Sunni-Shia Relations in Iraq
Until the 1980s, the dominant view of contemporary political
analysts held that Iraq was badly split along sectarian lines.
The claim was that the Sunnis--although a minority--ran Iraq and
subjected the majority Shias to systematic discrimination. According
to the prevailing belief, the Shias would drive the Sunnis from
power, if once afforded an opportunity to do so.
There was some basis to this notion. For many years Iraq was
ruled by-and-large by Arab Sunnis who tended to come from a restricted
area around Baghdad, Mosul, and Ar Rutbah--the socalled Golden
Triangle. In the 1980s, not only was President Saddam Husayn a
Sunni, but he was the vice chairman of the ruling Baath Party
(Arab Socialist Resurrection). One of the two deputy prime ministers
and the defense minister were also Sunnis. In addition, the top
posts in the security services have usually been held by Sunnis,
and most of the army's corps commanders have been Sunnis. It is
also true that the most depressed region of the country is the
south, where the bulk of the Shias reside.
Nonetheless, the theory of sectarian strife was undercut by the
behavior of Iraq's Shia community during Iran's 1982 invasion
and the fighting thereafter. Although about three-quarters of
the lower ranks of the army were Shias, as of early 1988, no general
insurrection of Iraq; Shias had occurred.
Even in periods of major setback for the Iraqi army--such as
the Al Faw debacle in 1986--the Shias have continued staunchly
to defend their nation and the Baath regime. They have done so
despite intense propaganda barrages mounted by the Iranians, calling
on them to join the Islamic revolution.
It appears, then, that, however important sectarian affiliation
may have been in the past, in the latter 1980s nationalism was
the basic determiner of loyalty. In the case of Iraq's Shias,
it should be noted that they are Arabs, not Persians, and that
they have been the traditional enemies of the Persians for centuries.
The Iraqi government has skillfully exploited this age-old enmity
in its propaganda, publicizing the war as part of the ancient
struggle between the Arab and Persian empires. For example, Baathist
publicists regularly call the war a modern day "Qadisiyah." Qadisiyah
was the battle in A.D.637 in which the Arabs defeated the pagan
hosts of Persia, enabling Islam to spread to the East.
The real tension in Iraq in the latter 1980s was between the
majority of the population, Sunnis as well as Shias, for whom
religious belief and practice were significant values, and the
secular Baathists, rather than between Sunnis and Shias. Although
the Shias had been underrepresented in government posts in the
period of the monarchy, they made substantial progress in the
educational, business, and legal fields. Their advancement in
other areas, such as the opposition parties, was such that in
the years from 1952 to 1963, before the Baath Party came to power,
Shias held the majority of party leadership posts. Observers believed
that in the late 1980s Shias were represented at all levels of
the party roughly in proportion to government estimates of their
numbers in the population. For example, of the eight top Iraqi
leaders who in early 1988 sat with Husayn on the Revolutionary
Command Council--Iraq's highest governing body-- three were Arab
Shias (of whom one had served as Minister of Interior), three
were Arab Sunnis, one was an Arab Christian, and one a Kurd. On
the Regional Command Council--the ruling body of the party--Shias
actually predominated (see The
Baath Party , ch. 4). During the war, a number of highly competent
Shia officers have been promoted to corps commanders. The general
who turned back the initial Iranian invasions of Iraq in 1982
was a Shia.
The Shias continued to make good progress in the economic field
as well during the 1980s. Although the government does not publish
statistics that give breakdowns by religious affiliation, qualified
observers noted that many Shias migrated from rural areas, particularly
in the south, to the cities, so that not only Basra but other
cities including Baghdad acquired a Shia majority. Many of these
Shias prospered in business and the professions as well as in
industry and the service sector. Even those living in the poorer
areas of the cities were generally better off than they had been
in the countryside. In the rural areas as well, the educational
level of Shias came to approximate that of their Sunni counterparts.
In summary, prior to the war the Baath had taken steps toward
integrating the Shias. The war placed inordinate demands on the
regime for manpower, demands that could only be met by levying
the Shia community--and this strengthened the regime's resolve
to further the integration process. In early 1988, it seemed likely
that when the war ends, the Shias would emerge as full citizens--
assuming that the Baath survives the conflict.
Data as of May 1988