A Question

by John Holbo on December 19, 2006

Juan Cole:

I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 years. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don’t see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we’re seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.

I have a vague recollection that, in the run-up to war, more or less this point was adduced as evidence democratization could work: no deep history of sectarian in-fighting (not like the Balkans, or anything.) I don’t have a thing to add, ignorant as I am, but I think Cole’s choice of verbs – unleashed – points in the direction of a question. It seems to imply the opposite of what Cole pretty clearly means to suggest: namely, that the beast itself is substantially new. So what should we say? The most obvious thing? Saddam bred the beast, but kept it on a leash; we unleashed it? But I’m not going to bother to pretend I know what I’m talking about here.

Cole links approvingly to this post that offers a slightly different assessment – namely, the beast was born, leashless, after Saddam fell: “close social and political identification with one’s religious group has come about largely as a result of the political environment after the fall of Saddam Hussein – the situation of the Shi’ites in Iraq before that was largely the result of the clan-based nature of political power in the country rather than religious discrimination.” I have to say: this could be cited as evidence that ‘it could have worked, but the Bush crew gratuitously screwed up the reconstruction’ – a line that has taken quite a beating the last 12 months or so. (I’m not proposing we revive such counter-factual apologetics. I’m just asking.)



Jim Henley 12.19.06 at 10:08 am

I’m pretty sure I read a reference recently to (smaller scale) Shiite “intifadas” in Iraq in the 70s, which would hurt Cole’s case. (IIRC, there were Kurdish revolts in the 60s.)


Steve LaBonne 12.19.06 at 10:34 am

Perhaps democracy could have worked, at some unspecified point in the future. I’m quite sure, though, that imposing democracy at the point of a gun couldn’t have worked even if a far more competent US administration had been in charge of such a misconceived effort. So there’s no need to flirt with the “would have been OK if Bush hadn’t screwed it up” storyline.


Jacob Christensen 12.19.06 at 10:47 am

Sorry for sounding like the Methods 101 teacher (which I am) but I’m trying to figure out what kinds of arguments the discussion contain.

A quick reflection yielded four different lines of argument – and with a little more and systematic work, I could probably have come up with something better:

“A” would be the “realist”/Fox News/whatever perspective, while “B”, “C” and “D” are different kinds of criticisms against the U.S. strategy in Iraq. You would have to combine B with C or D or some other argument to make a full statement.

Thesis A: Sectarian fighting was inevitableArgument A: Sectarianism goes back 1000 yearsPremise A: Age determines depth of a conflict

Thesis B: Sectarian fighting could have been avoidedArgument B: Sectarianism is a new phenomenon in IraqPremise B: Age determines depth of a conflict

Thesis C: Sectarian fighting could have been avoidedArgument C: The U.S. could have prepared to counter sectarian fightingPremise C: Sectarianism can be controlled by external forces

Thesis D: Sectarian fighting could have been avoidedArgument D: Sectarianism started under Saddam’s regimePremise D: Sectarianism can be controlled by external forces


H. 12.19.06 at 10:58 am

Could Al Qaeda In Iraq’s policy of blowing up Shia shrines and targeting Shias with almost daily suicide bombings in a deliberate ploy to stir up civil war have anything to do with it?


Steve LaBonne 12.19.06 at 11:01 am

That clearly has a great deal to do with it. Hmm, who do you suppose created the conditions that made it possible for them to do that?


P O'Neill 12.19.06 at 11:02 am

I have no answers either but to me it’s suspicious that this new Pentagon report, amid the actual data, identifies Moqtada al-Sadr as the number 1 threat in Iraq at the moment (see page 19). This seems like a set-up for a New Year mission for the US troops to have a Sudan-like rout of the Mahdi army, whereupon one problem will be declared solved. But isn’t al-Sadr and his Shiite militia a product of the post-Saddam chaos, and not a cause of it?


abb1 12.19.06 at 11:02 am

It seems obvious to me that US strategists deliberately created this schism. They started recruiting, training and using ethnic/sectarian death squads back in 2004. ‘Zarqawi’ psyop is another example:

The Zarqawi campaign is discussed in several of the internal military documents. “Villainize Zarqawi/leverage xenophobia response,” one U.S. military briefing from 2004 stated. It listed three methods: “Media operations,” “Special Ops (626)” (a reference to Task Force 626, an elite U.S. military unit assigned primarily to hunt in Iraq for senior officials in Hussein’s government) and “PSYOP,” the U.S. military term for propaganda work.

There’s nothing special here, every colonial operation is run this way.


fs 12.19.06 at 11:44 am

As far as I recall, the Shias rose agaisnt Saddam after the first Gulf War, and were massacred. Similar for the Kurds, of course, except that the massacres of them started earlier.

So the identities go back some way.


abb1 12.19.06 at 12:02 pm

@8 – but those were uprisings against the government, not against other identities.


SF 12.19.06 at 12:04 pm


I was thinking along the same lines–all of it speculation of course–that division makes conquest easier. In any case, if the two groups are busy fighting each other, then that is less another group has to worry about.


Brian Ulrich 12.19.06 at 12:05 pm

In the year and a half since I wrote that, I’ve come to believe I need to pay more attention to developments between 1991-2003. I recommend this.


Shelby 12.19.06 at 12:11 pm

Didn’t Saddam have a consistent strategy of pitting the ethnic groups against one another? His own clan and people from his hometown held many of the top posts. He also put people from other groups in some positions, but as far as I can tell that was when he had leverage over them — threats to their family, etc.

I’ve had the impression that he was exploiting existing rifts among ethnic groups, but that his approach exacerbated them. Am I mistaken in all this?


Noumenon 12.19.06 at 12:28 pm

Don’t know much about history, but Nir Rosen’s 37-pager suggests the sectarianism was there when we arrived (even though he clearly believes the “unleashing” theory).

When Baghdad fell, on April 9, 2003, and widespread violence erupted, the primary victims were Iraq’s Sunnis. For Shias, this was justice. “It is the beginning of the separation,” one Shia cleric told me with a smile in the spring of 2003. Saddam had used Sunni Islam to legitimize his power, building one large Sunni mosque in each Shia city in the south; these mosques were seized by Shias immediately after the regime collapsed. During the 1990s Saddam also used the donations that Shia pilgrims make to the shrines they visit—totaling millions of dollars a month—to finance his Faith Campaign, which spread Sunni practices in Iraq and even declared official tolerance of Wahhabis for the first time, perhaps because of their deep hatred of Shias.


Cranmer 12.19.06 at 1:24 pm

You are quite correct in your brief summary of the relatively recent Sunni/Shi’ite conflagrations, and yet you do not go far enough. Islamic theology is every bit as complex and nuanced as Christian theology, and just as influenced by social context and chronologically-bound philosophies. It is as naive to perceive Islam in terms of Sunni and Shi’ite as it is to perceive Christianity simply in terms of Protestant and Catholic. Within these two macro-Christian groups are a plethora of divisions over theology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation, yet the ‘broad church’ label suits the need for a superficial analysis in a superficial age. Within Islam, it suits the Western media, eager for easily-comprehensible soundbites, to reduce it to two warring factions ‘like there is in Christianity’ (except they stopped warring 300 years ago… except in Northern Ireland).

One cannot understand the politics of Islam until one grasps its theology. One then engages with this theology through philosophical discourse. The challenge consequently comes from within, whatever the cost, just as it did for Luther, Wycliffe, Tyndale, Cranmer…


luci 12.19.06 at 2:01 pm

Like abb1 says, “al Qaeda in Iraq” was part of the disinformation campaign, i.e., statements and attributions of bombings by al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and Zarqawi were largely an operation of our CIA/Pentagon.

~1% of attacks are perpetuated by foreigners. The exposure of the disinformation campaign (with the US audience as one intended target) didn’t stop the administration from continuing to mouth the same lies, nor pundits from solemnly repeating them.


neil 12.19.06 at 2:08 pm

I think the “Saddam bred” and “invasion unleashed” is the most convincing. That makes the question – what kind of demise of Saddam’s rule would not have unleashed the violence Saddam was breading?

It seems to me that there was a civil war going in before the invasion it was just that Saddam was winning so thoroughly as he had the state security apparatus in his control.


luci 12.19.06 at 2:37 pm

As to the sectarian tension, my uninformed guess is it might be a situation where, when order and security breaks down so completely, you look for protection with whatever group will have you.

I’ll bet if you opened a brand new prison, and put 200 blacks and 200 whites with no previously strong racial group identifications inside, they’d divide into black and white groups. When there’s an amorphous power structure, and no security, you join a gang.

Jack Snyder had a book I liked on ethnonationalist conflict (Voting to Violence – Democratization and Nationalist Conflict, 2000) where he looks at the chicken and egg question (in Malaysia, Serbia, Kashmir, Rwanda if I remember correctly) and decides there was usually some seed of underlying ethnic tension, but no conflict, until elites and demogogues instrumentally exploit the rift for political gain. Ethnonationalist mobilization, and it happens in an environment of uncertainty about future power structures – in the book, societies that are transitioning to nascent democracies.


Dan Simon 12.19.06 at 3:37 pm

Actually, Juan Cole himself has made it very clear elsewhere (see here and here) that in his view, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a seething cauldron of Sunni and Shi’ite religious militancy, that the Ba’athist regime was the only thing keeping it from boiling over, and that the US failed to do the same job once they’d toppled him. So presumably that’s what Cole means when he says that the US “unleashed” sectarian violence in Iraq.


Brownie 12.19.06 at 6:25 pm

I think 16 and 18 have it about right.

What’s ironic is that when pre-war opponents of war bothered to volunteer alternative methods of regime change – by way of demonstrating anti-Saddam credentials – the suggestion that the US and the rest of the international community encourage, support and actively assist an indigenous uprising, was often near, if not top of the list.

I say “ironic” as many of the same people can now be counted amongst the most vocal critics of the war that did happen and cite the ongoing civil war in Iraq as evidence of how ill-judged the US/UK-led assault was.

One assumes they’ve calculated that a civil war without 200k coalition troops on the ground would have been a far less bloody affair that that we’re witnessing today.

I’d like to see their ‘working-out’, as my maths teacher used to say.


ucfjoustudent 12.19.06 at 7:00 pm

What I found interesting was Cole’s choice of decades. True, there was virtual sectarian comity in the 1950s and 60’s, but what about the 1940s? There were Shiite/Sunni troubles all throughout Baghdad, Shiite protests and Shiite-led pogroms — which were quelled by the Kurds, and a real tension between the Sunni leaders and the Shiite masses.

Saddam held the country together by sapping the in-country Shiites of any hope of reprisal, but fully cementing the Sunni’s perception of superiority, and maintaining a grim and cruel order. But like every revolution, the complete shake-up of the social order unleased latent, but not active, resentments and gave the Shiites new life. Remember, they wanted to hit back and punish Saddam in 1991, but he had a monopoly on the exercise of force.


novakant 12.19.06 at 9:12 pm

This might help:


so it all started in, erm, 656 – sounds like a millenium and then some to me, but I’d agree the question is rather complex


nick s 12.19.06 at 10:33 pm

One can’t help but think that the eventual push for elections played its part. Northern Ireland might be a shoddy example, but for one thing: the existence of sectarian parties sustains sectarian identity.

It’s hard to think how elections might have been conducted without sectarian party organisation — perhaps by holding them a lot earlier, perhaps by restricting party identification. But once voting becomes a way of defining yourself as a member of a particular denomination and affiliation, you’re somewhat stuck with it.


john bragg 12.19.06 at 10:55 pm

I think the point about elections and sectarianism may have something to it.

As for how that could have been avoided, if there had been more emphasis on provincial federalism, a lot of the provincial elections would have been pretty much intra-confessional fights. Maybe you wouldn’t have seen such a united-Shia-front as we saw if different Shiite factions were fighting over pieces of the pie in Basra and Babylon.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to Baghdad, where you would probably still end up with ethnic/religious slates lining up against each other


John Faughnan 12.19.06 at 11:55 pm

Has anyone found anything on sunni/shiite demographics? I’ve been watching for years for a comment on this and never found it.

My baseless hunch is that the shia used to be a minority in Iraq, but that they’ve had a much higher birth rate than the Sunni for the past hundred years — and their was economic migration from Iran as well…

A demographic shift, with the underclass outbreeding the upper class, would fit well with what we see in Iraq now …

So does anyone have any data?


ed 12.20.06 at 3:45 am

I’m going to take a radical line here. We really have no idea what has been going on in Iraq. The journalists were the first group to be chased out of the country, except the Green Zone, and the record of the US media in the runup to the war doesn’t leave one with confidence that the reporting would have been accurate if we had stayed.

We are pretty much in the position of the public during World War I, who had to rely on communiques from the general headquarters to find out what was happening at the front (a restricted military zone), and who knew nothing about diplomacy before or doing the war until the Soviets published the Russian archives.

Having said that any statement about what is going on in Iraq is going to be badly misinformed, I suspect that the “civil war” is mostly between Iraqis willing to work with the Americans, and Iraqis who favor more of a scorched earth policy, and that this is more important on the ground than the sectarian divide.


Brendan 12.20.06 at 5:59 am

Dan Simon and Brownie’s extremely mysterious assumption that US forces in Iraq are motivated primarily by humanitarianism, pity, and deep concern for the Iraqi people should be viewed in the context of the following story.

‘Someone in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office has gotten everybody on this city’s holiday party circuit talking, simply by floating an unlikely Iraq proposal that is worthy of a certain mid-19th century British naturalist with a fascination for natural selection.

We shall call it the Darwin Principle.

The Darwin Principle, Beltway version, basically says that Washington should stop trying to get Sunnis and Shiites to get along and instead just back the Shiites, since there are more of them anyway and they’re likely to win in a fight to the death. After all, the proposal goes, Iraq is 65 percent Shiite and only 20 percent Sunni.

Sorry, Sunnis.

The Darwin Principle is radical, decisive and most likely not going anywhere. But the fact that it has even been under discussion, no matter how briefly, says a lot about the dearth of good options facing the Bush administration and the yearning in this city for some masterstroke to restore optimism about the war. ‘

(Emphasis added).

The money quote is here: ‘The longer America tries to woo the Sunnis, the more it risks alienating the Shiites and Kurds, and they’re the ones with the oil. A handful of administration officials have argued that Iraq is not going to hold to together and will splinter along sectarian lines. If so, they say, American interests dictate backing the groups who control the oil-rich areas.’

(This reminds me slightly of another ’tilt’ of an earlier President, which had impressive results).
Of course if this plan was acted upon (and to be fair, it almost certainly won’t be) this would result in the deaths of thousands (maybe millions, who knows?) of Iraqis, but after all they are just Iraqis, many of whom have never even HEARD of Washington’s ‘holiday party circuit’. If you can imagine such a horror.

To repeat, this plan is highly unlikely to be acted upon, but the fact that it is even being talked about is a sign of a: the Bush administration’s desperation in terms of Iraq and b: the complete moral disintegration of Washington’s rich, white, male, political elite.

So no surprises there.


abb1 12.20.06 at 6:12 am

…this plan is highly unlikely to be acted upon

I suspect that if they do decide against this particular kind of mass-slaughter, it’s only because of the risk that it might cause serious troubles to another bunch of people with oil – their good friends, Saudis princes.


Brendan 12.20.06 at 6:35 am

‘I suspect that if they do decide against this particular kind of mass-slaughter, it’s only because of the risk that it might cause serious troubles to another bunch of people with oil – their good friends, Saudis princes.’

Oh Abb1, you are just so CYNICAL. Don’t you know that the war against the secular state of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq was in fact a war against ‘Islamo-fascism’? And therefore we are actually profoundly OPPOSED to the Islamo-fascist Saudi regime, which is why we ‘sell’ them lots of arms and then lie about the bribes we used to get the deal.

But we do it in a disdainful fashion. That’ll teach ’em.


Alex 12.20.06 at 6:38 am

Hmm, the other flaw with the “Darwin principle” is that, especially with Saudi (and other) funding and support, it’s not impossible that the Sunni/New-Old Iraqi Army might win. It’s about a three-to-one balance in population, but the Shia are split three ways – SCIRI/Dawa/Iraqi Govt, Sadr, and Fadhila. The same people who are touting “tilt to the Shia” want to target Sadr as well, so it’s more like SCIRI+Dawa+Fadhila vs. NOIA + Sadr…


Anon Diplomader 12.20.06 at 7:39 am

Could Al Qaeda In Iraq’s policy of blowing up Shia shrines and targeting Shias with almost daily suicide bombings in a deliberate ploy to stir up civil war have anything to do with it?

It is important to realize that the Saudis bear a great deal of blame for having encouraged the flow of money into Iraq for the purposes of promoting the Sunni movement there.

The recent threat to fund the Sunni side in a civil war is really merely a statement that they will not stop funding the Sunni side.

Yes, there is chaos, but it was nourished by the Saudis who now fear the results, given that they allowed and encouraged a flow of money they could have stopped and have now discovered that instead of the gradual win that they expected to achieve they have sponsored a civil war that they will lose.


Tom 12.20.06 at 10:27 am

The Saddam-bred-and Bush-unleashed theory makes me wish I’d ever gotten around to reading Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject.


abb1 12.20.06 at 11:28 am

What’s wrong with funding and promoting the “Sunni movement”? Why is it something to be blamed for?


Paul 12.20.06 at 3:15 pm

Al Qaeda view Shiites as worse than Christians. Is this news to you?


abb1 12.20.06 at 5:10 pm

What does Al Qaeda think about the Buddhists compare to Christians and Shiites? And why should we care about this factoid anyhow?


Brendan 12.20.06 at 5:29 pm

‘Yes, there is chaos, but it was nourished by the Saudis’.

And behind the Saudis stands…..


George W 12.20.06 at 11:03 pm

My support for this war was based in part on the belief that if the US didn’t invade, when Saddam did finally kick the bucket we’d get something like what we are seeing now except worse. Instead of US troops we would have had Iranians and Turks and Syrians and who knows, maybe Russian troops in Iraq. Maybe ‘the Sunnis’ and ‘the Shiites’ have an ancient simmering hatred, maybe not, but I do know that in the Mideast there’s always someone to back the worst character in every gang.

On the other hand, if I had known that it would turn out *this* bad even with a US invasion, I probably would not have supported the war. No sense bringing about a marginally milder conflagration than the one you are trying to avoid.

And if it’s somehow not clear, I don’t really know anything about Iraq either, except what I read in the newspaper.


abb1 12.21.06 at 3:16 am

Well, according to this piece by Fred Kaplan, it sounds like they are indeed seriously considering some sort of a ‘final solution’ for the Iraqi Sunni Arabs:

Kagan also explicitly states that U.S. forces should focus their efforts in the Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shiite areas of Baghdad, the source of most sectarian fighting. He ignores the internecine fights among the Shiite militias. Is this intentional? Is he tacitly proposing—as Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing these days—that the United States take the Shiite side in the Iraqi civil war? If so, his briefing’s advocates should make this clear, so the audiences know what they’re getting into. If not, and we have to go clear, say, Sadr City too, do we need still more troops?

Maybe this is why the Saudi ambassador quit so suddenly?

Interesting chart linked in this piece: DOD report on average weekly attacks.


Brendan 12.21.06 at 5:41 am

‘And if it’s somehow not clear, I don’t really know anything about Iraq either, except what I read in the newspaper.’

Well don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. In one of his increasingly frequent ‘bizarre lectures on life, the universe and everything’ our Glorious Leader ‘Mr Tony’ recently revealed that he had never heard of Sykes-Picot (!!).

However, although he knows nothing about the Middle East, he has manage to master the art of boring people senseless with his incoherent ramblings:
‘What began an earnest question and answer session on Middle East politics turned into a philosophical discussion which left those present scratching their heads.’

Or maybe they were too confused to be bored: who knows?

However, perhaps the ‘theories of Mr Tony’ will become an important research topic in 21st century political science.


Halfdan 12.21.06 at 8:28 am

Perhaps it’s not a religious divide so much as a political one. After all, Saddam was a secular dictator who promoted the interests of his tribe foremost, and who was suspicious of Shi’ite loyalty to the Ayatollahs of Iran. So while the oppression of Shi’ites may not have been based on theological grounds, it could certainly have appeared that way to people for whom religion and politics were increasingly intertwined.


Brownie 12.21.06 at 7:17 pm

Dan Simon and Brownie’s extremely mysterious assumption that US forces in Iraq are motivated primarily by humanitarianism, pity, and deep concern for the Iraqi people should be viewed in the context of the following story.

I stopped reading at this point, Brendan, because what’s the point continuing when your fellow commenters just make it up as they go along?

You simpy cannot adduce such an “assumption” – mysterious or otherwise – based on anything I wrote. Take another look.

For the record, I very much doubt the plight of the Kurds or Marsh Arabs kept GWB awake at night. It hardly puts him in a club of one if this is true…and I suspect it is…but I didn’t need to believe this was a war motivated by Washington’s altruism in order to support it. The same goes for virtually every self-describing “leftist” who supported the war. People like Vaclav Havel, Jose Ramos-Horta, Adam Michnik and George Konrad, for example.

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