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Friday, November 28, 2003

Iraq is not a jigsaw puzzle

Juan Cole points this article out about how Americans misperceive Iraq and their ideas of nationalism:

Iraq's Shi'ites have consistently demonstrated their loyalty to the Iraqi nation. Shi'ites constituted the overwhelming majority of foot soldiers in the Iraqi army, even during the eight year war with Iran, a Shi'ite state to whom both Saddam Hussein and a Shi'ite-phobic American establishment assumed Iraqi Shi'ites were actually loyal. The Saudis recognized this in the Shi'ite uprising that followed Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and according to former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, the Saudi government asked for US support of the Shi'ite rebels, seeing them as they saw themselves, Iraqis first, Shi'ites second, and not pawns of Iran.

Iraq is unique in the Muslim world as a country where Sunnis and Shi'ites, both secular and religious leaders, have often collaborated against internal oppression and external aggression, and have not engaged in the vicious sectarian bloodshed seen in Pakistan, or the Wahhabi view of Shi'ites as heretics and polytheists. Shi'ite ayatollahs supported Sunni opposition movements, and a radical Shi'ite movement like the Da'wa party had a Sunni membership of 10 percent.

Immediately following the fall of Saddam's regime a remarkable movement of Sunni-Shi'ite unity emerged with the participation of Iraq's alleged extreme religious leaders, including the Shi'ite Muqtada Sadr and the Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Kubaisi. When asked about differences between them, Iraqis from Tikrit to Najaf invariably say "there is no difference, we are all Iraqis", or "we are all Muslims". Often they would add that Americans are attempting to divide them by stressing their differences.

Evidence of this is seen in the American appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), whose members were all selected because of their ethnic or religious identity. For the first time in Iraqi history, the ethnic and religious divisions were institutionalized. This was in fact the same error the international community made in Bosnia, where it enshrined the ethnic principle as the basis for the new government.

It is wrong to speak of an artificial "Sunni triangle". Iraqis do not divide their country into religious regions like this. It is also wrong to say that Sunnis dominated Iraq under Saddam. More accurate would be to say that members of Saddam's extended tribe, or of his hometown, dominated Iraq, to the exclusion of everyone else. Many Sunnis in the so called Sunni triangle resent the undue importance Saddam gave to Tikritis, for example. Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites are related by common history and often common tribal relations, since Iraq only became a majority Shi'ite state after Sunni tribes converted to Shi'itism in the 18th century. Even the most extreme Iraqi Shi'ites are Iraqi nationalists and view Iran with suspicion. Iraqi Shi'ites believe their country is the rightful leader of the Shi'ite world, since Shi'itism began in Iraq, most sacred Shi'ite sites are in Iraq and the Hawza, or the Shi'ite clerical academy of Najaf, thought dominated by Shi'ites until recently. Iran is a rival for them. Iraqi nationalism and unity were proven when all members of the IGC unanimously rejected the American proposal to introduce Turkish peacekeepers into the country.

An Iraqi population already skeptical of American motives would view any suggestion of further division as proof of a nefarious scheme to divide and plunder their country. Sunnis and Shi'ites would all take up arms and the resistance would be universal. There is no Sunni or Shi'ite Iraqi who wants to divide his country. The Kurds of Iraq are of course a separate ethnic group. However, they have participated in united opposition movements before the war, the reconstruction efforts after the war and are represented in the IGC by both major Kurdish parties. Even the Iraqi foreign minister is Kurdish. During Saddam's reign and before, many Kurds actually cooperated with the regime, serving as ministers and officers and even fighting the rebel brethren.


A point which has to be understood is that Iraqi nationalism trumps Iraqi national identity. Many of the "conflicts" are closer to American ethnic bitching between blacks and puerto ricans than the Balkans. There are no strong nationalist or ethnic movements in Iraq as there were in Yugoslavia. Iraqis have been taught, at least since 1920, that their sense of Iraqi nationhood is more important than their own ethnic identity. Even the conflicts with the Kurds have never been as neat as people would like to define them, with Kurds making and breaking deals with Saddam and other Iraqis over the years.

Americans see Iraq in the prism of the Balkans and that is the wrong prism to look through. Iraqis have never had a history of extended ethnic conflict and even Sunnis hated Saddam and his cronies, with Fallouja being the home of a ferverent anti-Saddam resistance.

We have listened to the self-interested exiles for far too long and not seen Iraq as a real state with real people. The Iraqis are a single people with ethnic differences, not three nations jammed together.

posted by Steve @ 12:15:00 PM

12:15:00 PM

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