Wednesday, December 01, 2004


Sunni and Shiite Iraq - Governance

[There is considerable confusion regarding the dominance of modern Iraq by the Sunnis. Media references to the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq are frequently more perplexing than enlightening! Like almost everything else in old and complex Iraq, this a long story - 1400 years old. To clarify this issue in the simplest possible terms, I will only go back a century.]

How did the Sunnis come to govern modern Iraq?

At the turn of the 20th century, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks, who came to Iraq several centuries before as conquers from central Asia, were Sunnis. They alternated on invading Iraq with the Shiite Persians. This conflict was a major factor in the modern Shiite-Sunni polarization!

The Ottomans were Sunni and generally bigotry - they usually referred to Shiites as "The Rejectionists"! Naturally they relied on Sunnis for government positions and, towards the end of the 19th century, the military. Young men went to Istanbul to go into military colleges. Shiites were generally shunned.

When the British wanted the Arabs to help them against the Ottomans during WWI, they went to the most prominent figure at the time, Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca. They promised him to free the united Arab world under his leadership. He revolted against the Turks. His army had a number of senior Iraqi officers.

The British campaign succeeded but they couldn't honor their promise to the old man… the region was already divided between France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot Treaty. They put Iraq under direct rule. The Iraqis (both Sunnis and Shiites) revolted. The British then decided to install a "democratic" government. There was a National Congress in 1924 to agree on a Constitution. The Shiites, on the recommendation of senior clergy, boycotted it. [Now I hope you can understand Sistani's eagerness not to be bitten again!]

To pay part of their debt to the Sherif of Mecca, the British installed his son, Faisal I – a Sunni, on the throne of Iraq. The (mostly Sunni) Iraqi officers who assisted the British almost monopolized the top political and military positions for decades. The civil service had to rely on people willing to work with the British and who had the ability to get the job done. Again, Sunnis dominated the civil service.

That combination determined the Sunni face of government in Iraq for the next 80 years.

Shiites, from predominantly Shiite areas, were duly represented in Parliament. They were quite active in the political life of Iraq; there were quite a number of Shiite ministers and prime ministers But those other people had entrenched themselves in senior positions!

Given the tribal element in the Iraqi society and the strong social influence, nepotism and favoritism (and no doubt some bigotry) played a strong role in admission to senior government and military posts… and military colleges. The result was that three decades later, the top brass were mostly Sunnis.

In 1958 there was a military coup. The people involved were mostly Sunni. The strongman of the junta, Qassim, in fact came from a mixed area and there was no evidence whatsoever that he practiced any form of preferential treatment between Shiites and Sunnis. There were two other military coups that led to the final one in 1968 which ultimately brought the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein to power. Due to the reasons outlined above, all those coups were dominated by Sunni military officers.


The Baath party is secular in origin and basic doctrine. In the rank and file of the party (that claimed some 3 million members) there were more Shiites than Sunnis – reflecting the make-up of the country. There were many senior Shiite figures. There were also numerous Kurds and Christians! However, for the same reasons outlined above, the Baath Party's key positions were dominated by Sunnis. But the "Law Giver" was Saddam and he tightly held the reigns.

Saddam and his inner circle (who were his relatives) were Sunni in name. The same social forces outlined above were also at play throughout his reign. Saddam's true religion was "Power"… his sect was "Brutal Oppression". Most people knew that if you as much as uttered something against him, you were gone. It didn't matter what your religion was.


As you can see, Shiite grievances are genuine but Sunni dominance of government was not through armed Sunni-Shiite conflict as has been repeatedly suggested. It was mostly foreign interference and influence first and then power and politics and power-politics throughout the past century of modern Iraqi history.


Abu Khaleel --

Thank you very much for your very informative blog. You are performing an extremely valuable service by providing such insights into affairs in Iraq.

If you don't mind, I would like to post a link to the Words from Iraq site, which includes a variety of blogs concerning events in Iraq, including yours. It is now offering a discussion forum for discussions of those blogs, as well as any other topics concerning Iraq. The format of the formu lends itself very well to discussions of these issues. Right now the forum membership is small, but it has a huge amount of potential for providing a nexus of interaction for various points of view, hopefully to the betterment of us all.

I encourage everyone to join the discussions over there.

Dear Abu Khaleel,

While the Ilkhanid Mongols converted to Islam as conquerors (some time after 1300 CE, during the patriarchate of Mar Yoalaha [Yabalaha]), the Oghuz Turks (from whom the Seljuks come) converted while in Transoxiana (Central Asia), due to extensive missionary activity by Arabs
( ). Thus, the Turkish/Turkic conquerors of Mesopotamia were mostly Muslims at that time.

Be Well,

Abu Khaleel,

Thank you very much for the information. It definitely helps me understand some of the current inter-Iraqi pressures.

Be Well,

Bob Griffin,

You are right... but from an Iraqi vantage point I regard the Ottomans as a continuation of the Seljuks. They were actually part of the Seljuk Empire and became independent in 1299.

After the Seljuks occupied Persia, they sent a delegation to the Caliph Qa'em in Baghdad expressing their wish to convert to Islam. They entered the capital without armed conflict in 1055.

The Ottomans adopted not only the religion but many other aspects of life from Mesopotamia, including the script (until Mustafa Kemam switched back to Roman script in the 1920's). Their Sultan Salim declared himself Caliph in 1517.

For an excellent concise and accurate account of that turbulent period, see Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" (vol. 13).

Anyway, I have removed the offending statement. Thank you very much for bringing it to my attention.

So the questions of the day are:

How do you feel about living under Shiite rule?

If Sistani were to win the election, how would you feel about that?

How would the Sunni people who are RPG'ing US soldiers feel about Sistani winning the election?

How much political power do you want/expect Sunnis to have after the Americans leave?

What happens when, after a stunning upset, the Americans count the votes and determine that Allawi won a landslide?

Re above ...

The election isn't for President. It's for a constitutional assembly.

Allawi's party is part of a coalition of secular Shiite parties. Sistani is leading a coalition of Islamic Shiite parties, but won't be a candidate himself.

The representatives will be selected by proportional vote. Voters will vote for a specific party or coalition of parties, and the seats will be assigned to the top members of each parties list of potential representatives, according to the percentage of the vote the party recieves.

The Shiite are 60% of the population, so we can expect that amount to go to Shiite parties. However, Sistani is forming a unified list so all Shiites can vote for the same party. The seats will then be assigned according to how the unified list is ranked. Right now moderate Shia parties are negotiating with Sistani for how the representatives should be ranked on that list, sicne the ones at the top are the most assured of having a seat. If they don't agree, they could form a separate list, and let the voters decide between them. It is unclear how the Shia population is divided between secular and Islamist viewpoints, so I consider this a positive development.

If the Sunni boycott the election that means that they will send fewer representatives to the constitutional assembly, because their percentage of the vote will be smaller, which means that the dominance of the Shiite- backed list is increased. A unified list would probably increase the power of Shiite religious conservatives in the assembly, while having numerous different parties would allow more choice for the voters between different points of view.

The election isn't for President. It's for a constitutional assembly.


So what's the timeline for an elected Iraqi government?

I was under the impression that by February there would be a leadership elected by the Iraqi people that could, in theory, ask the Americans to leave. Obviously I was wrong.

I never thought that the US would just sit back and watch an elected government come to power in Iraq that could be just as anti-America as Hussein was, but I thought that would be avoided by rigged elections in January.

Now its clearer that there are no definite plans for an elected Iraqi government and its likely there will never be definite plans.

My new question is how does US-backed President-for-Life Allawi compare to Hussein so far?

The timeline is for the constitutional assembly to write an Iraqi constitution that will decide what kind of legislature Iraq will have, whether it will be a federal system, what sort of powers will be divided between the Presidency and the Judicial and legislative branches.

When the constitution has been written there will be a national referendum to ratify it, followed by general election according to the rules set out in the permanent constitution.

The timeline also set December 2005 as the deadline for elections under the permanent constitution.
We're not going to let them debate forever.

Diogenes of Pumpkintown,

The "words from Iraq" site is indeed a very useful one. It covers much of what is written from Iraq and is regularly updated. I have just added a link to it in the side bar. Thank you very much.


You are incorrect. The CURRENT government could also ask America to leave.

Yes, I'm sure the Americans plan to rig the elections for the next 50 years, just as they did after liberating Japan, Germany, S Korea, Italy, France... [/sarcasm]

Dear Abu Information (for me, you are the very father of information about Iraq):

What you thing about the above?

Thanks in advance!

Álvaro Frota

Letter from Iraqi Patriotic Alliance addressed to our brothers and sisters all around the world
Nada Al-Rubaiee, on behalf of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance (IPA)
Al-MoharerThe Iraqi Resistance is confronting the illegitimate and brutal Zionist Imperialist occupation of Iraq. Our resistance is legitimate according to international law and the UN Charter, including the right to resort to armed means. We are claiming our right to national self-determination and a real sovereignty.

The different resisting groups in Iraq have developed a network between each other in order to achieve their ultimate goal. This goal was clearly addressed in their political program released after the liberation of Fallujah in April this year (2004). The program of the Iraqi resistance is as follows:

1. End the occupation and liberate the country

2. Transition period of 2 years

3. Iraqi united- National government for all

4. Iraqi constitution written by Iraqis themselves

5. Democratic rules

6. Free election and full participation of the different political parties

To implement the strategy of liberation, the Iraqi resistance is attacking occupying forces and their institutions and those who serve them with food, oil and other supplies. On the other hand, the Iraqi resistance is preventing the occupiers from using Oil as a political means.

Schools, churches, mosques and other civilian places have never been the target of the Iraqi resistance. Besides, we have to be very critical and careful about any kidnapping or killing process of a foreigner-worker in Iraq. The resistance has no benefit in attacking people like Margaret Hassan, two Simona’s or others. These actions are meant to discredit the legal resistance of our people.

Here, we would like to share with you some of the heroic achievements of the Iraqi resistance:

The Iraqi resistance was able to cause a high number of casualties in material and soldiers among the occupying forces.

The resistance fighters were able to liberate 30 cities: creating a suitable environment for the resistant fighters by forming a death-zone for the occupying forces and their agents.

The Iraqi resistance has defeated the Spanish imperialism and has forced 9 out of the occupying/ allying countries to leave Iraq. The Netherlands, Hungary and Poland are leaving Iraq next year.

The Iraqi resistance was able to pull plunder companies out of Iraq; the so-called contractors “rebuilding companies”.

The Iraqi resistance has renewed the spirit of resistance in the whole world by defeating the US imperialism in Fallujah, AlSamawa, Najaf and other Iraqi cities.

The heroic resistance in Iraq has isolated UK and US in Iraq, preventing temporary the go-on of the “war on terror” against: Syria, Cuba and North Korea.

The resistance in Iraq is the resistance of the Iraqi people and it is mainly represented by the major political groups; the Patriotic, Islamic and the Pan-Arab groups.

By this, we want to emphasis on the fact that our resistance has an anti-imperialistic profile with Islamic and patriotic elements. Adding on that, the effective participation of members of the dismantled Iraqi army and the Ba’ath party.

We could expect some objections about the participation of the Ba’ath party in the resistance. There are more than three million active Ba’ath party members in Iraq. So, when we mention members of this party we do not mean – only - those who were in the former Iraqi government. But those who believe in the Ba’ath ideology expressed in their slogan: Unity, Liberty and socialism.

The fear of the Islamic character of the Iraqi resistance could be answered by the fact that after the liberation of Iraq, the Iraqi resistance will then be the only legitimized representative of the Iraqi people. A transition period will then give the Iraqi people the chance to choose their representatives to form a united national government with full participation of all parties including the Islamic forces. We have then to accept the choice of the Iraqi people.

As to the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, we are proud to inform you that our secretary general in Iraq Mr. Abduljabbar al-Kubaysi was arrested on 3rd of September in Baghdad. The house he had temporarily stayed in was surrounded and stormed by about 50 US occupation soldiers employing helicopters and tanks. Mr. Al-Kubaysi was leading the IPA since the 90’s against the economic sanctions and the Zionistic and imperialistic plans of the US in Iraq. During his latest activities building a united political front of the resistance against the occupation, he was arrested without any charges. At this moment we know nothing about his situation. Even his family is unable to contact hem. We hold the occupying forces responsible for the health and life of Mr. Al-Kubaysi and all other prisoners in Iraq.

We hope for further coordination between you and us in our shared struggle against occupation and imperialism.

Long lives the Iraqi Resistance

In Solidarity,

Nada Al-Rubaiee on behalf of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance (IPA)

Thank you for your blog. I am a student who had to do a report on some of the Sunni and Shiite differences and your letter has helped me understand more about the Sunni and Shiite sects. Thank you.
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