The Iraq War created a new set of sectarian politics in the country. The transformation amongst Sunnis was a perfect example. Before they did not have a real sense of themselves as a group, but after 2003 they felt threatened by the Shiite parties that they conflated with Iran, and that helped create a new communal identity. Two authors Fanar Haddad and Harith Hassan al-Qarawee have tried to explain these transformations. Their ideas along with statements by sheikhs, religious men, and soldiers from Anbar show how sectarianism did not emerge from centuries long conflict, but was rather created by the social and political situation in Iraq after the invasion.
Haddad and Qarawee have come up with similar theories explaining sectarianism in Iraq. Haddad believes that there are two main ways people interpret identity politics. One he calls alarmist where everything is explained through sect. This group points to conflicts like the exclusion of Shiites under the Monarchy and the Baath, the 1991 Shiite uprising, and the 2005-2008 civil war to argue that sectarianism has always played a role in the country. The other view is reductionist where identity politics is largely rejected and seen as imposed by foreign powers after 2003. They look at the anti-British rallies during the Mandate period, the 1920 revolt, Shiite membership in the Baath Party, and intermarriage as all signs that communal politics was not an issue until the U.S. invasion. Qarawee has also seen two general views on sectarianism. One is that sectarian identities are fixed, historical, and irreconcilable, which he calls primordial, and is similar to Haddad’s alarmists. The other is called instrumentalist and believes that identity is used by elites to mobilize support and rule the country. Haddad and Hassan largely reject these ideas instead taking a more postmodernist/deconstructionist approach that identities in Iraq have and will always change based upon the sociopolitical situation within the country. Haddad has written that competing groups define themselves through myths and symbols based upon a selective reading of history. Qarawee would add that when people feel excluded and alienated they tend to see it as group victimization, which contributes to the growth of identity politics. To a deconstructionist this would be the process of creating a privileged “self” and a negative “other” that allows people to give meaning to their lives. It also includes genealogy, which attempts to breakdown the past to find contradictions and instabilities in what is considered natural to reveal how power operates in society. These ideas can be applied to Iraq’s Sunnis to understand how a new politics was created after the U.S. invasion.
Sunnis had a much different view of themselves before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Before they were in power, and therefore had no real sense of group identity. (1) Many simply thought of themselves as Iraqis and that their world view was the norm. They had come to this position not so much because Saddam Hussein was a Sunni and sectarian, but because he came to rely upon his extended family and tribe from Tikrit to rule, and increasingly felt threatened by Iran and Shiite religious groups after 1979. His overthrow left a vacuum in Iraq. Now there were competing stories of Iraq emerging from each community. The Kurdish and Shiite religious parties for example saw themselves as victims of the former regime. When the Iraqi Governing Council and the new Iraqi governments were put together on an ethnosectarian basis this was seen as a threat by the Sunnis who felt left out. Before sectarianism was considered suspicious and usually used in reference to the Shiite parties. Now that they were in power, the Sunnis had to adjust, which they did by creating their own view of the past and present. For example, they used themes from the Saddam period. One was that the Shiite parties were foreigners under the control of Iran. Another was that Tehran was an existential threat to Iraq. They also made their own interpretations of post-war events such as believing that Iran was behind Al Qaeda, the Americans, and the Iraqi insurgency. This created a sense of group victimized by outsiders, and became the basis of a new communal identity. Sunnis therefore adjusted to and contributed to the post-2003 sectarian politics in Iraq by creating a “Sunni” self in opposition to a “Shiite” other.
Various notables from Anbar province provided a perfect example of how many Sunnis believed they were not only the losers after the U.S. invasion, but were under threat. Sheikh Majid Abdul al-Razzaq Sulaiman was the co-head of the Dulaim tribe, one of the largest in Anbar, and a member of the Awakening. Before the fall of Saddam he was living in Jordan and attended a conference of Iraqi opposition parties in London in January 2003. He said:
I wasn’t very happy about that meeting, which was between us, the oppositions. … At the meeting, there were the Shi’a Iranians and the Kurds, al-Hakim and Chalabi, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.
Sulaiman was expressing his suspicion of the Shiite politicians and labeled them as foreign others when he called them “Shi’a Iranians” rather than saying they were fellow Iraqis. This was a view shared by many others in Anbar.
Thamir al-Asafi was the Chairman of the Council of Muslim Scholars in Anbar, a professor of religious studies at Al-Anbar University, a senior member of the Sunni Endowment, and joined the Anbar Awakening. After the invasion he was more worried about the Iranians than the Americans. He stated:
When the Iraqi army was dissolved, they left a lot of armaments, including armored personnel carries, heavy machine guns, and a lot of ordnance. People took them and hid them in their houses, not to have a future confrontation with the Americans, but in fear of a confrontation with Iran.
Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Janabi from the Albu Mahal tribe told the U.S. Marines:
“On 17 September 2003, to be exact, Brigadier General Ibrahim Sijil Saad, my uncle, got in touch with me. We used to work internal security in the former regime. … He wanted me to help him due to my extensive contacts with other tribes in the middle of Anbar, and in order to not let the Iranians penetrate into Anbar or Iraq as a whole.”
Similarly, Sheikh Aifan Issawi the leader of the Fallujah Awakening, the head of the security committee on the Anbar provincial council from 2009-2012, and currently the leader of the Fallujah council said:
“As we feared, there was a war. We believed there would be a war, so as a normal precaution, we all armed ourselves and prepared for it. I was almost certain the Iranians would enter Iraq.”
Saddam Hussein had just been overthrown, the U.S. had occupied the country, and there was looting and chaos in some of the major cities like Baghdad. For Janabi and Issawi like Asafi however the main concern was the threat from Iran. This was how they coped with the massive changes going on at the time by projecting their fears upon an enemy they knew Iran.
Sulaiman and others soon believed that the Iranians were flooding into Iraq right after the invasion.
The border now became open to everybody who ever wanted to enter in and out of Iraq. Nobody was controlling it. Millions of people entered from Iran.
General Raad Hamdani who controlled the 2nd Republican Guard Corps during the 2003 invasion expressed similar views:
This is where I discovered the strategic mistake of the Americans after the liberation of Baghdad. They left the borders open, and I saw Iranian trucks with Iranian plates entering the country. There were two types. One type was transporting personnel. The other was the big kind, and they were stealing our military industries and transporting them into Iran.
Tehran did send in members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force into Iraq right after the fall of Saddam, so there was reason for concern. However the notables in Anbar saw a much larger threat. According to Retired Colonel Gary Montgomery who conducted most of these interviews with the Anbaris, “Many of the men whom I interviewed were extremely concerned about Iran. I’m speaking from memory now, but I don’t recall anyone making a big distinction between Iranians proper and pro-Iranian Iraqis.” That meant the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Dawa Party, and other religious Shiite parties that were returning to Iraq after 2003 and had ties to Tehran were all considered “Iranians”. This was perceived as the “real” invasion of Iraq, not the American one.
Then when the insurgency started and foreign fighters started coming that too was blamed upon the Iranians. Asafi said:
We totally reject the foreign Arabs because we have prior knowledge of their doings in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Algeria. They were hired hands, and Iran hired them.
Colonel Said Mohammed Muad al-Fahadawi who commanded the SWAT in Anbar in 2009 stated:
We think that al-Qaeda was supported by the Iranians.
Sheikh Sabah al-Sattam Efan Fahran al-Shurji Aziz of the Albu Mahal tribe and member of the Awakening said much the same thing:
Iran. Iran was the number one in supplying the financial aid. And I can say tens of millions of dollars were supporting Al-Qaeda.
Sheikh Sulaiman added:
I warned the people of Fallujah that al-Qaeda members are not Islamic. They are members of the Iranian groups, and they want to shove us in front of the Americans. This is an Iranian strategy: that we, the Sunnis, are against the Americans and against humanity, and the Shi’as are a peaceful and poor people. Nobody believed me.
Similarly, General Hassim Mohammed Salah Habib, a general under Saddam and a high-level Baathist also believed that the Iraqis were the victims of Al Qaeda, and that it was all a plot hatched in Tehran:
Then they started slaughtering Iraqis. They killed former army officers, and they killed the sheikhs, and the imams, and the university professors. People saw it very clearly and started to realize that these people didn’t come to fight Americans. They came to loot and steal, and to execute Iranian and Syrian policy.
Even some of the Iraqi insurgent groups were seen as tools of Iran according to Sheikh Issawi:
The Islamic Party, the Islamic Army, the Mujahideen Army-all these groups, 1920 [Revolution Brigades]-they have ideologies, different agendas. Some of those groups have foreign agendas, maybe from Iran or Syria.
Some even believed that the Americans were part of this Iranian plot to destroy Iraq. General Ghazi Khudrilyas a former adviser to the Interior Ministry from 1986-1989, and the director of the National Joint Operations Center from 2004-2006 told Colonel Montgomery:
And with this point, I can say on the record that I think the Americans are joining the Iranians to increase terrorism in Iraq. And I can say that the Americans are supervising the entry of these weapons into Iraq from Iran.
|Ex-General Azawi believed Iran and the U.S. were working together to destroy Iraq and that all the Shiite politicians were not Iraqi but Iranians (BBC)|
General Mohammed Azawi, a commander in the Republican Guard Special Forces, and later the head of the Interior Ministry's Special Police Commando felt the same way:
And I can say, as the general said earlier, that the Americans are working to create different militias for one reason – not to build Iraq, but to disintegrate Iraq. I have been asked to go back to Iraq, but I refuse to work in any ministerial or governmental organization controlled by the Iranians.
Again, the Americans who were occupying and running Iraq were not the problem, but rather Iran was seen as controlling everything. The fact that Al Qaeda and the foreign fighters were Sunni Islamists was ignored, and so were the origins of the Iraqi insurgency. All the violence was put on Tehran.
Similar views were expressed about the new ruling Shiite parties. Sheikh Aziz said:
Any Shi’a rulers who come to Iraq – especially the Islamic ones – he is linked directly in his beliefs to Iran. He can never serve American and Iranian interests at the same time, which are in opposition to each other.
And if this present government is reelected again, you will see for yourself that Iranian influence and Iranian power will increase more than it is now.
Their loyalty is not to their country. [Abdul Aziz] al-Hakim, in one of his speeches – and he was the head of the [Iraqi] governing council – asked Iraq to pay compensation to Iran. … So his loyalty is not to Iraq. Look at their militias and the killing they’ve been doing. … As you know, at the Ministry of Interior, there are people who speak Iranian, and other locations, too. Iranian intelligence – I don’t know what they call it – they are the ones who are ruling the country. The Iranian infiltration into Iraq is very strong.
General Azawi added:
How do you explain this to me? How do you explain to me that Mowaffak al-Rubaie is the advisor for security and intelligence – and he’s not an Iraqi. How do you explain to me that Baqir Solagh is the minister of finance now – and he’s not Iraqi. He’s Iranian. Or to explain to me about Ali al-Adeeb, the Iraqi spokesman. His name is Ali Esdid. He changed his name – he is Iranian. Explain to me about Ibrahim Jafaari, the prime minister. He is Iranian. Will you explain to me about the Iranian ambassador in Iraq meeting with Iraqi officers? And what about [Ammar Hakim?].
And [Nouri al-] Maliki and [inaudible], as you know, they are all spies and traitors to Iran. And the Americans have evidence. They have their bank accounts and records of the amount of money they have been transferring to Iran.
All Shiite politicians were seen as being foreigners. None of them were considered Iraqis, but rather Iranian in origin. They were there to complete Tehran’s take over of Iraq as General Hamdani expressed:
The Iranians, as you know – and I’ve said it many times – the Iranians have a grudge against the Iraqis, not because of the Iran-Iraq War, but because of hereditary enmity going back 2,500 years. Another thing that we, the Iraqis, talk about is that there was an agreement between the Iranians and the Americans for removing Saddam Hussein, and this was an opportunity to take revenge against us.
It was not just believed that Iran was taking advantage of the fall of Saddam, they had wanted the destruction of Iraq going back thousands of years, and the Americans had finally helped them achieve that goal.
In fact, many of these themes were simply repeating ones that were expressed by the old regime. After 1979 the Baathist government portrayed Iran as a historical and existential threat to Iraq. As a result, Shiite Islam was considered an anathema, and Iraqi Shiites who did not support Saddam were put with their co-religionists in Iran. That was why none of the Shiite politicians who took power after 2003 were seen as legitimate. It was also why Tehran was immediately blamed for all the problems in the country whether that was Al Qaeda, the foreign fighters or even U.S. policies. It was no wonder then that they had lost power in the new Iraq, because Iran had taken over the country using their Shiite proxies, terrorists, and the Americans. These Anbaris were taking what they had been told by the Baathists before 2003, internalizing it, and then using it to create a new story about Iraq; one where they were the victims of a foreign conspiracy. They came to believe that because they were Sunnis they were being marginalized and killed.
Sectarianism has become one of the driving forces across the Middle East, and the Iraq War played a major role. According to Haddad, sectarianism has become a struggle against those who want change and those who are threatened by it. The Shiite parties used sectarianism to organize and demand power, while Sunnis initially came to use their identity to explain how they had lost out. Sect has become the new divide in Iraq rather than ideology or class or location as it had been before. Haddad and Qarawee would be quick to point out that things can always change. There are still political, regional, and tribal differences that are less emphasized now, but could become factors in the future. That’s the point Haddad and Qarawee are trying to make. Sect has been and is an issue in Iraqi society today, but that can change when a new set of conditions develop in the country. That would lead people to create new discourses and ideas about identity and politics as Sunnis did after the U.S. invasion.
1. Haddad, Fanar, “Sunni Identity in Post-Civil War Iraq,” 2013
Haddad, Fanar, “Identity politics in Iraq: how much of it is about identity?” Near East Quarterly, 3/9/13
- “Iraq’s sectarian inheritance,” Foreign Policy, 3/26/13
- “Sunni Identity in Post-Civil War Iraq,” 2013
- “Sunni-Shia Relations After the Iraq War,” United States Institute of Peace, 11/15/13
McWilliams, Chief Warrant Officer-4 Timothy, and Wheeler, Lieutenant Colonel Kurtis, ed., Al-Anbar Awakening Volume II, Iraqi Perspectives, From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2009
Montgomery, Retired Colonel Gary, private conversation
Al-Qarawee, Harith Hassan, “Heightened Sectarianism In The Middle East: Causes, Dynamics and Consequences,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 11/5/13
- Imagining The Nation, Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq, Lancashire: Rossendale Books, 2012
- “The Rise of Sunni Identity in Iraq,” National Interest, 4/5/13
Tanter, Raymond, “Iran’s Threat to Coalition Forces in Iraq,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1/15/04