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Homepage > Publication Type > Speeches & Interviews > Iraq and the New Sectarianism in the Middle East

Iraq and the New Sectarianism in the Middle East

Joost Hiltermann  |  12 Nov 2006

Synopsis of a presentation by Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group Middle East Project Director, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The past two years have seen an alarming rise in sectarian violence in Iraq, matched by a growing sectarian discourse. As Sunnis refer to Shiites as Rawafedh (Rejectionists, i.e., those who reject the prophet’s lineage through Omar in favour of Ali), and Shiites call Sunnis Umawiyin (Umayyads, or descendants of the dynasty that consolidated power over the Islamic world following Ali’s murder), or Wahhabis or Takfiris,1 Sunni insurgents kill Shiites and Shiite militias kill Sunnis, often using the name on the victim’s identity card as a decisive marker of his religious affiliation.2 Just as disturbing, the escalating sectarianism in Iraq has found echoes in the wider region as well, opening a fault line that had hitherto remained largely submerged.3

What are the sources of this new sectarianism? For the most recent outburst we should look back at the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s and the Shiite resurgence on whose back it rode and that, dialectically, the revolution helped promote. The success of the Khomeini regime empowered Shiite communities throughout the region, even if its stated aim of exporting the Islamic revolution failed, in part because Iran’s ambitions were dammed in by Iraq in eight years of unremitting slaughter. Contrary to commonly expressed fears, the Shiite communities in the fragile Gulf states, while more assertive in pressing their own claims for fair representation within their polities, did not embrace the Khomeini brand of politicised Shiism that promoted the Wilayet al-Fakih, the rule of the jurisprudent.

However, the clerics’ success in gaining power in a country as wealthy and important as Iran provided a model and the impetus for Islamists worldwide, both Shiite and Sunni. It injected new energies, for example, into the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the Shiite resurgence provoked a backlash among Sunnis, giving rise to radical forms of Sunnism (often split-offs from the Brotherhood), especially a reinforcement of Salafism that saw itself as the direct adversary of Shiism as a branch of Islam. Its adherents found a proving ground in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and emerged emboldened.

At first there was no direct conflict between the two strands of radical Islam. This was so because Iran had no significant Sunni population,4 its Islamic revolution was effectively contained by the Arab states, and the sectarianism that the revolution represented was mediated, in Arab eyes, by the ethnic/national conflict that underlay the war between Persian Iran and Arab Iraq.5 The main enemy, in other words, were not Shiite hordes but Persian hordes threatening Iraq’s Arab lands in a classical border dispute between neighbours, even if the young foot soldiers’ “human wave” attacks were spurred by a Shiite Islamic zeal, as well as veneration for Khomeini as the supreme Shiite leader, the wali. In turn, Iraq’s majority Shiite population fought willingly, even valiantly, against the (Shiite) Iranian enemy, expressing loyalty first and foremost to Arabism, less so to a brutal but secular regime whose trademark violent streak was not discriminatory repression but equal-opportunity killing of political opponents. (Among those opponents were radical Shiite parties, such as Da’wa, who found inspiration in the Iranian revolution and whose leadership the regime decapitated and whose membership it decimated.)

What changed all this was the 2003 Iraq war, which uncorked the country’s Shiite potential. Coalescing into a single alliance (the United Iraqi Alliance) that received the blessings of the Shiites’ foremost religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they translated their superior numbers into an electoral victory in early 2005. This marked the first Shiite “take-over” of an Arab country and as such was viewed with alarm by other Arab states. But what were they seeing?

In the run-up to the Iraqi elections, King Abdullah II of Jordan had warned, in an interview with the Washington Post, that Iran’s growing influence in Iraq could be felt throughout the region and could lead to a "crescent" of dominant Shiite movements or governments stretching from Lebanon to the Gulf.6 Unsurprisingly, his remarks provoked the Shiites’ ire, and soon he backtracked, stating that what he had meant was Shiites not as a religious but a political community, backed by Iran.7 This was hardly sufficient to appease Shiites, because what the monarch really was saying, then, was that he considered Iraq’s Shiite parties to be Iranian proxies. This perspective was confirmed by Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, who in April 2006 declared that "most of the Shiites" living in Arab countries "are loyal to Iran, and not the countries they are living in."8  In other words, the Arab states saw Iran as advancing its interests through the region’s Shiite communities. The alarums had a slightly hysterical edge: the crescent included Syria, whose Alawite-led regime could not possibly be seen as Shiites or, as “quasi-Shiites,” intent on participating in a cross-regional Shiite alliance. Yet Syria has had a long-standing strategic relationship with Iran, and so, to the extent that the principal threat was perceived to emanate from Iran, Syria was part of it as well.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the UIA’s victory enabled the best funded and equipped and most disciplined group, the Badr militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to take over the interior ministry and its security forces. Soon these forces were in the forefront of retaliatory attacks against Sunnis, who stood accused of harbouring insurgent groups, including especially Al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, had openly urged attacks on the Rawafedh. Thus, one-sided suicide-bomb attacks against Shiite crowds and mosques turned into a virulent new vendetta-based sectarian dynamic in which Shiite militias masquerading as police forces indiscriminately killed Sunnis in retaliation for equally indiscriminate insurgent attacks against Shiites.9 As the death toll climbed, violence and intimidation forced Sunnis to leave predominantly Shiite neighbourhoods in Baghdad and vice versa.

SCIRI used its power both within the UIA and as the UIA (vis-à-vis Iraq’s other parties) to press for a new Iraqi state structure that, once established, would be based on ethnic and sectarian divisions. Hijacking the constitution-drafting process in August 2005 along with the (equally powerful and disciplined) Kurdish list, it came to an important understanding with the Kurdish parties, a virtual deal, whereby the Kurds would get Kirkuk governorate with its oil resources in exchange for the emergence of a Shiite-populated and -controlled federal super region in the south (turning SCIRI leader Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim into “the Barzani of the south,” in the words of one Iraqi commentator).10 Sunni Arabs would be left out, deprived of major resources. This informal agreement was translated into constitutional text and the constitution was approved in a popular referendum two months later.11 The notion of southern federalism expounded by SCIRI has since come under heavy fire for being a recipe for Iraq’s dissolution. Nationalist Iraqis, many of whom are Shiites (including Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement and the Fadhila party, that is strong in Basra), vigorously oppose the notion. But they failed to overcome the SCIRI-Kurdish alliance. In October 2006, a law that sets out the mechanism for creating federal regions passed by a slim majority.12

Today we face the prospect of Iraq’s break-up by constitution – if it doesn’t fall apart first from all-engulfing violence and civil war. This raises the question why the United States facilitated the Shiites’ rise to power (unless one subscribes to the notion, prevalent among Iraqis, that it was the US intention all along to partition Iraq). The answer is that it didn’t mean to – as such. The US intended to bring democracy to Iraq, and in the first instance this meant elections. If the logical result of free elections was the Shiites’ rise to power, then this was either not recognised or not considered a problem. The Bush administration may have hoped to bring to power a secular regime by pushing forward trusted Iraqis such as Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi. This gambit backfired over these two men’s patent unpopularity among ordinary Iraqis, the rise of religious politics, and the US’s growing loss of influence as it made mistake after mistake in pacifying and rebuilding the country. The problem was that it wasn’t the Shiites as such who won the elections but a coalition of Islamist parties, dominant among which was SCIRI (although it faces a growing Sadrist challenge). Regardless of whether Iraq’s Shiite population supports any of these parties (beyond voting for them in an election), having gained power they will not let themselves be cheated out of this historic opportunity to rule an Arab country.

Is the sectarian cat out of the bag? Is the Mashreq-spanning Shiite spectre becoming a reality? To draw such conclusions would be premature. All evidence points to the fact that ethno-nationalism continues to mediate and dilute sectarian passions – in Iraq as well as the region. The UIA’S fracturing over the southern federalism debate shows this. Iran’s overweening and condescending attitude towards Iraqi Shiite parties, which these parties strongly resent as racist (anti-Arab) in origin, will similarly undermine any grand international Shiite alliance. The term Rawafedh may have broad purchase in Sunni quarters to designate the country’s Shiites, but a more common term used by both Sunnis and secular Shiites to designate the Shiite Islamist parties and their followers in particular is Safawiyin – descendants of Iran’s Safavid (Shiite) dynasty. In other words: Iranians.13

The same holds true for Iran’s role and intra-Shiite relations elsewhere in the region. Witness the July 2006 war in Lebanon. If it can be said that Iran supported Hezbollah out of Shiite solidarity, it can also be said, with more evidence, that there was a convergence of interests between Iran and Hezbollah in countering what they perceive as a US-Israeli plan to reshape the region. This is also why Iran supports Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and a patently Sunni movement. But while Iran’s solidarity with Palestinian suffering is warmly received in the occupied territories, its appeal as a regional power enjoys very little traction. Interestingly, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went out of his way during the war to dilute his movement’s Shiite origins by playing up the Arab nationalist character of its fight against Israel – here was a national resistance movement holding out against a colonial and predatory occupying power. For example, Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, played Nasserist songs that were popular in Egypt in the 1950s, with a rousing response from Egyptians. If we look at how Sunni Islamists viewed Hezbollah, we find that the majority unflaggingly supported Hezbollah during the war and that only the fundamentalist Salafi takfiris criticised it for advancing Shiite and Iranian interests.14

The July war, though, and Iraq’s descent into civil strife are both symptoms of a greater malaise in the Middle East that stems from the failure to solve festering problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the illegitimacy of the Arab state system. This brings many dangers, of which a sectarian rift is only one. Chaos in Iraq has led to societal fragmentation, encouraging a siege mentality in communities that must seek protection from a growing assortment of non-state actors – militias, insurgent groups, crime mafias – that are thus empowered. From this many new loyalties and identities arise – at the expense of a national Iraqi one.

Hezbollah’s victory (its ability to survive the onslaught by a far superior military force) has had the paradoxical effect of reining in the movement’s freedom of manoeuvre: Hezbollah successfully played its resistance card but will not be able to play it again so easily (bringing on yet more destruction), lest it forfeit whatever support it still enjoys in Lebanon, even among Shiites (regardless of its broad popularity in the Arab world). The real winners may well be radical Sunni groups, part of the Al-Qaeda franchise, who emerged emboldened from Israel’s loss of its deterrent capability and face none of Hezbollah’s constraints. Their main adversaries are Arab regimes whose moral bankruptcy as representatives of their people has long been evident. The July war underscored these states’ fragility: After roundly criticising Hezbollah for reckless adventurism in provoking Israel’s disproportionate response, the Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian regimes were soon forced to recant under popular pressure, as the Arab street was with Hezbollah one hundred percent, somehow not seeing the Iranian hand that to these regimes was so obvious.15 While it may not be easy to overthrow these regimes, which are grounded in all-pervasive police states, they will hardly be strengthened by the twin challenges of Western military intervention and widespread popular disaffection.

We are standing in front of a hugely perilous time in the Middle East (and therefore the world). The coming years may see Iraq’s violent break-up, challenges to all post-Ottoman borders, regional warfare (a replay of the Iran-Iraq war but now directly between Iran and Iraq’s erstwhile patrons, the Arab states), repression of Shiite communities (in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain), US intervention in Iran, the Palestinians’ further submission to Israeli occupation and settlement, and popular uprisings, catalysed by pin-prick Al-Qaeda-type attacks, against Arab regimes.

Whatever one thinks of the US’s overthrow of the Iraqi regime and subsequent disastrous nation-building effort, it is in the international community’s interest to prevent worse now that things are getting dangerously out of hand. All energies should be directed toward stabilising Iraq by helping its many political actors forge an overall compromise concerning the principal and intertwined issues of state structure, division of powers, and oil revenue sharing, thereby lessening sectarian tensions and reducing violence generally. The Bush administration should state its clear intention to effect a phased withdrawal from Iraq over the coming couple of years. Simultaneously, the peace process needs to be reinvigorated on all tracks. And the US and its allies should engage Syria and Iran on the full range of issues that divide them, including first and foremost Iran’s nuclear program. Anything short of this will spell disaster.

1. Wahhabis are followers of Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, a Saudi preacher in the mid-18th century. Takfiris are Muslims who excommunicate other Muslims as unbelievers. Some of the Salafi jihadis, for example, have declared Shiite Muslims to be unbelievers.

2. These observations are based on research conducted in Iraq by, separately, the Brookings Institution and the International Crisis Group. See Ashraf al-Khalidi and Victor Tanner, Sectarian Violence: Radical Groups Drive Internal Displacement in Iraq (Brookings Institution and University of Bern, October 2006), at; and International Crisis Group, The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict (Brussels, February 2006). Many Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq are secular, but this distinction has faded in the new polarised climate, just as the secular political middle has evaporated. The fact of pervasive Sunni-Shiite intermarriage, especially among the secular elites, has similarly lost its relevance as sectarian-difference-based conflicts now course through communities, neighbourhoods and even families.

3. Some of the arguments in this presentation derive their inspiration from a piece published by Adnan Abu Odeh, a former senior advisor to King Hussein and Abdullah II of Jordan: “Don’t make too much of Iran,” Globe and Mail, 24 July 2006.

4. Iran has a one Sunni Muslim group that stands out: the Kurds. But their conflict with the central state has been dominated by national, not religious, concerns.

5. Needless to say, we have to be very careful with such categories. We should not neglect the multi-national character of Iran and Iraq, both of which have significant Turkic and Kurdish communities, in addition to other, smaller, minorities.

6. Quoted in Robin Wright and Peter Baker, "Iraq, Jordan See Threat to Election from Iran", The Washington Post, 8 December 2004.

7. Jordan Times, 6 January 2005.

8. USA Today, 13 April 2006.

9. Crisis Group, Iraq’s Next War?, op. cit.

10. As part of the deal, SIRI reportedly agreed not to push for the nationwide application of Islamic law, shari’a, leaving this instead to the regions to decide.

11. See International Crisis Group, Unmaking Iraq: A Constitutional Process Gone Awry (September 2005). For an analysis of the conflict over Kirkuk, see International Crisis Group, Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk (July 2006).

12. The most interesting work on southern federalism has been done by Reidar Visser. His writings are available from Iraq’s break-up is probably not SCIRI’s objective but an unintended consequence of its attempt to retain power. Lacking significant popular support, it has used its powerful militia and backing from Iran as its sources of power. Gaining control over a southern super region and its vast oil resources would perpetuate that power and make it self-sustaining. To be fair, SCIRI has justified its push for a southern region as a defensive move against insurgent violence originating in the Sunni Arab community. It is unclear, however, how disowning Sunni Arabs would protect the Shiites from violence.

13. Vice versa, many Shiites now refer to Sunnis simply as irhabiyin (terrorists), a political epithet.

14. Reuven Paz, “Hotwiring the Apocalypse: Jihadi Salafi Attitude towards Hizballah and Iran,” PRISM, Occasional Papers, vol. 4, no. 4 (August 2006).

15. A telling anecdote: At a large gathering of Jordanian notables, convened by King Abdullah II at the Dead Sea in August 2006, the country’s intelligence chief was wildly jeered (forcing the event’s abrupt termination) after he suggested that he would do to Nasrallah what he claimed he had done to Zarqawi. (Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate took credit for Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, claiming that its information had enabled the US to locate his hide-out).

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