Socialist Worker

Iraq: sectarianism stoked by empire

It is the policies of the occupation that are tearing apart Iraqi society apart, not divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims, writes Anne Alexander

Issue No. 2039

British troops marched into Baghdad during the First World War. This occupation triggered an uprising in 1920

British troops marched into Baghdad during the First World War. This occupation triggered an uprising in 1920

Bombs in markets, murder squads and attacks on mosques. Bloody sectarian violence is spreading across Iraq, and now a new ethnic war pitting Kurds against Arabs and Turkmen threatens the north of the country.

Over the past two years, abductions, murders and bombings have multiplied. In 2003 there was one suicide bombing which killed over 50 civilians, in 2004, there were four, in 2005 there were five, 2006 saw six. In January of this year four bomb attacks killed 70, 88, 73 and 137 civilians.

Although most of these atrocities are carried out by nameless, masked gunmen, we are told that the roots of the conflict lie in the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Supporters of the occupation say there is little that the US and British occupying forces can do to heal this ancient grudge.

They promote a dangerous myth that the problem in Iraq is not the occupation, but the divisions between Iraqis and the people’s own murderous tendencies.

They imply that the killings by US and British forces are not only justified, but the sole shield, against chaos.

In fact the occupiers deliberately poisoned political life, leading to the current explosion of sectarian violence.

US officials have long promoted a view of Iraqi society as segmented along religious and ethnic lines.

In the aftermath of the invasion of 2003, US officials adopted a strategy to manage their Iraqi allies. They assumed that the exiled politicians who returned in the baggage train of the US army were genuine representatives of their respective religious and ethnic “communities”.

There were two major problems with this approach. The most basic was the assumption that Iraqis were first and foremost “Shias” or “Sunnis”, “Kurds”, “Arabs” or “Turkmen” who could only be represented by members of their own sect or ethnic group.

The second was that the Iraqi parties which backed the occupation, aside from the major Kurdish parties, had little support among the majority of Iraqis.

The result was a desperate scramble by these parties to capture the resources of the state. At stake was a share of the $12 billion of Iraqi money controlled by the US. At the urging of US officials ministries were parcelled out along sectarian lines.

Throughout 2003 and 2004, while real power rested with the US officials who ran the Coalition Provisional Authority, toothless Iraqi governments squabbled over whether the interior ministry was Sunni or Shia.

Although the pro-occupation politicians could not run the country they were able to turn government ministries into patronage machines, dispensing employment and favours in order to build influence.

In particular, the state became an incubator for militias, which were largely ethnic or sectarian, reflecting the politics of their parent organisations.

These policies, combined with the disbanding of the Iraqi army and other state institutions, lay behind the explosive growth in militias outside the state, such as the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sunni Islamist groups.

Meanwhile the privatisation of the occupation continues apace – there are currently at least 48,000 “private soldiers” in Iraq in addition to half a dozen secret militias under US control.

It is the logic of an imperial occupation which is the current driving force behind sectarian violence in Iraq. It is a consequence of the attempt by US and British officials to control a country where the majority oppose their presence.

Their policy was a classic colonial strategy – in order to hold down opposition to invasion, select some local elites who will cooperate with you, back them militarily and claim to be innocent when conflict erupts.

The horrific death toll in Iraq is either directly down to the US and British forces or is the result of divisions which the occupation has encouraged.

The occupiers have deliberately fostered the conditions for communal sectarian conflict. The longer they stay, the more they will damage Iraq.

The sooner they leave, the more likely it is that anti-sectarian movements will gain momentum once more.

A history of unity against imperialism

The Iraqi state created in 1921 was dominated by an alliance of the Hashemite dynasty, the royal family from Mecca in Arabia, a group of former Iraqi officers from the Ottoman army and the British, who conquered the country during the First World War.

The Shia clerical leaders of Najaf and Kerbala, some of whom supported a national uprising in 1920, were marginalised by the new political order.

However, although the Iraqi state was initially dominated by Sunni politicians, the new ruling class was built by strengthening tribal leaders, rather than through sectarianism.

British colonial administrators urged tribal leaders to become the new landowners, seizing lands once held in common by whole tribes.

This process benefited a new ruling class drawn from both the Shia and Sunni tribes.

Neither the landowners nor the powerful Shia merchant families showed much interest in financing the Shia clergy or Islamist movements during the monarchy.

The rise of a nationalist movement in the 1940s and 1950s led to a crisis in the clerical institutions of the Iraqi Shia as the numbers of pilgrims dwindled and revenue from traditional taxes on peasants dried up.

This radicalisation meant Shia Muslim workers and peasants turned in large numbers to the Communist Party, which by 1956 was the dominant political force in the holy city of Najaf.

Baghdad and other cities became a melting pot of religious and ethnic groups with intermarriage common.

Sunni Islamist organisations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were small and lacked influence. None of the major parties opposed to the monarchy were organised on sectarian lines.

The Communists included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and members of other religious minorities in their ranks.

The two Arab nationalist parties – the Independence Party and the Baath Party – were both led by Shias during the 1950s.

In 1958 a revolution overthrew the British-backed monarchy. Ties of class and the experience of a common struggle against imperialism were more important than sectarian identity.

At the heart of the revolution were the millions of peasants and workers drawn into Iraq’s urban centres.

The tragedy of Iraq was that this movement was cut short, first by the new ruling class that emerged out of the revolution, and subsequently by the destruction of Iraq’s economy and society by imperialism.

Sanctions sowed seeds of division

The seizure of power by the Baath Party in 1968 is often presented as leading to the creation of an exclusively Sunni Muslim regime under Saddam Hussein.

However, although the Baath Party in the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by Sunnis, this largely reflected the strength of Saddam Hussein’s extended family and related clans from his hometown of Tikrit.

While the elite inside the Baathist state were drawn from a small circle, it drew its stability from the relatively large middle-class – both Sunni and Shia – that benefited from employment in the bureaucracy and the public sector. This class disappeared during the 1990s.

Saddam Hussein did pursue sectarian strategies to maintain his rule, particularly after the rise of Shia Islamist opposition groups in the late 1970s and during the 1980-88 war with Iran, a fact which at the time did not trouble his backers in the US and British governments.

Despite eight years of brutal war, Saddam Hussein’s demonisation of Iran – and the expulsion of thousands of Iraqis of suspected Iranian origin – it was not until 1991 that a large-scale revolt broke out in the Shia areas of southern Iraq.

The trigger for the 1991 uprising was the defeat of the Iraqi army by a US-led coalition in the Gulf War and its expulsion from Kuwait.

The 1991 uprising drained support for the Baath Party. Although on the surface Saddam Hussein appeared as strong as ever, he presented himself increasingly as an Arab tribal leader, rather than a secular nationalist.


During the 1990s, two trends contributed to the growing political and social influence of religious organisations – the decay of secular nationalism and the dramatic weakening of the social institutions of the state.

Baathist propaganda began to use both Sunni and Shia religious images.

In the aftermath of the war of 1991, the UN imposed sanctions that destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure, including the health and education systems.

As the welfare system crumbled, Sunni and Shia charitable institutions expanded to meet rising demands from a population sinking into misery.

Meanwhile, brutal state repression meant that the mosque was often the only safe forum for political discussion. The state contributed with the “Islamisation” of politics by sponsoring preachers and building mosques.

The power base that rebel Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr inherited from his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was built on this network of Shia charities.

The state’s promotion of religion was one sign of the Baathists’ increasingly desperate search for stability.

Another policy which proved similarly destructive of central power was the revival of old tribal power, which meant giving tribal leaders license to run private armies and to dispense tribal law.

Where the tribal chiefs were strong, particularly in the countryside, this policy ate away at the legal foundations of the state.

Since 1958 Iraq’s secular civil law code has, in theory at least, treated all citizens equally. In practice, of course, the legal system was skewed in favour of the ruling party.

The revival of tribal custom as an alternative justice system, backed up by armed force, created a counterweight to the regime. In some areas party and tribe intermeshed. Saddam and his family had long relied on tribal and regional loyalty over Baathist ideology.

The problem was that the more that party became another word for tribe, the easier it was to jettison even the outward semblance of Baathism for personal and local loyalties.

The aftermath of the US invasion in 2003 showed this process in action, some tribal leaders rapidly abandoned Saddam Hussein and supported the occupation, while others joined the resistance.


However, this did not mean that sectarian conflict was an inevitable consequence of the occupation. Many Iraqi tribes are both Sunni and Shia, and the majority of Arab Iraqis rejected the occupiers and their local clients.

There is also a long tradition of Iraqi Sunnis and Shias uniting in a common struggle against imperialism.

In 2004, the growing armed resistance drew together Sunni and Shia opponents of the occupation. While US troops besieged the largely Sunni city of Fallujah they were confronted with an uprising by Sadr’s Mahdi Army across the south.

By early 2005, faced with their inability to defeat Iraqi resistance, the US commanders were beginning to openly discuss the “El Salvador option”, inspired by the CIA-backed death squads of Latin America in the 1980s.

According to military commentator General Wayne Downing, himself a former head of US special forces, the US military has been using death squads in Iraq since 2003.

The cycle of killing and revenge that was unleashed has created a complex interplay of resistance and sectarianism. But the picture of Iraqi society as a cauldron of ancient religious hatreds is as false as it is destructive.

Anne Alexander is co-author of Iraq: Rise Of The Resistance, International Socialism 105. Go to
For a history of Iraq see Old Social Classes And Revolutionary Movements In Iraq by Hanna Batatu, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Article information

Sat 24 Feb 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2039
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