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Shia-Sunni Relations

Until the 1980s, the dominant view of contemporary political analysts held that Iraq was badly split along sectarian lines. There was some basis to this notion. For many years Iraq was ruled by-and-large by Arab Sunnis who tended to come from a restricted area around Baghdad, Mosul, and Ar Rutbah--the so called Golden Triangle. In the 1980s, not only was President Saddam Husayn a Sunni, but he was the vice chairman of the ruling Baath Party (Arab Socialist Resurrection). One of the two deputy prime ministers and the defense minister were also Sunnis. In addition, the top posts in the security services have usually been held by Sunnis, and most of the army's corps commanders have been Sunnis. It is also true that the most depressed region of the country is the south, where the bulk of the Shias reside.

The claim was that the Sunnis--although a minority--ran Iraq and subjected the majority Shias to systematic discrimination. According to the prevailing belief, the Shias would drive the Sunnis from power, if once afforded an opportunity to do so. In the new century, these views were given substance.

The Algiers accord was signed between the former Pahlavi monarchy and Saddam Husayn in I975. It established the border between Iran and Iraq at the thalweg. or midpoint of the navigable channel of the Shatt al Arab waterway—a concession by Iraq. which for years had claimed control ever the entire river. In return Iran ceased its support for Kurdish insurgents who were threatening to destabilize the Iraqi regime. Saddam abrogated the accord upon his invasion of Iran in September 1980, arguing that Iranian subversion among Iraqi Shia Muslims represented a violation of the treaty.

Nonetheless, the theory of sectarian strife was undercut by the behavior of Iraq's Shia community during Iran's 1982 invasion and the fighting thereafter. Although about three-quarters of the lower ranks of the army were Shias, no general insurrection of Iraqi Shias occurred.

Even in periods of major setback for the Iraqi army--such as the Al Faw debacle in 1986--the Shias have continued staunchly to defend their nation and the Baath regime. They have done so despite intense propaganda barrages mounted by the Iranians, calling on them to join the Islamic revolution.

It appeared that, however important sectarian affiliation may have been in the past, in the latter 1980s nationalism was the basic determiner of loyalty. In the case of Iraq's Shias, it should be noted that they are Arabs, not Persians, and that they have been the traditional enemies of the Persians for centuries. The Iraqi government has skillfully exploited this age-old enmity in its propaganda, publicizing the war as part of the ancient struggle between the Arab and Persian empires. For example, Baathist publicists regularly call the war a modern day "Qadisiyah." Qadisiyah was the battle in A.D.637 in which the Arabs defeated the pagan hosts of Persia, enabling Islam to spread to the East.

The real tension in Iraq in the latter 1980s was between the majority of the population, Sunnis as well as Shias, for whom religious belief and practice were significant values, and the secular Baathists, rather than between Sunnis and Shias. Although the Shias had been underrepresented in government posts in the period of the monarchy, they made substantial progress in the educational, business, and legal fields. Their advancement in other areas, such as the opposition parties, was such that in the years from 1952 to 1963, before the Baath Party came to power, Shias held the majority of party leadership posts. Observers believed that in the late 1980s Shias were represented at all levels of the party roughly in proportion to government estimates of their numbers in the population. For example, of the eight top Iraqi leaders who in early 1988 sat with Husayn on the Revolutionary Command Council--Iraq's highest governing body-- three were Arab Shias (of whom one had served as Minister of Interior), three were Arab Sunnis, one was an Arab Christian, and one a Kurd. On the Regional Command Council--the ruling body of the party--Shias actually predominated. During the war, a number of highly competent Shia officers have been promoted to corps commanders. The general who turned back the initial Iranian invasions of Iraq in 1982 was a Shia.

The Shias continued to make good progress in the economic field as well during the 1980s. Although the government does not publish statistics that give breakdowns by religious affiliation, qualified observers noted that many Shias migrated from rural areas, particularly in the south, to the cities, so that not only Basra but other cities including Baghdad acquired a Shia majority. Many of these Shias prospered in business and the professions as well as in industry and the service sector. Even those living in the poorer areas of the cities were generally better off than they had been in the countryside. In the rural areas as well, the educational level of Shias came to approximate that of their Sunni counterparts.

Prior to the war with Iran, the Baath had taken steps toward integrating the Shias. The war placed inordinate demands on the regime for manpower, demands that could only be met by levying the Shia community--and this strengthened the regime's resolve to further the integration process. In early 1988, it seemed likely that when the war ended, the Shias would emerge as full citizens. This was not to be, however.

Soon after the Desert Storm ground war ended in March 1991, a Shiite insurrection began in Basra and other southern cities. It seemed spontaneous, and at first there was no evidence of Iranian involvement. There were also reports of Iraqi military units mutinying and joining the insurrection. That did not seem at odds with the idea of the Iraqi military turning against Saddam. But soon there was evidence of the entry of Iranian influence, at first by some Iraqi emigre groups which had received Iranian refuge and support, including being armed by the Iranians. Encouraged by signs of spontaneous Shiite dissidence, some of these Iraqi emigre groups crossed the border, and were reportedly followed by Iranian agents. Saddam skillfully and brutally maintained his position in the face of extensive revolts among Iraqi Kurds and Shias.

Great fear built up over the decade after the American intervention, during which many Iraqis, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, were victimized by religiously-motivated violence. The government proved unable to stop religiously-motivated attacks and bring perpetrators to justice. This created a climate of impunity, which in turn exacerbates a perpetual sense of insecurity for all religious communities, particularly the smallest ones.

Iran was a dominant player in Iraq's electoral politics, and used its close ties to Shia, Kurdish, and select Sunni figures to shape the political landscape in favor of a united Shia victory in the January election. A pro-Iran, Shia-dominated, and preferably Islamist government, led by a united Shia alliance remained Iran's top priority. Toward that end, Iran sought to increase pressure on Maliki to join forces with the other prominent Shia coalition (Iraqi National Alliance) led by the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

Prime Minister al-Maliki continuef to defy the power-sharing agreement that allowed the government to be formed in 2010. These actions strained already frayed Sunni-Shi’a relations, threatening the country’s fragile stability. And al-Qaeda linked extremist groups, emboldened by the Syrian crisis, heightened Sunni-Shia’ tensions through a series of attacks and bombings. However, the Shi’a-led Iraqi government exacerbated the situation by acting in an authoritarian manner, raiding and disbanding largely peaceful Sunni protests, targeting Sunni areas, citizens, and politicians for security sweeps and arrests, and mistreating Sunni prisoners, which has given rise to charges of sectarian behavior.

By 2013, the government failed to stem egregious and increasing violence by non-state actors against Iraqi civilians, including attacks targeting religious pilgrims and worshippers, religious sites, and leaders, as well as individuals for their actual or assumed religious identity. While the Syrian crisis contributed to sectarian tensions, the Iraqi government took actions that increased, rather than reduced, Sunni-Shi’a tensions, threatening the country’s already fragile stability and further exacerbating the poor religious freedom environment. Especially concerning is the draft personal status law that would separately apply to Shi’a Iraqis, which risked further hardening the sectarian divide.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2014 19:16:24 ZULU