1. Let’s start with the official version of the 1991 uprising. How did Saddam’s government portray events?
The Iraqi regime portrayed the events of 1991 in much the same way that regimes the world over would portray rebellions against their authority: sedition, anarchy, a conspiracy, a foreign plot, treason etc. Look at how the Syrian regime describes its opponents for a more recent example. Indeed this is far from the only parallel between the two cases. Take the stark polarization of public opinion towards the two sets of events and particularly towards those who fought against the regimes: they are either freedom fighters and revolutionaries deserving of unbridled solidarity and support or contemptible and treacherous murderers towards whom not even the most basic forms of pity, mercy or human kindness should be shown. Related to this is of course the debate on intervention; again, the parallel is obvious in the ironclad conviction amongst oppositionists and their sympathizers of the necessity and virtue of foreign intervention. Likewise, regime supporters in both cases maintained an unshakeable belief that, whatever the faults of the state, this was still an insidious attack on the nation led by foreigners and traitors (Iranians in 1991, jihadis/takfiris/imperialists/Zionists today). But of course the parallels only go so far. 1991 was not internationalized and the violence lasted for less than a month whereas the Syrian case is Spanish-civil-war-esque in its internationalization and it is a tragedy that has lasted 7 years and counting.
Indeed, not to trivialize the trauma and devastation that was suffered by millions in 1991, the events of that year pale in geostrategic and regional significance when compared to the Syrian civil war and of course to Iraq’s own post-2003 civil wars. The apocalyptic scenes of destruction (particularly in Karbala) that shocked so many in 1991 have been repeated in too many Iraqi towns and cities since 2003. Having said that, there is no underestimating the impact of 91 within Iraq. It was a break and a point of no return between the Kurdish region and Arab Iraq. The uprisings also shaped certain sections of Shi’a society and certain forms of Shi’a identity with important consequences that extended well into the post-2003 era. I also believe that no other event, not even 1979, had as detrimental an impact on state-Shi’a relations, and even Sunni-Shi’a relations, in pre-2003 Iraq.
Part of this is related to how the regime responded to the events and how they portrayed them throughout the sanctions era. This was especially pronounced with regards to the southern rebellions – after all, Kurdish separatism and Kurdish insurgency were hardly unprecedented in 1991. The southern rebellions by contrast were more threatening to the regime in that their success would not only mean a loss of territory but a change of regime. The southern rebellions were also more jarring to the regime: the scale of the rebellion and the depth of the rejection were unprecedented. So you had this enormous event at the end of the Gulf War that cast a shadow over the sanctions period. The gravity of its memory was matched by the enormity of the taboo that surrounded it. The only permissible mention of the events was the state-sanctioned version (under the euphemism ‘the page of betrayal and treason’ or, less formally, ‘the mob’ – al-ghawgha’ – or, the most neutral permissible term: ‘the events’). To one extent or another, many Iraqis subscribed to the regime’s version or some variant of it. This was due to a lack of alternate sources of information but it was also due to pre-existing prejudices. The idea of an unruly and destructive mob emerging out of the south is one that resonated with a lot of people in the rest of Arab Iraq. This was not only a function of sectarian identity; it was also a function of class and regional prejudices. So there was more going on beyond the sectarian dimension: for many people it wasn’t a prejudice against Shi’as per se but against a particular sort of Shi’a defined and disparaged by perceptions of class, region, educational attainment and the like. Hence the fairly common case of middle class Shi’a Baghdadis who would refer to the events of 1991 as al-ghawgha’: they wouldn’t be looking down on ‘the mob’ because it was Shi’a or because it was ‘Iranian’ but because of a variety of other cultural and economic differentiators.
The regime was aware that the magnitude of the events required a concerted messaging effort to ensure that this most brazen of challenges to its authority is denied any legitimacy whatsoever. This began even before the end of the violence (Saddam gave an address on March 16th describing the still ongoing events as a foreign plot). Most famously there were the seven anonymously authored articles that appeared in the official state newspaper, Al Thawra, in April 1991 – less than a month after the uprisings. The narrative the state propagated was predictable enough: the uprisings were an anti-Arab, anti-Iraqi, foreign, Iranian invasion of Iraq led by Iraqi traitors and their Iranian accomplices. Drilling this message remained a concern for the regime to its dying days; for example, state TV would run documentaries every March commemorating the ‘page of betrayal and treason’.
This was of course extremely polarizing and it became a problem throughout the 90’s that only fully revealed itself after 2003: there was a massive disconnect between, on the one hand, a section of society that defined its post-91 existence through the prism of the traumas of 91 and, on the other, a section of society who were largely oblivious to this. The impact of 91 on its survivors and the fact that it generated an acutely sect-centric sense of Shi’a victimhood were not things that were readily known by outsiders.
2. During the revolt there were plenty of stories that the rebels had pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini along with other Shiite clerics. It was also widely portrayed as an expression of Shiite anger. Afterward there were derogatory names used to describe southerners. How was everything interpreted amongst Sunnis, and how did the name calling come about?
This raises the important question of sect-coding: when does a rebellion or demonstration become a ‘Shia rebellion’ or a ‘Sunni demonstration’? Few things carry as much potential to do political damage as sect-coding (think of the fate of Bahrain’s ‘Shi’a demonstrations’ or Syria’s ‘Sunni rebellion’). If we’re too liberal in how easily we sect code, we end up unfairly delegitimizing people and events regardless of our intentions. However, the converse is no less tricky: a strict avoidance of any mention of sectarian identity leads to inaccuracies and in some instances it can be unjust in that it denies the existence of a sect-specific grievance (sort of the sect-equivalent of the offence caused by male denials of patriarchy). Having said that, were the uprisings in southern Iraq ‘Shi’a uprisings’? The answer as far as I am concerned is yes. Even if there were many people who joined the uprising not as Shi’as or for Shi’as and even if there were a variety of drivers for why people joined and why they rebelled, and even though the uprisings were in no way ‘anti-Sunni’, there can be no denying that a specifically Shi’a set of grievances and a specifically Shi’a sense of victimhood were part of the mix. I think the question we should be asking is, so what? Why is it incriminating for sectarian identity to be invoked in a political cause if the sectarian other is not being targeted? To put it another way, it is absurd to suggest that a ‘Shi’a rebellion’ or a ‘Sunni uprising’ must by definition be aimed at non-Shi’as and non-Sunnis respectively. But alas the normative assumption is that something sect-coded (especially if it’s a political issue) is something bad.
As regards Sunni perceptions of 1991, the assertion of Shi’a identity (a taboo in Iraq, particularly back then) was, at best, something that Sunnis felt excluded by and, at worst, something they felt threatened them. The fact that there was a strong Shi’a Islamist element to the uprising and to the expressions of Shi’a identity also alienated people who were already somewhat predisposed to viewing assertions of Shi’a identity as potential signs of pro-Iranian sympathies. A picture of Khomeini would go a long way towards validating such suspicions and validating the state’s line. The intensity of the uprising’s violence and destruction hardly allayed these fears.
The simple fact is that, in the confusion of March 1991, most Sunnis saw the regime as the lesser of two evils and that, in the years following the events, they were susceptible to the regime’s concerted and relentless messaging campaign. Of course there are exceptions, just as there were exceptions amongst Shi’as and others, but denying that this was a general sentiment amongst Sunni Iraqis is a needlessly forced and counterproductive display of political correctness. There are reasons why 1991 proved to be divisive. Pointing this out and trying to understand these reasons is not something that we should shy away from.
3. For many Shiites they portrayed the uprising as a huge loss when it was put down, but then a sign of pride that it happened. Can you explain that and how the events of 1991 helped strengthen Shiite identity?
As far as 1991 and Shi’a identity I think it deepened sect-centricity and it accentuated an already pre-existing sense of victimhood. Whatever grievances Shi’as might have had against the state and whatever sense of victimhood they had, 1991 was the first instance where Shi’as felt attacked as Shi’as. This was different to episodic periods of tension between the state and Shi’a political movements. It was different to perceptions of Shi’a exclusion through the normative status accorded to Sunni Islam (for example in the call to prayer or in school curricula). It was different to the grievances arising from the suppression of Shi’a identity by for example the proscriptions surrounding Ashura. The events of 1991 were perceived as an attack against Shi’as as opposed to an attack against a particular Shi’a movement or against a specific group of Shi’a people. This was the perception that emerged out of 1991.
This coincided with several other processes all of which reinforced the tendency towards sect-centricity amongst many Shi’as. Firstly there is the contraction of the state’s resources and hence a reduction in its ability to provide an Iraq-wide web of patronage. A consequence of this is that the state’s long standing regional and tribal biases came into sharper relief as the gap between haves and have nots widened. The perception amongst many Shi’as and particularly those of the southern governorates was that the widening of this gap was due not to tribal and regional considerations but primarily to sectarian ones – which of course fit neatly into the trauma of 91 and the rise of sect-centricity. 1991 also signaled the start of an unprecedentedly large exodus out of Iraq. For those leaving southern Iraq, the uprising of 1991 was often the last major milestone in their lives in Iraq. It therefore played a perhaps outsized role in their perceptions of self: it was the event that signaled an end of one life and the beginning of a new, often harder one. And because 1991 was perceived as a case of Shi’a victimization the displacement it led to accentuated sect-centricity amongst Shi’a in exile: the memory of 91 led many to feel that they were exiles because they were Shi’a. Finally, all of this coincided with the emergence of the Iraqi-opposition-in-exile industry. There had long been Iraqi opposition movements in Syria, Iran and elsewhere but the scale changed dramatically in the 90’s: diaspora communities were larger, they were geographically more spread out, opposition movements proliferated and grew, and the U.S. took a greater interest in Iraqi opposition politics (which itself further incentivized sect-centricity amongst opposition figures).
4. How were those divergent views continued after 2003?
It was immediately clear in April 2003 that the memory of 91 was a burning issue that had been suppressed for 12 years. This was evident in the early opening up of the mass graves and the emotions surrounding that (again you see a polarization in opinions towards this issue based on initial views towards the rebellion). It was evident in how several towns held commemorative events in honor of those killed in 1991; in the poetry that was made to honor the memory of the uprising; in the way Intifadha was used as the title for all manner of political and civil society organizations. In short, in the immediate post-2003 period, the memory of 1991 turned the Intifadha into a brand (there was even an official Intifadha Shield – dir’ al-Intifadha – in Maliki’s days).
But truth be told, the brand did not last long. It’s not that those who held 1991 in an especially hallowed light changed their minds; rather, and as has so often happened in recent Iraqi history, 1991 has been overshadowed by more recent and more shocking tragedies. You still have yearly commemorations of 1991 in various towns and villages across central and southern Iraq (though these tend to be organized locally) and the Intifadha brand still comes up (at one point there was a Hashd formation named after it). But all in all, there are more salient events from the last 15 years that exercise and divide popular memory – that’s to say nothing of the challenges and preoccupations that most Iraqis have to face in their day to day lives.
Did the great Iraqi civil war start in 1991 or 1979? Interesting question. Iraqis are divided on it.
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