The Struggle for Power in Iraq

The Struggle for Power in Iraq

The American government expected Iraqi Shiites to rise against Saddam Hussein during the U.S.-led war last spring: why was there no rising? Fear of the Baath regime intermixed with a sense that the United States betrayed them in the wake of the Gulf War are important factors in explaining the hesitation of the Shiites. Analysts and reporters covering the war noted these factors, but they paid too little attention to the role of nationalism. We need to examine the historical struggle between Arab Shiites and Sunnis over the meaning of Iraqi and Arab nationalism if we are to understand the cautious attitude adopted by Shiites during the war as well as the challenges facing the United States as it attempts to win the peace in postwar Iraq.

Britain, the mandatory power, created Iraq in 1921 as a state ruled by a Sunni minority elite. The new British rulers viewed the Shiite religious leaders of Najaf and Karbala as extremists whose influence over the largely tribal Shia population had to be curtailed. So they bequeathed Iraq to the Sunni Sharifians led by King Faysal (son of the Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who declared the 1916 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire) and to a group of ex-Ottoman Sunni officers who joined Faysal in Syria during World War I. “I feel convinced,” wrote the British plenipotentiary Gertrude Bell from Baghdad, “that our best allies are the Mesopotamians who served with Faisal and have the true spirit of Arab nationalism in them. . . . They will be regarded with considerable jealousy here, but they are capable men and they are men with an ideal.” The Sharifians and the ex-Ottoman officers ruled Iraq until 1958. A decade of instability followed the collapse of the monarchy in that year, leading to the seizure of power by the Baath and the subsequent rise of the Sunni Tikriti clan whose members, led by Saddam Hussein, ruled Iraq until April 2003.

This means that in modern Iraq a Sunni minority, constituting some 17 percent of the population and based in central Iraq, held sway over the Shiite majority of 60 percent spread over southern and central Iraq and over a Kurdish minority of 20 percent in the north. The Sunnis felt entitled to rule Iraq, considering themselves the heirs of the Ottoman Empire. Their claim to rule was strengthened by the preponderance of Sunnis over Shiites in the wider Arab world and by the support of Arab Sunni leaders, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who view Shiism as heresy and have felt more comfortable with Sunni rule next door. Western powers bolstered Sunni rule in Iraq; until 1991, the U.S. government considered the Baath regime as a bulwark against Shiite Iran. This view prevailed even in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War when the first Bush administration ruled out action to aid Iraqi Shiites who rebelled against Saddam.

Like the Sunnis, the Shiites are predominantly Arabs. Shiites became a majority in the country only in the nineteenth...

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