For many years I paid little attention to the news from Iraq. Most of the news was filtered through ideological or political viewpoints and was simply a dreary day to day recitation of the corruption and abuse of power that has been Iraq’s story since the time of the Ottoman occupation. Actually the glory days of Iraq ended withe sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.
But the last few days as big trouble seem to be brewing in Baghdad I got interested again. As Bernard Lewis wrote, the Ottoman Turks were not builders. They simply ruled, mostly by force, but generally in the acceptance of the Sunni ruling class, which until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, had ruled Iraq, including the period of British occupation and creation of the modern state of Iraq. But the recent riots in Iraq did…. to a certain extent…. revive my interest in Iraq. Overall nothing much has changed ..it is a quagmire of sectarian ideological, religious and political hatreds. It is corrupt to the core with only the Iranians evidencing any interest in becoming involved. Are they stupid or know something we do not? Well they are smarter than our leaders and much bolder, but to what end I wonder?
The Shia of Iraq, long mostly ignored by Middle East historians and politicians have suddenly become a hot historical Middle East topic. Prior and even after the American liberation/occupation of Iraq most of the history and political commentary in the West favored the Sunni. From the time of Gertrude Bell’s writings till now the Shi’a were depicted as a mysterious , dark, anarchic sect. Many of the Shi’a, as Kanan Makiya ( Republic of Fear) wrote, were originally Sunni who settled into farming in the 19th century and converted to Shi’ism. Their religious leaders were reactionary, issuing Fatwa’s condemning any Shi’a participation in the newly emerging Iraqi government. As Makiya writes, these clerics lost influence among the Shi’a fellah because of their total absorption in religious piety and symbolism, while their Shi’a followers suffered prolonged misgovernment and deprivation. Many began to follow the communist party and their promises of a better life. Abd al Karim Qassim, when he overthrew the Monarchy of the Feisel family in 1958, was able to take control of Iraq largely through assistance of the large communist party. Makiya says this is proof that the Shi’a sect is not absorbed in the sectarian demands of Shi’ism but follow political and ideological currents like most others in Iraq.
At ht same time, the minorities in Iraq, Christians, Yezidis, Kurds, etc. basically have done whatever is necessary to survive. The Christians were largely wary but content with Saddam…as opposed to an Islamist regime, and being without means to gain power they were generally left to their own devices by Saddam.
In his article (Is Iraq Viable) from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies Makiya reviewed the works of two authorities on recent Iraq history, Ali A Alawi and Hazem Sagie. Both well-respected as analytical historians on Iraq. Both basically agree there is no future for a nation called Iraq. They say the dormant ethnic and tribal hatreds format exploded after the American liberation/occupation, but that they have been there for centuries waiting for a spark. Kanan Makiya does not agree. He writes that the Iraqi Story is not over….but I have doubts.
There are many of course who say it was only the American invasion that loosed this maelstrom of sectarian violence. Typical is one writer, an acquaintance, who spent a lot of time with Sunni insurgents in Iraq. I bought two of his books… actually a waste. He espoused the typical marxist viewpoint that all evils are largely American-made. He did rightly say, however, that the liberal academic mantra that the Islamists are “bad Muslims” was stupid. Actually these islamists believed (as they do today)they were the only good Muslims. As long as Western academics and government officials go on spouting nonsense about Islamic terrorists being “bad Muslims” we will never identify the enemy…at least one of our enemies…we have many “experts”now!
Anyway this fellow wrote...”The Bush administration based its strategy in Iraq on the mistaken notion that, under Saddam, the Sunni minority ruled the Shiite majority. In fact, Iraq had no history of serious sectarian violence or civil war between the two groups until the Americans invaded. Most Iraqis viewed themselves as Iraqis first, with their religious sects having only personal importance. Intermarriage was widespread, and many Iraqi tribes included both Sunnis and Shiites. Under Saddam, both the ruling Baath Party and the Iraqi army were majority Shiite.”
To this my learned Iraqi friend , a Shia , wrote
“This is an ideal image that exist only in Hollywood production. As an Iraqi Shiite who lived in Iraq under Saddam for more than 30 years I never felt equal to my Sunni counterparts. And I never felt comfortable revealing my sect or practicing my rituals – as simple as giving away a dish of rice to my Sunni neighbors. I always felt I am being treated as a less than a citizen. One example when I applied for a job in the government as a translator. I was the only one out for four approved applicants who was summoned to the intelligence headquarters in Baghdad because my full name indicated that I’m a Shiite. The other applicants were all Sunnis. The intelligence officer asked me all kind of questions about my family affiliations. He finally let me go because he knew my family history was clear and had no holes. As for army, yes it true the majority of soldiers and officers were Shiites but they won’t be promoted to high ranks except in few cases.For examples, my uncle, mom’s brother, was first class Shiite officer (graduated from Sandhurst) but he was marginalized and was denied the promotion for two years while his Sunni counterparts were promoted to generals. When he finally was promoted to a general, he was forced to retire. Dad in his position of the Mayor Deputy was denied many privileges given to his Sunni counterparts because- only because he was a Shiite. “
Actually the Shi’a did not revolt sooner– not because they felt comfortable under Sunni rule– but basically because they were astute enough to know that they would be slaughtered by the Iraqi army- as were the Christian Assyrians in the Simele massacre of 1933. The general, Bakr Sidki who led the slaughter was acclaimed a national hero. Nuri Said once answered a Western writer why he did not let the young King Feisel II more latitude in running the country, he replied “how could I let him loose among these barbarians”?
The gruesome barbaric murder of the king and his entire family..as well as the PM Nuri Said …was well told by Gerald de Gaury in his book, Three Kings in Baghdad. The overall perpetrator of the murders, General Qassim met a similar end in a similar way.
So this brings us to Muqtada Al Sadr. his great-grandfather is Ismael al Sad. Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, was a respected figure throughout the Shi’a Islamic world. He was murdered, along with two of his sons, by Saddam . Muqtada’s father in law was executed by the Iraqi authorities in 1980. Muqtada is a cousin of the respected Muse al Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese founder of the popular Amal Movement.
Most the books written about Iraq some years ago cast him as the heavy ( villain) but today in much of the Western Press he is cast as the last great hope for Iraq. Just like Saddam was pictured before 199, he is seen as a bad guy but one we (the West )could deal with. In the past century we have read this many times….Hitler , Stalin, Saddam, Assad, Khamenei….. all the diplomats said and still say are/were “people we can deal with.” An American colonel who has had four tours of duty in Iraq, wrote that Muqtada was just that…the man who can save Iraq. But as a functioning nation there isn’t much about Iraq to be saved. If Iraq can be salvaged, Muqtada is not the man to do it. Outside his fervent following, mostly among urban impoverished Shi’a, he has little support, especially outside Arab and Islamic support. Muqtada is a chameleon. A man who sees himself as a champion of the people. He changes colors to move with the prevailing winds.
Muqtada has been and out of the Iranian tent so many times it is difficult to know whether he is in or out. As of yesterday he seemed to be out…. but never place Muqtada in anybody’s box.
An excellent article from New Lines magazine lays it out better than anything I’ve read for a long time. One of the main points I get from this article is that the Shi’a mainstream – Iraqi and Iranian- has always been an enemy of the sadrists. The recent rebuke from his mentor al Ayatollah Kazem Hairi, a cleric in the Iranian regime pocket, is just one of many examples. See https://newlinesmag.com/argument/the-trouble-with-muqtada-al-sadr/
one excerpt from the article below:
“Sadr has huge grassroots support — millions of people who are culturally, religiously, territorially and politically Sadrists, even though they may not be fervent Muqtada followers. This understanding of the wider Sadrist population and the distinction from the politically active Sadrist trend is clear to him but confusing to others. The success of the Sadrists in the October 2021 elections gave credence to his view that he is the political king of the Shiites in Iraq. At every turn Sadr feels he has been betrayed and pressured by allies, leaving him out on his own. When his father-in-law was killed in 1980, the Hawza in Najaf, where Shiite Muslim scholars are educated, did nothing to help his family and continued classes as if nothing happened. When the 1991 intifada against Saddam’s regime was beginning to be crushed, Iran and the U.S. did not intervene to save it or the tens of thousands who were buried in mass graves.”
In summary Ali Alawi wrote
Presiding over Iraq as the Coalition forces arrived Alawi wrote was “a fearful, heavily armed minority”—that is, the Sunnis—whose decaying institutions and ruling ideology masked the real dangers of “divisiveness, vengefulness, deeply held grievances and bottled-up ethnic and sectarian passions” lurking underneath Iraqi Arab society.”
To some extent, as is the way of the world, the oppressed have become the oppressors, and are now at each others throats.