08.07.2014 Author: Viktor Titov

Iraq: Is it a Sunni-Shiite clash or a political conflict?

iraqi2There are some political scientists and analysts who continue to view the current armed conflict in Iraq as a clash between Sunnis and Shiites, ignoring its political component and the regional dimension in the sense that through Iraq, Saudi Arabia wants to undermine the growing influence of Iran and the normalization of relations between Tehran and Washington. Of course, no one can deny that in Arab countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, the hostility between the Shia and Sunni communities are increasingly slipping into uncontrolled violence. Today, the conflict between these two religious sects of Islam largely underlies the Iraqi conflict as well as the Syrian civil war. But it is not the decisive factor. Rather, it is simply being used by external forces as a pretext to foment political strife in the region.

This Shiite-Sunni rivalry is not a recent development, but is rooted in the very sources of Islam and in the turmoil that existed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (in Arabic this turmoil is called “fitna”). But now some people have intentionally decided to pour gasoline on to the fire in order to further exasperate the rivalry. After all, the Arab “revolutions” are to blame for everything. The stable and established order in the region of formed perennial dictatorships was shattered. The Arab “revolutions” were sponsored by the West and the conservative monarchies of Arabia; they swept from Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria and budged tectonic plates in the complex area of ​​the Sunni-Shiite rivalry.

It is well known fact that Sunnis make up the majority of the population in Syria; however, the Assad family, both father and son, placed a leading role to the Alawite population, (10-12%) and often at the expense of the Sunnis. The Alawites, to which the Assad family is a part of, is a religious community that is closely linked with the Syrian government. It is a very distant offshoot of the Shiite sect, but they often still feel a part of it. Primarily this position is shared by Sunni extremists, and not necessarily of Syrians who are now fighting in Syria. These radicals call Alawites heretics of Islam, just as all Shiites.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, openly oppressed the Shiite population and maintained a tight grip on the country and, as Assad, restrained the growth and influence of representatives of the different religions and ethnic groups, especially the Kurds in the north by means of rigid authoritarian power. Thus he planted the seeds which, as of today, have propagated the religious hatred.

Likewise, the royal family of Bahrain, the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, often infringes on the rights of the majority Shiite population; Shiites account for 35% of the island’s population. That led to mass demonstrations in February and March 2011 and the actual occupation of Bahrain by Saudi troops.

And Saudi Arabia itself, ruled by the Sunni Wahhabi Al Saud family, oppresses a rather significant Shiite minority population, (12%) which over the past three years has often led to violent clashes, including clashes where weapons have been used.

But ultimately Assad and Hussein through their actions differed little from the West, which used sectarian divisions in every way possible in order to promote their own geopolitical interests. So, from 1920 as per the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, Iraq was under British mandate. British decided to rely on the large Sunni clans which began handing out title and privileges even during the period of the Ottoman Empire.

In a struggle with it in 1915, they concluded alliance treaty with the sheriff (ruler) of Mecca, Hussein and his three sons, to ensure stability in the region. London believed that with the Sunnis coming to power, supporters of a semi-secular state with an ideology of pan-Arab nationalism would help prevent further conflict between nations in the Middle East. Shiites were limited to secondary roles, which led to a series of uprisings in Iraq in 1920, 1935, 1936 and as well in 1937. All of them were suppressed by Great Britain. Naturally, after the establishment of the Iraqi state, Shiites felt a sense of injustice due the small number of their representatives in the government. As for the Sunnis, it in their minds strengthened the dissatisfaction over Western intervention in the Middle East at that time. And of the signing in 1916 of the secret Sykes-Picot, which is spoken of to this day, has, not accidentally, become one of the main goals of the ISIS Islamists. This agreement, in their view, represents the cruelty of the West.

After all, the British promised the Arab people the right of forming a large independent kingdom, but a secret agreement between the French and British only contributed to the formation of the current day borders of the Arab countries in the region and the Middle East. Ultimately, the agreement formed the basis of the modern political map of the Arab world. ISIS does not agree with these borders and seeks to redraw the boundaries of Iraq and Syria and establishing a “Caliphate” in the territory of a number of countries, not only those populated by Muslims. A new Caliphate would “incorporate” Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Balkans, Hungary, Cyprus and large parts of India, Russia as well as Ukraine.

All the same, the main cause of the current Sunni-Shiite confrontation can be more accurately attributed to the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. In the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by military intervention, the White House brought to power the Shiite majority and then reduced its military presence in Iraq. “I told the leaders of the Baath Party that from now on, government would be closed to them, admitted the former head of the U.S. occupation administration in Iraq, Paul Bremer. They were allowed to do whatever they wanted, such as establish newspapers, or return to private life, but I was wrong when I entrusted the implementation of this measure to Iraqi politicians who have gone way too far in its application”. After coming to power, the Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, committed a lot of mistakes. He got mired in against Sunni politicians, stripping them of their high positions of responsibility in the army. The suppression of Sunni uprisings by aerial bombardment and sending extremist Shiite militias to assist in this goal eventually led to former military personnel of Saddam’s army and members of the Baath party in joining ISIS. Iraq as a Shiite Islamic republic under the al-Maliki government began to position itself as a defender of Shiites. The most holy of Shiite shrines are on Iraqi soil and now may be under attack by radicals. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians go there every year on pilgrimage. This primarily relates to Karbala and Najaf, where the tomb of Imam Hussain is located; Imam Hussain is the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who died in a battle with the Sunnis in the year 680 and is mausoleum of Shiite imams. “The Iranian nation will do everything to protect the holy places”, said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in mid-June. In addition, the leader of the Lebanese “Hezbollah”, Hassan Nasrallah said the Shiite mausoleum in Iraq is so important for the movement that it is ready to protect them and to “sacrifice five times more than what was sacrificed in Syria”. Apart from the purely religious interests, what is driving Iranian concern is the sharp rise of the Sunni Islamist uprising in Iraq. They could not foresee it in advance, as all its attention was focused on Syria. In Tehran there is a fear for the prospects of a return to power of the Sunni minority on its very borders. From 1980 to 1988 the country fought a bitter conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: the conflict left behind deep scars and a million dead. So the Iranians are trying to avoid a repeat of such a scenario. Tehran also fears the destabilization of Iraq and even further does not wish to be surrounded by “failed” states. After all, the Iranians already share a border with Afghanistan.

An extremely negative role has been played in this by the main U.S. ally in the region, Riyadh. First of all we are talking about the financial and moral support of the Sunni community in Iraq, which relies on Salafist (radical extremist and inherently anti-Shiite) religious rhetoric. Within the military sphere, Saudi support for the Islamists is mostly financial and it includes secret funds of Saudi intelligence services, Islamic foundations, private organizations, businessmen and religious leaders allocating huge funds. The fact that after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there was in the region an outlined kind of Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran to Beirut, from Damascus to Baghdad. Saudi Arabia seemed to be in the mix from all sides, except in the east and the south. In Bahrain, over the past three years, there has been no subsiding in action against the Sunni authorities in the uprising of the Shiite majority. Riyadh openly intervened in the development of events and sent troops to suppress the rebellion there. In Yemen, the Zaidi movement (a branch of the Shiite sect) continues to gain momentum and represents a threat to the south-west borders of Saudi Arabia. In addition, inside the Saudi kingdom for three years has seen a seething uprising of the 12% Shiite population, who for the most part live in the oil-rich Eastern Province. In the fight against the Shiites at stake are the dominant Arab monarchies in the Gulf and the Middle East. In 2003, the American decision to form in Iraq a Shiite government was met with hostility and is now seriously concerned about the influence of Iran in Baghdad. They see everything in Iran’s favor to further destabilize the situation by using Shiite uprisings throughout the region. And this concern of Riyadh is only further worsened by the progress in the negotiations between Iran and the West on Iran’s nuclear program.

Riyadh has always been the main U.S. ally in the regulating the oil market, but this role may lose its former importance in the event of the normalization of relations with Iran, which holds the second largest oil reserves in the world. But although Riyadh does not hide its pleasure at the sight of the difficulties of Iraqi Shiites, one cannot doubt that a victory by Islamic radicals would bring it great advantage. Although ISIS maintains close ties with the Saudi Wahhabi Sunni movement, however, as an organization, it pursues its own political goals; these goals include the establishment of a caliphate in the region on the territory of all the Arab states, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the long term excessive ambitions of ISIS may create a threat to the borders of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, we witnessed last week the announcement of on the establishment of an ISIS caliphate. Group leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the caliph of the new state by urging Muslims around the world to swear allegiance to him.

Of course, now the question arises, how seriously this declaration of a caliphate be taken? Does it really mean the collapse of the old order in the Middle East and the beginning of an all-out Sunni – Shiite war that will ignite the entire region? Even if the ISIS armed uprising is suppressed, echoes of it will be of it in the Middle East will endure for a long time, leading eventually to new armed uprisings, riots and acts of terrorism. The negative development in all of this is in with the other group, the Kurds in Iraq have an opportunity to strengthen their position. And if the Shiite majority will continue to oppose the creation of an inclusive government with adequate participation of all faiths and ethnic groups, the country could fall apart. Not coincidentally, on July 3, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani asked its parliament to prepare a referendum on the question of independence. He urged lawmakers to form an election commission, which will set a date and begin organizing a vote on secession is now an autonomous region from the rest of Arab Iraq. “It is time to determine our own destiny; we should not wait for others to determine it for us”, said Barzani in a closed meeting of the Kurdish parliament on Thursday; it was later broadcast on television. “It will strengthen our position and will be a powerful weapon in our hands”, quoted by Al Jazeera. And al-Maliki is largely to blame for this, as on July 1 he stubbornly tore away at any possibility of forming a stable government in Baghdad, after which the Kurds and Sunnis left the first session of the newly elected Iraqi parliament, as the Shiite majority failed to appoint a prime minister.

But does this mean that a caliphate is fait accompli? The existence of a new caliphate is likely to be short-lived. Intolerant and ruthless methods by ISIS will eventually certainly lead to a rupture within the organization with groups of local Sunnis who are now working side by side with the jihadists. The New York Times quoted the chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Council, who on the one hand praises ISIS that it was able to assist in the uprising against the government of Iraq’s Sunni al-Maliki. At the same time, as soon as the head of the Council heard news about the declaration of a new caliphate, he rudely expressed it in relation to the press secretary of ISIS, noting that the tribes, without already the Muslims, who would not allow anyone to have to govern themselves in the name of Islam. Moreover, unlike ISIS, the vast majority of armed militias in Syria are unwilling to erase the current borders between Syria and Iraq. So it is a very real possibility that soon the new caliphate will be remembered as a bloody but unsuccessful attempt to turn back the course of history. But with this, a relatively stable and prosperous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is already enjoying de facto independence; it shows that for any outcome of the current conflict in Iraq, the division of the country is quite likely.

The result of this breakup may be the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, a Sunni state in the center and a Shiite one in the south. Long term implications of such a scheme can lead either to complete separation, or the creation of a multinational federal state. The result will depend on developments in these autonomous regions and the relationship between them. Under such a scenario, the warring parties in Iraq will likely stop fighting one another independent of the status of the borders separating them, de facto or de jure.


Viktor Titov, Ph.D in Historical Sciences and political commentator on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook 


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