed groups (both Sunni and Shiite) composed of social outsiders systematically targeted representatives of Iraq’s modernist and cosmopolitan middle class (notably doctors, professors, engineers and the like).

These quarters were, however, the seat of what was left of a mixed, progressive and technically skilled population that was both the product and the basis of a modern state. As human capital was displaced and driven into exile, the state apparatus was purged and positions divvied up on the basis of political, sectarian and family affiliation.

Territorial conquest, by the Mahdi Army for instance, may since have been reversed; but it will take generations for Iraq to repair the damage done to its residual middle class, a crucial underpinning of any functional state. The ease with which this middle class espoused a sectarian narrative casts doubt on its recent turnaround and rediscovery of nationalism, which is likely a reaction to the huge price it paid for its previous identification than the product of a clear, stable, self-generating identity.[xxxv] Chillingly, the middle class seems disposed to embrace just as passionately forms of Arab nationalism promoted by the government in its bid against Kurdish ambitions, a struggle underpinned by ethnic narratives that may cost the country even more than their sectarian equivalents.

This inability to articulate a vision of its own translates into what could be called a missing “political center,” leaving “a vacuum in which fringe groups and opportunists could flourish without opposition” (Etherington 2005). The intellectual elite in particular has failed to produce a trans-sectarian and class narrative for anything other than its own consumption (Chatelard 2009). Pushed into internal enclaves or the exiled diaspora, this elite is incapable of providing a counterweigh or alternative to the fringe groups and opportunists mentioned above, particularly because the latter have appropriated the means of mass communication.

Over the past several decades, a process of “national deconstruction” has transpired through the dispersion of the country’s modernist and cosmopolitan middle class (Zubaida 2008), the utter destruction of the educational system, the army’s reformulation around the requirements of repression and patronage rather than national integration, and the erection of communal barriers (both conceptual and physical), which the most recent shift at the level of political rhetoric will do little to attenuate.

In that sense, the official and media depiction of a situation that is supposedly “returning to normal” has been stunningly shallow. Just as the rural exodus toward the capital more than half a century ago shaped recent events, one can only wonder what the magnitude of Baghdad’s recent transformations holds for the future. It is striking, for that matter, that a historiography of Iraq’s contemporary population movements has yet to be written, considering their massive scale, numerous variations, and crucial relevance to our understanding of the country’s contemporary socio-political dynamics.

*   *   *

In sum, the former regime neither homogenized Iraqi society nor completely atomized it–with the possible exception of its more “progressive” segment, born out of the modernist policies pursued in the 1970s and early 1980s (Darle 2003). Rather, it eclipsed Iraqi society by monopolizing public space. In 2003, when the myth of national unity finally caved in along with the institutions designed to uphold it, the former regime’s discredited imagery gave way to prolific, disjointed, and divisive narratives. Collective memory itself, increasingly forged in enclaves insulated from each other (in the diaspora and, within Iraq, in various social subunits), fragmented dramatically (Chatelard 2009).

Needless to say, political actors exploited such antagonisms as their primary source of legitimacy, and outside sponsors were quick to pick and choose whichever faction suited best their interests (Harling 2007a). Internal players developed their own means of mass communication (CDs, websites, printing houses, television channels, etc.), supporting an increasingly decentralized production of meaning. These narratives relate competing historiographies structured around traumatic events (al-Rachid and Méténier 2007), and are above all focused on victimhood, making them almost entirely unacceptable to one another. Unfortunately, these narratives resonate all too easily with much of the existing body of academic work on Iraq.

A more constructive narrative might emerge from a historiography that delves into trends of social movement and identity formation, scrutinizing both moments of disruptive transition (that often take place within a national storyline of wars, coups, repression, etc.) and elements of continuity entailing a deeper examination of infra- and supra-national dynamics, as exemplified by the emergence in Iraq of a Salafist school of thought. Delving into localized and regional trends would help end a tradition of “Iraqi exceptionalism,” which compares the former regime’s unique repressiveness in order to obscure social trends it simply was blind to.

Further consideration should also be given to disruptions themselves as an element of continuity. Several years of U.S. occupation have only added to a long series of ruptures, and one can only wonder how a brutalized society deals with so many discontinuities. In post-2003 Iraq, coping strategies derived from previous periods offered a response to forms of violence at times remarkably similar to those of the past (from the perpetrators’ immunity to the arbitrariness of their motives, to their actual modus operandi).

Understanding the state of violence and fragmentation to which Iraq descended   is in itself an exercise in juggling multiple frames of reference. By highlighting this fluidity, and thus challenging fixed and essentialist narratives, writing the history of Iraq may help Iraqi society to project an image of itself it will ultimately be able to live with.

Originally published in Jordi Tejel, Peter Sluglett, Riccardo Bocco (edit.), Writing the Modern History of Iraq. Historiographical and Political Challenges, November 2012.

Illustration credit: spectrum / licensed by CC.

[i] This is especially true of the growing number of personal accounts from U.S. and British officials deployed in Iraq (Etherington 2005, Bremer 2006). But more academic literature is by no means immune. Adeed Dawisha, in an otherwise thoroughly researched book, devotes only 30 pages to an era that lasted over 30 years, and concludes on this cliché: “Saddam’s Iraq was a country that was held hostage to the will and whim of one omnipresent tyrant” (Dawisha 2009).

[ii] Author’s observations, Baghdad, April-May 2003.

[iii] Author’s meetings with tribal leaders from the Dulaym, Shammar Sayih, Albu Muhammad, Bani Ka‘b, and others, Baghdad, Tikrit and Basra, April-May and October-November 2003.

[iv] Author’s meetings with former security officials, Baghdad, October-November 2003.

[v] Interestingly, one of Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani first decisions was to enact a fatwa banning the practice of self-flagellation, ahead of the April 2003 ‘Ashura processions, which drew massively from what was to become the Sadrist current, and Sistani’s ruling was ignored. Author’s observations, April 2003.

[vi] The expression is borrowed from a presentation given by Loulouwa al-Rachid at a seminar on “Iraq’s Future” at the Institute of Political Science, attended by author, Paris, March 2005.

[vii] Remarkably, this fundamental divide, although it continues to inform Iraq’s political structure, has essentially been ignored in journalistic commentary and academic writings.

[viii] Illustrations abound, although none can surpass a video discovered after the war in which senior officials (notably the head of Military Industrialization) present Saddam with such innovative weapons as slingshots and crossbows, which they flaunt as an asset to face off the most powerful army in the world. The video clearly was designed for archival rather than propaganda purposes and was not shown to the public at the time (Shane 2006).

[ix] An interesting example in this respect is the deployment around Najaf of troops dressed in protective suits as a way of cowering the population into submission following the assassination of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, in 1999 (Rohde forthcoming).

[x] In an interview with Niqash, Faleh Abdul Jabbar made this very illuminating remark: “The creation of the Iraqi state in 1921 contributed to the legitimization of the historic disintegration of tribes: agricultural stability, the emergence of private property, migration to cities, the emergence of private owners independent of their tribes, etc. We see that in parliament, the tribe became part of the parliament not the opposite” (Jihad 2008).

[xi] Author’s observations and interview, April-May 2003.

[xii] Internal Coalition Provisional Authority correspondence made available to the author. The issue of “revenge killings” was misunderstood. The tribal ethos in fact seeks to circumvent vendettas, and usually succeeds in doing so. Revenge killings take place precisely when the mitigation/litigation procedures (fasl) are impaired. Tellingly, the United States registered considerable success in making a policy of paying “blood money.”

[xiii] In the early stages of the occupation, a number of federations, associations, and unions of tribes emerged, generally centred around one egotistical figure or another, and failed to gain any traction.

[xiv] In Basra, for instance, even the Garamsha tribe, self-sufficient and cohesive due to its involvement in organized crime, was ultimately cowed (International Crisis Group 2007).

[xv] The Zawba‘ and 1920 Revolution Brigades provide an example of tribally structured insurgent activity.

[xvi] The word sahwat, which initially designated a tribal movement, has come to encapsulate whoever joined U.S.-sponsored proxies fighting the insurgency.

[xvii] Author’s observations, 1998-2003.

[xviii] Attacks on Christian-held liquor stores also occurred in Basra, indicating a wide-ranging shift toward more conservative mores throughout Iraq’s Muslim society (Harling 2000).

[xix] Author’s interviews with religious figures in Falluja revealed a remarkable network of contacts forged through the Internet, predating the regime’s demise, May 2003.

[xx] The locality of Qaraghull, near Yusifiya, South of Baghdad, is another example. Home to the Garaghull tribe, affiliated with the Dulaym, its residents were purged from the security apparatus as a consequence of tensions with the regime in the 1990s. They turned to a simple, pious life of Salafist inspiration, and the area rapidly turned into an al-Qaeda stronghold following Saddam Hussein’s demise. Author’s observations, prior to and following the 2003 war.

[xxi] Author’s observations, October-November, Baghdad, 2003.

[xxii] The Baath was associated with the humiliating 2003 defeat, only the latest of a long series of debacles. As mass graves dating back to the repression of the 1991 revolts were discovered and exhumed throughout the South, the Party strove to justify them through communiqués explaining that the graves contained the many civilian casualties caused by the coalition’s onslaught at the time, buried hurriedly because of the prevailing conditions. This argument, naturally, failed to convince anyone other than the hard-core Baathists themselves. Author’s observations, October-November, Baghdad, 2003.

[xxiii] Author’s observations, October-November, Baghdad, 2003.

[xxiv] Even the public transport system did not extend to the more remote parts of al-Thawra, the potholed and sewer-inundated roads of which were served by an improvised system of British-era jeeps used as collective taxis. Water was scarce (in contrast with electricity, required for security reasons). Education standards were particularly low. (Author’s observations prior to the war.) A second exodus took place in the 1990s due to the regime’s policy of draining what was left of the marshes. This new wave of migrants merged with the previous one; in Baghdad, they congregated, notably, in the neighborhood of Fudhayliya.

[xxv] The open-air marketplace called Suq Umm Raydi, dubbed the “thieves market,” thrived as the major commercial zone and source of employment within al-Thawra. The neighbourhood also provided cheap labour to the more reputable trading platforms of al-Jamila, Shordja, and al-Baya‘, as well as unskilled workers in numerous other fields of activity, from printing to gardening. (Author’s observations prior to the war.)

[xxvi] This in part explains why the regime succeeded in luring many of them into the ranks of the Fida’iyu Saddam, which could offer a sense of accomplishment largely unavailable to them (Harling 11 December 2007).

[xxvii] Author’s interviews, Baghdad, December 2002-February 2003.

[xxviii] Author’s interviews and observations, May 2003.

[xxix] The army, which previously had been a vector of social integration, became after the war on Iran the very opposite. Young soldiers, whose description evoked Sadrists to be, were seen walking into Kuwait after Iraq’s invasion, wearing tattered uniforms and sandals instead of boots. They partook in the looting out of sheer misery. Author’s interview with a Palestinian witness of the events, April 2009.

[xxx] Author’s observations in the months following the invasion.

[xxxi] Interestingly, when in April 2003 Sadrists besieged Sistani’s quarters, demanding he leave the city, the Ayatollah called upon Middle Euphrates tribes for protection. These are deeply enmeshed with the commercial and religious elite within Najaf, and thus have an interest in preserving the status quo.

[xxxii] This episode and its consequences will be examined more extensively in a forthcoming publication.

[xxxiii] The Sadrists’ role has been documented extensively elsewhere (International Crisis Group 2006; International Crisis Group 2008a) and will only be summarized here.

[xxxiv] Author’s interviews, Baghdad, 2000-2003.

[xxxv] An additional question to be raised here is whether the middle class can be anything more than what it has been in the past, namely a clientele at the disposal of an unaccountable state. Indeed Iraq’s “middle class” should not be understood as the concept is used elsewhere. It was essentially the product of a rentier state, defined above all by its yearning for a certain style of life, based on free education, state-employment, urban amenities, and all the trappings of modernity – from the Western style villa to the personal car to holidays abroad. In exchange for this comfort, the middle class appeared willing to weather extraordinary abuse by the regime. Tellingly, the latter’s policy throughout the war with Iran was to make it, precisely, as imperceptible as possible to the population of the capital. Middle class Baghdadis interviewed by the author in the late 1990s essentially repressed any memory of the massive deportation from their midst, in 1980, of colleagues and neighbours of alleged Iranian origins. In a society where information, whenever deemed relevant, flowed relatively well through informal channels, they displayed a remarkably weak understanding of the nature of the Anfal campaign. Rather, they clung to the myth of a “golden age” of comfort and consumption which they contrasted with their suffering under the embargo.


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