Iraq has had a turbulent history as a result of its ethnic make up. While all this was blamed on the ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq has continued to be split along ethical lines even after the overthrow of Saddam and his subsequent execution. Now more than ever, the country’s population has clustered themselves around ethnical and sectarian lines with each group advancing its interests over those of the country.
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This has inevitably led to an escalation in violence as well as a lack of progress for Iraq as a whole. It has been noted that the major benefactors of this division have been political parties and their leaders who have obtained power from their followings. Davis advances that many Iraqis fall back on tribal and confessional identities as a result of socio-economic decay that is rife in the country (3).
The corruption that plagues the current Iraq government compares unfavorably even with Saddam’s oppressive regime. As such, harsh socio-economic realities make the Iraqi people prone to being manipulated into falling back into their ethnic and sectarian identities.
This paper shall argue that ethnic and sectarian identity is being manipulated by political leaders in Iraq for their own gains resulting in an Iraq that is divides, and has numerous incidents of violence as the various groups compete for resources.
The paper will undertake a concise yet informative comparison of the various means used by the leaders of the main ethnic groups to harden ethnic identity of their followers therefore consolidating their own power.
The Ethnic Issue in Iraq
As a result of the demarcation of the borders of Iraq into the current state by the then British colonizers, a number of Ethnic groups fell within Iraq’s borders therefore forming the people of Iraq as we currently know it. The three major ethnic groups that formed Iraq are; the Shia, Sunni and the Kurds.
Ibrahim defines ethnicity in the Iraqi context as referring to “contiguous or co-existing groups differing in race, religion, sect, language, culture of national orientation” (229).
Strife among the various ethnic groups has always been present in past regimes with the most predominant one being by the Kurds who have sought to break away from Iraq. However, these attempts have been crushed by the central government resulting in a unified, albeit oppressed, Iraq.
Therefore, while the potential for conflict and actual conflict along ethnic lines has always been present in Iraq’s history, the political and institutional arrangements that were present prevented the conflict from escalating. However, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq resulted in a sudden structural change as a result of the collapse of Saddam’s regime.
This breakdown resulted in a lack of a common national identity as each ethnic group sought to benefit itself the most from the fall of Saddam.
Rear asserts that “in the absence of a national identity, it is perhaps to be expected that leaders would attempt to utilize ethnicity as the glue which could bind the population of the state together” (167). This association invariably results in ethnic mobilization both in the electoral process and even in conflicts between groups.
Post Saddam Iraq
Iraq has been plagued by manipulation by political leaders so as to consolidate their power at the expense of other ethnic groups. This manipulation works since as Michael theorizes, “While not everyone [in an ethnic group] may be mobilized as an active fighter for his or her group, hardly anyone ever fights for the opposing ethnic group” (9).
Ethnic divisions in Iraq politics have continued to be acutely pronounced despite the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and the imposition of a democratically elected government. The Saddam government was at best predatory in nature and employed a “winner-takes-all” policy where the Sunni dominated all aspects of Iraqi government.
Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, leaders who represented the ethnic constituents of Iraq were chosen to represent the Iraqis. These leaders did not enjoy much public support ant their promotion was based on their opposition to the Saddam regime as well as their ethnic identities (Berdal 96).
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Dawisha documents that the 15 December 2005 general elections were characterized by voters en masse turning to their primordial loyalties (26). The elections resulted in the largest vote (46.5%) going to the United Iraqi Alliance which is a coalition of Shia solidarity.
The Kurdistan Alliance on the other hand received votes primarily from the Kurdish population while the Iraqi Accord Front which is a Sunni-sectarian group garnered 80% of the Sunni vote. These results demonstrate strong divisions along ethnic lines by the Iraqi people. These ethnic divisions were mostly as a result of the politicians who pried on the political psychology and emotions of the Iraq people.
The motivation for this manipulation is the fear by the politicians of losing economic and personal security to members of other ethnic communities. These skillful politicians rallied the masses to identify with the ethnic group and agenda of the particular leader.
The 2005 elections which were decisive in putting the current Iraqi leaders in office were characterized by widespread appeal to ethnicity. A report by the United States Institute of Peace reveals that in order to gain power, the hugely inexperienced politicians appealed to ethnic and sectarian identity with great success (7).
While the politicians purported to create an Iraq that was unified and just unlike the former Saddam regime, they highlighted the differences of the people so as to ensure that the people from their ethnic groups voted for them. This clearly demonstrates that the leaders did not have the best interests of the people as they purported to but rather, they were only interested in getting themselves into power.
Manipulation of Ethnic identity by Politicians
The Shia were arguably the greatest benefactors of the end of the Saddam regime. Following this events, Shia militia leaders were afforded power and given government ministries at the expense of the other ethnic groups. This resulted in a scenario whereby the militia leaders took over specific ministries and run them for the party interest therefore breaking the coherence of the government (Berdal 98).
Following the 2005 elections, the Supreme council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) which was one of the parties forming the United Iraqi Alliance had one of its leaders, Bayan Jabr Solagh appointed as Interior Minister. This SCIRI member proceeded to sack hundreds of Sunni officials working in the Ministry and accused them of being criminals (Berdal 99).
The new Minister then made it mandatory for all new Interior Ministry recruits to have a letter of reference from a SCIRI office or mosque. This move was evidently aimed at locking out the Sunnis from the ministry therefore benefiting only the Shia.
Another prominent Shia political party is the Sadrist movement which also forms part of the United Iraqi Alliance. The United States Institute of Peace reveals that while this party is fairly new in the political scene in Iraq, it has become a force to be reckoned with owing to its following in the streets (10).
This party is made up of young mostly inexperienced leaders some of whom, as a result of the high number of votes their party obtained, have been given cabinet positions. The strength of this party is said to be in the ability of its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr to mobilize local Shia communities and particularly the poor and unemployed youth (Pollack 122).
The leader of this party is interested in consolidating the party’s power and as such, reinforces its position in the UIA. This is a situation which led to strife as armed conflicts occurred between SCIRI and Sadr as they both fight for control over the UIA and the Shia group.
Dawisha reveals that the Sadrs and the Hakims are prominent clerical families who have “long been intense rivals for the spiritual leadership of Iraq’s Shias (30). These two young leaders have therefore been at odds not on a matter of party principles or even any national interest but rather for personal reasons.
These two young leaders are said to have incited their followers to many bloody battles in the south resulting in the death of many. From these conflicts, it is clear that personal interests of the party leaders take precedence over the interests of the Iraqi people
Interestingly, the Kurdish Alliance which is comprised of various Kurdish parties gathered 20% of the 2005 election votes; roughly equal to the Kurdish share of the population (USIP 12). While the Kurdish people have been given key positions in the Iraqi government as a result of strive for national unity by the Iraqis, the Kurds are not acting in the interest of national unity.
The Kurdish Alliance is united behind a Kurdish nationalist agenda which is interested in a semi autonomous state in the Kurdish north. As such, the Kurdish politicians foster Kurdish identity and hope to have control independent of the rest of Iraq.
The loyalty of the Kurds to Iraq is further put to question by the fact that they have a Kurdish Flag which is hoisted by the “Kurdish Regional Government”. Despite the united front presented by the Kurds, the two main parties in Kurdistan have had a bitter history which culminated in violence back in 1994 (Bengio and Kirmanj 3).
The Kurds are made up of Turkman and Christian population these groups take opposing views on some of the important issues that the new Iraq faces. On the issue of secularism, the Kurdish parties support this unanimously and desire a separation of religion and state. The Shia and Sunni fundamentalists on the other hand back the application of Sharia law on the land.
With regard to the constitution, the Kurds are pro the idea of federalism which will give them equal status with other federal units as well as enable them to eventually form the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Some of the leaders have taken to oppressive actions, not unlike those of Saddam’s regime, to ensure that their positions as leaders are secure. For example, the Kurdish leader Masud Barzani is accused of starting a war against free press as well as detaining his political rivals (Rubin).
The Sunni Arabs enjoyed leadership for decades under Saddam’s reign. During this regime, all the top military commanders as well as government positions were occupied by Sunnis. Following the fall of Saddam, all this was reversed and the Sunnis were perceived as the enemy. During the 2005 Iraq Elections, the Arab Sunni community fronted Tawafuq (Iraq Accord Front), an alliance of Sunni parties.
The alliance won most of the Sunni votes highlighting the ethical lines along which the people voted. The Iraqi Islamic Party which formed part of the IAF changed leadership in 2005, replacing the Kurd leader with an Arab Sunni who was an articulate spokesman for Sunni views (USIP 15)
In the Saddam era, the Sunnis considered themselves to be racially superior to the Kurds as well as religiously superior to the Shia (O’Leary 81). This notion was reinforced by the favoritism that they were afforded by the leader Saddam who was also a Sunni. Following his fall, the Sunnis continued to hold this notion and are therefore opposed to the idea of being lorded over by people they regard as their inferiors.
However, the realities of the new Iraq have made the Sunnis accept that they are not the minority group. The Sunnis are for the idea of a strong united Iraq and hold strong nationalist views even favoring a centralized government. This non-sectarian view is not shared by the other ethnic groups which do not hold the same secularist ideals.
Blagojevic argues that ethnic conflict may occur as a result of a number of factors including the presence of historical memories of inter-ethnic grievances (3). These memories may then be used by political entrepreneurs to evoke emotions of fear, resentment, and hate towards the others.
This is precisely the situation in Iraq where most Kurdish and Shia politicians are promoting ethnic intolerance through manipulation of historical memories. In 2006, Nouri al-Maliki who had just been made prime minister of Iraq stripped hundreds of policemen of their rank and proceeded to replace them with others.
Bender notes that this move was not motivated by incompetence on the part of the officers or even their perception as a security threat but rather on the fact that they were Sunnis. Considering the fact that Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dominated government was repressive to the other ethnic groups, the move by the prime minister was in fear of Iraq experiencing a Sunni renaissance.
It should be noted that the US led occupation also strengthened ethnic loyalties in the case of the Sunni for as Berdal documents, the US military viewed Sunni insurgents as seeking the return of Saddam Hussein while insurgent groups from the Shia were perceived to be fighting for nationalistic ideals (97).
As a result of these double standards, the Sunnis felt that their nationalist struggle against occupation was being labeled as criminal and the Sunni the political leaders of the Sunni took advantage of this state and consolidated their communities.
As has been noted through this paper, some of the reasons for the pronounce division along sectarian and ethical lines is as a result of the previous Saddam regime. Many Iraqis are suspicious as to the intentions of the Sunnis and are unwilling to let them take powerful positions (Gritten). This is because they fear that the Sunnis might relapse into a Saddam like regime.
These suspicions that have made the reality of a “national unity” government hard to achieve are hard to dispense since they are engrained from many years from the Sunni led government. It is this fear that the unscrupulous leaders are prying on and making Iraq even more divided than it was during the oppressive Saddam regime.
Rear states that according to the primordialist approach, “ethnicity as a collective identity is so deeply rooted in historical experience that is should properly be treated as a given in human relations” (6). Bearing in mind that Iraq has a long history of repression along ethnic lines; it is unlikely that the ethnic divisions in Iraq will fade.
While identity plays an important role in Iraqi politics, there has been lack of concession on what the Iraqi identity should be. While the Sunni are for the idea that Iraq should have an Arab Identity the Kurds oppose this view.
In addition, while some of the Sunnis and Shia see an Islamic identity as paramount to the Iraq identity and view an Arab-Islamic Iraq as the only way to promote a unified state, the Kurds favor a secular state. This differences unless resolved only promise to advance sectarian/ethnic oriented politics in Iraq.
A radical solution to the Iraqi problem is proposed by Leading political scholars Steven Cook and Douglas Dillion who suggest the imposition of a “National Unity Dictator”; a national leader who would be willing and mandated to suspend the constitution in order to address the lawlessness that has brought Iraq to the brink and the sectarian militias (Cook and Dillion 7).
This “ideal” leader would be situated between the various ethnic and religious factions and would be an Iraqi nationalist. However, the idea of a National Unity Dictator seems unlikely since the Kurds and the Shia are unlikely to relinquish the substantial gains they have achieved since the fall of Saddam.
Blagojevic states that ethnic conflicts are not inevitable since peaceful and cooperative ethnic relations are by far more typical than the large scale violence that characterizes Iraq (2). As such, despite the ethnic and sectarian strife that currently characterize Iraq, it is possible to build a political system that can work across ethical and sectarian boundaries therefore benefiting Iraq as a whole.
This can be done through ensuring that all the ethnic groups are given an equal opportunity in government therefore reducing the need for division so as to fight for the available resources.
This paper set out to argue that ethnic and sectarian identity is being manipulated by political leaders in Iraq for their own gains. To reinforce this assertion, this paper has performed an analysis of the major ethnic groups and their leading political parties so as to highlight the role that ethnicity plays in Iraqi politics.
From the discussions presented herein, it is evident that leaders from the three major ethnic groups; Shia, Sunni and Kurds, all utilize sectarian animosity to advance their own interests. This has resulted in an Iraqi that is more divided than ever and with the threat of seceding from the Kurds even more real. All this has resulted in lack of nationalism and an escalation in violence.
However, the reality is not all bleak and there have been moves towards creating national unity and moving away from ethnic based politics. However, for this to become a reality, the institutional and representational imbalances that have led to the ethnic divisions must be effectively addressed. Until then, sectarian and ethnic differences will continue being used by politicians in Iraq to manipulate the population.
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