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Jul 9, 2014 | Commentary

While the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) has had considerable success in capturing land, weapons, and funds in Iraq, they now confront a wide coalition of forces emerging in opposition. It is hard to imagine that they will remain successful in the face of the support being offered by Iran, Syria, Russia, the United States, as well as Iraq’s Shia militia. It is also unlikely that any support received by Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States will continue if ISIS emerges as a true proto-state, one intent on overthrowing these monarchies.

Thinking ahead, we should consider how to better reform a post-ISIS Iraq. To improve stability, the Iraqis need to foster inclusive non-sectarian parties to articulate citizen interests. The hope would be that such parties would include the interests of religious parties but ultimately favor national rather than sectarian or ethnic interests. It may even be that cooler heads in Iran would favor a stable state with a majority Shia demographic over a sectarian state that will become a magnet for future Sunni insurgents on their border.

American news sources often paint the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq as inevitable, bitter, and long-standing. In fact, there is considerable evidence that the Sunni and Shia populations prior to the US invasion had workable and even warm relations.  Scholars point out that the rate of intermarriage between the two groups is higher than that between Caucasian-Americans and African-Americans or between American Christians and Jews. Many Iraqi tribes also have members from both sects.

It’s certainly true that the Shia did not have as much access to the elite and were therefore collectively less well off. That the Bakr family steered poor Shia away from communism and towards a religious movement is also true. This movement was seen as threatening to Saddam Hussein and led to the torture and murder of Muktada al Sadr’s father and aunt by the regime. However, mass-based action only took place after the Gulf War weakened Saddam’s regime. Even then, the revolt did not degenerate into a Shia-Sunni conflict; it was simply a rebellion against an oppressive regime.

Scholar Eric Davis has pointed to joint Sunni-Shia celebrations in their respective mosques when General Qassim’s coup against the monarchy succeeded. In addition, when Sunni and Shia were interviewed by the National Democratic Institute soon after the 2003 invasion, they held that their Iraqi national identities were more important to them than their religious identities.  During the Shia holidays of Ashura and Arbaeen, when Shia make pilgrimages by foot to the holy shrines in Karbala, Sunni sheykhs offered water to help them with their pilgrimage. These and other examples demonstrate that the salience of the Sunni-Shia conflict is often trumped by cooperation between the two groups. In Kurdistan, for instance, where both Shia and Sunni Kurds give priority to the issue of Kurdistan autonomy or an ethnic nationalist agenda, one never hears of Sunni-Shia conflict.

The oft heard Iraqi contention that the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia only grew in the wake of the American occupation is a serious one – especially as it concerns the structure of the new government. It would be far-fetched to assume that the West intentionally drove this conflict as part of a strategy of “divide and conquer.” However, the United States was clearly open to allowing parties based on religious or ethnic identities. By showing how change can take place through electoral politics rather than violent action, the US hoped to reduce violence while adding to the credibility of future political action through the ballot box.

This was well intentioned but fundamentally misguided. It is one thing to debate the proper successor to Mohammed as part of a religious exercise or historical study. It is quite another thing to have the parties to the debate move from the sacred to the material. If power, resources, and freedom became tied to this religious argument, one can almost be sure that more serious conflict will result.

Since the main issue between Sunnis and Shia concerns who has legitimate authority to rule the Ulema, an otherwise sacred and symbolic story quickly becomes a real life contention for state power. Moktada al Sadr is no longer seen as a cleric from a martyred family but rather potentially as the messianic 12th Imam. Iran is no longer seen as a state simply trying to expand its hegemonic power in its region, but rather as the champion of Shia control of the Ulema. ISIS is not just a radical branch that was originally al-Qaeda in Iraq, but rather the rightful heirs to Mohammed in not only setting up a unifying caliphate but also a force that will kill the apostates.

Ambassador Bremer should have therefore used the post-war occupation of Japan, rather than the de-Nazification of Germany, as the model for Iraq. In much the same fashion that we forced the uncoupling of the Japanese emperor as a Shinto deity, we should have insisted upon nationalist or non-sectarian parties as vital to Iraq’s development. It is understandable that the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, a Muslim Brotherhood oriented party, and Shia parties like Dawa and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq sought power when they came in from exile. But we should have explained that we favored their manifestation as interest groups as opposed to political parties.  This probably would have gotten support from the large number of Iraqis who voted for Maliki’s State of Law Party during its 2009 nationalist phase or especially those who supported Iraqiya in 2010. Given the secular nature of Saddam’s regime, and Qassim’s before him, secular politics requires no explanation.

Since we made the error of substituting religious parties for broad-based secular ones, the West is currently stuck with what we’ve sewn. However, this cannot be allowed to continue. Broadly, we should support secular elements while urging them to reform on human rights questions as necessary. We should also recognize that secular elements in the Middle East often have their own issues. For instance, secular parties in South Yemen have communist roots, while Iraqi Baathists have fascist roots.

Our secular support should therefore proceed on a case-by-case basis. In Iraq, we need to find and support Iraqiya-like umbrellas and work with them to articulate and incorporate the agendas of the religious parties with an eye to co-opting them. Since Maliki only received a plurality, it could be possible to find support for secular, or at least inclusive leaders. Even the Egyptian military leaders who supplanted the elected Muslim Brotherhood regime have the potential to lead effective and inclusive changes towards democracy without the fetters of religious entanglement.

In short, the US ought to return to its own values of preventing religious establishment while supporting the free exercise of religion. We can support religious contributions of interest groups or small parties but not parties that become the establishment. The American examples of the Christian Coalition, or small Israeli political parties, like the Shas Party, serve as good examples. There are also trends in the Middle East like the quietist approach in Shiism or liberal interpretations of Islam in Tunisia that offer guidance for religious inclusion without religious control.

The alternative is to withdraw from our leadership position and allow the Iranians, the Mahdi Army, and other Shia groups engaging ISIS or al-Qaeda in what amounts to a religious war. Unfortunately, this will simply advance the cause of both sides by creating martyrs. If Maliki was like Mandela, none of this would be necessary. But sadly, selflessness in defense of the common good does not seem to be Maliki’s modus operandi. We can offer alternatives.


Lawrence Katzenstein holds a PhD from Rutgers University and first became involved with post-conflict governance as part of the Human Terrain and Analysis team embedded with the 1st Cavalry Division at Multinational Division, Baghdad, 2008-2009. He subsequently worked at the HTS Iraq Reach Back Research Center in Newport News, Virginia, the CJ3IO AT CENTCOM, and the SOCOM Red Team.