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Iraq: Merely an age-old sectarian narrative?

Written By | Mar 18, 2015

WASHINGTON, March 18, 2015 – Iraqi forces are well on their way to liberating Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, from the hold of ISIS. The Iraqi-led offensive on ISIS-held Tikrit began on March 2, 2015.

From U.S. officials to Iraqi military commanders, there is an expression of confidence that Iraqi forces will succeed against ISIS in Tikrit and eventually in Mosul.

Still, there is concern over the alleged sectarian nature of these offensives. There should be even greater concern for the way we narrate these conflicts, because at the core of it all, it is not sectarian.

Some have argued that taking back Tikrit will make life worse for residents of the city. They point to the record of alleged militia abuses that followed the liberation of neighborhoods from ISIS control. These arguments also say that such offensives carried out by the Iraqi forces are sectarian driven and are detrimental to the stability of country.

There is some weight to these sentiments, but they do not provide an accurate background of the situation and unfortunately make too many generalizations to fit a sectarian narrative.

We need to keep a historical context in mind to fully understand Iraq’s current political climate. Iraq is a young democratic nation. Its people endured authoritarian rule for over 30 years under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, with a short-lived monarchy preceding the Baathists and British imperialism before that.

Prior to the 1920s, Iraq was a battleground for over 400 years between the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Persian Safavid Empire. Iraq continues to be a battleground for the power play between regional players.

The state that is home to the birthplace of humanity – Mesopotamia – has experienced a representative system of government for just over 10 years. In those 10 years, more than half a million Iraqis died from war-related causes, according to a collaborative research study between universities in the United States, Canada, and Iraq.

Since June, the sovereignty of Iraq has been violated by ISIS, a terrorist organization that morphed out of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq and former Baathists who seized an opportunity with the power vacuum in Mosul.

Since then, the situation in Iraq has been consistently framed as a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Such a characterization is misleading. It may make for good story-telling and catchy news headlines, but it is far from sound analysis.

Statements like “the Sunnis hold the city” and the “Shiites are launching an offensive to take it over” are disingenuous. The situation in Iraq is not a tale of old rivalries like Romeo and Juliet’s Montague and Capulet family feud. The setting is much more complex. The combination of disenfranchised minorities in the new republic and the invasion of a terrorist organization setting up a self-claimed “caliphate” within the borders of two sovereign states deserves much more than a generalized sectarian brush.

This isn’t a Sunni-Shiite war. Beyond the fact that Iraq is a very young republic with many challenges, there are two primary issues that the new republic faces:

  • Iraq’s minorities have been disenfranchised with the counterintuitive policies of the previous administration under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.
  • There is a criminal terrorist group that has gruesomely violated the sovereignty of an internationally recognized state.

Though much of Iraq’s Sunni population were disenfranchised and marginalized during the Maliki administration, virtually no Sunnis support ISIS. Why would they? ISIS has killed scores of Sunnis in Iraq. Last November, ISIS executed over 300 men, women and children from a single Sunni tribe.

The vast majority of Sunnis in Iraq do not support ISIS and strongly oppose its presence in Iraq. Thus, to assert that ISIS is representative of Sunnis or even “Sunni-aligned” is misleading. Iraqi Sunnis simply want to be represented and accounted for in their national government. Strides have been made by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s administration to more effectively integrate Sunni leadership in Iraq’s power sharing.

Nevertheless, much more work must be done in that regard to have lasting change. The effective reconciliation of power with Iraq’s minorities — Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomen and others — is essential for the long-term stability of Iraq.

ISIS does not have any form of popular clout in Iraq. If you look closely at Iraq’s map and see the swath of land ISIS has occupied, parts of central and northern Iraq, it’s mostly uninhabited desert.

The cities they do occupy are not towns of loyal Sunni supporters but rather subjugated innocent civilians. Scores of families fled their homes, some heading south for refuge in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. The Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, the most revered site for Shiite Muslims in Iraq, hosted thousands of Christian and Sunni refugees from the onset of the ISIS invasion.

Most of the families that stayed under ISIS occupation were coerced to pay lip service to the organization in order to avoid being killed.

Human rights organizations and other observers have reported that the militias fighting ISIS have also engaged in abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, the militias have committed abuses against residents in towns they liberated from ISIS and returned to government control. Such abuses are inexcusable, even in the fight against a terrorist organization such as ISIS, and reprisals should not be tolerated. Al-Abadi’s government has condemned such actions and stressed the government’s dedication to protect all citizens in their military missions.

There must be less reliance on these militia forces to combat ISIS, even if they have been effective in pushing it back. Reliance on non-state armed actors is detrimental to the long-term authority of Baghdad. Strengthening the central government and the state’s security forces is key to the stability of a free Iraq.

Most of the military personnel in Iraq’s security forces are Shiite, but that is partially because Shiites make up more than 65 percent of the country’s population. Should there be more inclusion to the Sunni community in the military, the government, and other posts of influence in the country? Definitely. That goes for Iraq’s other religious and ethnic minorities as well.

This is an underlying problem that is taking place in Iraq, but it’s not a sectarian issue. It’s the problem that every country faces with majority rule and minority rights, which is that minorities don’t always get their rights. Thus, there must be an emphasis on inclusion of all minorities in Iraq across all affiliations and identities, whether they are religious, ethnic, cultural or gender-based.

The war in Iraq is not a sectarian one. It is the plight of a nation struggling to find itself in the midst of regional and global interests. It is a people recovering from years of dictatorial rule and working its way to find its place as a nation.

The idea of being a true republic, whereby the people’s views are represented and their votes account for something, is still new to many even after 10 years.

Do we acknowledge the complexity and dig deeper, or do we simply write off their challenges with a broad stroke of an old-age sectarian narrative? The latter would be a tad unbecoming of us, don’t you think?

Jalal Moughania

Jalal Moughania is a law and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He is an associate at Humanize Global, a private international research and advisory firm. Moughania’s research focuses on Middle East policy with an emphasis on Iraq and the Levant. He holds a J.D. in Law and a B.A. in Political Science.