Was Sectarian Strife Inevitable?

Not necessarily, according to Fanar Haddad, who tells Beauchamp that he’s “right not to buy the ancient hatreds line” about Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and that the internecine conflict of the past decade is largely a product of modern history:

The roots of sectarian conflict aren’t that deep in Iraq. In early medieval Baghdad, there were sectarian clashes, but that is extremely different from what you have in the age of the nation state. Come the 20th century and the nation state, we’re all part of this new “Iraq” entity — you feel a sense of belonging, so it becomes a question of how you divide the national pie. And I think that’s the main driver, the main animator behind sectarian competition in Iraq.

That’s a very new one. The state was established in 1921. Not too long after that, you start hearing about how the majority — the Shias — are being neglected, excluded, marginalized, or what you have you. After that, you’ve got the ever-present Arab-Iranian or Iraqi-Iranian rivalry that superimposed itself (not entirely by accident) onto sectarian relations. For whatever political end, people will try to conflate or suggest Iran with Shias. This has been particularly divisive. I’ll skip through the next 80 years of statehood, except to say that throughout them, the default setting was coexistence. Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms. Obviously, this is something that ebbs and flows, but there were other frames of reference that were politically dominant. Come 2003, plenty changes.

Until 2003, “the default setting was coexistence?” The British, when they were occupying, were constantly needing to put down rebellions by the Shi’a and the Kurds. One of the more recent books on Iraq’s bitter history is summarized on Amazon thus:

The authors, one an assistant professor of political science at Wright State University, the other a fellow at the U.K.-based Royal Institute for International Affairs, contend that Saddam Hussein’s regime, far from being an inexplicable evil, was a not-so-surprising result of Iraq’s history. The British, they say, who gained control of the region after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, more or less made violent governance necessary through two key decisions: first, to attach the Kurdish province of Mosul to Arab Baghdad and Basra, giving the new nation a built-in secessionist movement, and second, to favor the Sunni Muslim minority at the expense of the more numerous Shi’a.

In 1991, the Kurds and the Shia rose up against the Sunni Saddam who had run Iraq with a Sunni elite. The result was the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the relocation of up to two million and the astonishing draining of the Southern marshes as a sectarian form of collective punishment. That was coexistence? Did the invasion and the chaos it spawned make matters a lot, lot worse? Of course, because it removed the only competitive source of loyalty – the Iraqi state.

Did the surge resolve this?

A thousand times no. As this blog repeatedly insisted – see the entire thread “Iraq Surge Fail Update” – it brought about a temporary calm, as the Sunni tribes were persuaded/bribed to take on the Islamist forces they are now – surprise! – allying with again, and as the forms of democratic processes took place. But it never resolved the structural sectarian division or hatred – both of which had obviously grown more intense after wave after wave of sectarian mass murder and the cycle of revenge. The surge never resolved the core political question it was designed to solve. This is not really Petraeus’ fault. An American commander is not an Iraqi political leader. But from the beginning, Maliki acted – understandably – as a Shiite first and as an Iraqi second (just like Saddam but in reverse). And if you see Saddam as a product of Iraq, Maliki’s resort to clumsy and sectarian brute force can be seen as exactly the same thing. Want to know why Kurdistan has been a success story? Because it is not riven with the sectarian hell of the entire country.

I can claim some foresight on this. In the midst of our Iraq Surge Fail thread, in February 2010, I wrote:

I find Biden’s recent premature bragging about Iraq to be as idiotic as Cheney’s once was. History tells us that just as you believe that what Churchill called the “ungrateful volcano” is dormant, it explodes again. And every time we think some crisis has been resolved, it often turns out it wasn’t. The next few months are full of potential explosions and the Beltway’s shallow notion that this is an old story is not reliable. This is not over by any means. And anyone who confidently says so is a fool.

Toby Dodge puts more blame on Maliki personally:

Maliki has done nothing to drive back a tide of corruption that swept across Iraq’s new political elite after 2003. Instead, unfair access to state largesse has become a tool for securing loyalty. Dissatisfaction with state failure, corruption and government incoherence came to a head in the March 2010 elections, when Maliki’s State of Law coalition was out-polled by Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya. It was during this election campaign and ever since that Maliki has deployed a divisive sectarian rhetoric to draw attention away from the failings of the state in an attempt to rally the Shia population to his rule. By damning his political opponents first as closet Ba’athists and then simply as terrorists he has sought to demonise Sunni politicians as complicit in the crimes of Saddam and supportive of the shadowy groups that have terrorised Iraq.

But Juan Cole notices that Shiite leaders are keeping it relatively cool for now:

In a statement on Friday, Sistani’s office issued a clarification of the statement of the previous week that called on young men to enlist in the army. The statement said that the call was directed to all Iraqis, not just the Shiites, and that it had not been intended to help the sectarian militias but only the national army. The new statement asked all Iraqis, especially those living in mixed neighborhoods, to avoid any conflict of a sectarian sort. It also apologized for the inability of the army actually to deal with so many volunteers and urged tha latter to get its act together.

On Saturday morning in Baghdad’s eastern district of Sadr City, a militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was formed and carried out exercises and mounted a spectacle. They called themselves the “Peace Brigades,” and their role is to protect holy sites and houses of worship belonging to all the religious groups of Iraq. Guerrillas of the fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have already destroyed tombs and shrines in Mosul and have threatened to raze Shiite shrines.

Jamie Dettmer puts in a word for Iraq’s Christians, some of whose oldest communities are right in the path of ISIS:

The Nineveh plains, the original Assyrian heartland, where Christians speak Assyrian as their first language and Arabic their second, has been also experienced an exodus despite Christian leaders earmarking the strip of land sandwiched between Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible place of refuge when sectarian attacks in Basra and Baghdad mounted after the American invasion. Since 2003, Christian families started to arrive from the south looking to settle on extended family holdings, but many moved on because of the depressed economy, partly a consequence of the Nineveh plains remaining disputed territory between the Iraq government and the Kurds. The Christian exodus, though, started during the Iran-Iraq war because many locals had been trading with Iran and their businesses collapsed during the conflict.

The Christians here are now on high alert, as they are in the nearby towns of Al-Qoush and Bashiqa. Entering Bartilla we are closely questioned at a checkpoint by members of a self-defense force of 500 unpaid part-timers. The force, known as the Church Guards, was formed after simultaneous bombings in August 2004 of six churches in Baghdad and Mosul, the first in a wave of bombings of nearly 30 other churches throughout Iraq.

Previous Dish on the sectarian dimension of the Iraq conflict here and here.