(about Sunnis and Shi’a) and When Did It Not Know It
by Hugh Fitzgerald (Aug. 2006)
It has been said that before the Americans invaded Iraq, George Bush pooh-poohed the notion that Sunnis and Shi’a would be at each other’s throats. After all, to reasonable Western men, convinced of the awfulness of Saddam Hussein, convinced that his awfulness in killing Kurds and killing Shi’a Muslims was unsupported by the vast number of “good Sunnis,” that silent Sunni majority that had also suffered, did they not, from the cruelties of that cruel regime, what was to come was clear. Just as soon as that cruel regime was removed, just as soon as the promise of American, tens of billions, lavished all over the country, was received and those Americans – the biggest construction and oilfield companies, and all those American soldiers made to believe that those Iraqis, if only they had new schools and hospitals and roads and bridges and power grids, if only Umm Qasr was dredged, if only the Americans kept putting out oilfield fires and rebuilding things so that Iraq would be – would be as it had never been, in fact – then all manner of things would be well. After a week or a month of celebration when the regime fell, the Iraqis reverted soon to type. They complained, they whined, they watched and watched as the Americans tried to get them to organize, tried to get them to cooperate with each other and not merely hold out their hands, pushing each other aside in order to claim more, more, more of the endless American funds and goodies, and never satisfied with what those American soldiers, risking their lives even to go from Point A to Point B, did for them. “But where’s the air-conditioning” said a teacher to a stunned American soldier who had just proudly showed her the building he and his men had totally rebuilt and refurbished, and thought she would be pleased. No, instead they began, some of them, mainly Sunnis but also the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a troglodyte who turned out not to be a dismissable fringe Shi’ite, but in the end the most powerful Shi’ite, next to Sistani, in the country, and the one most likely to succeed Sistani in calling the Shi’ite shots. Contractors have been murdered, dismembered, and hung on bridges, projects constantly attacked, and the Iraqis watched and watched and never pitched in, and even seemed to be indifferent or even enjoy, the spectacle of American casualties, and the exasperation and fury of American soldiers, and the junior officers, has been palpable. Meanwhile, too many of the generals remained loyalists, loyal that is to the policy set in Washington, which they did not question and were not allowed to question. For their job was only to inform the President and the Pentagon, when those “Iraqis” had been trained in sufficient numbers, not questioning anything except whether or not the Iraqis would be ready to “stand up, so that our forces can stand down.” No general, however, has been asked to make any comment on policy, no general is apparently allowed to suggest that this stand-up/stand-down business is not the limit of what a general with experience in Iraq should comment on, but perhaps should be allowed to comment on the real state of ”Iraq” and the non-existence of the “Iraqi” people about which so much hallucination continues in official Washington. Retired generals have allowed themselves to criticize this or that tactical decision – too few troops, silly to dissolve the army, that kind of thing, but none of those seemingly brave dissenters has taken issue not with this or that Pentagon “error” but rather has shown the error of the policy of trying to create Iraq the Light Unto the Muslim Nations. Not a single general apparently has suggested that the ethnic and sectarian fissures that those generals have been asked to somehow heal can not be healed, and what is more important, should not be healed, from the Infidel point of view, but that the best thing for all Infidels is that to withdraw troops, cease the aid (let Sunni Arabs support the Sunnis, let Shi’a Arabs and Iranians support the Shi’a, let “the government of Iraq” borrow from them against future oil earnings), and to exploit, without attempting to discourage, or even to encourage, the fissures within that country in order to divide, demoralize, and weaken the camp of Islam, not only in Iraq, but everywhere that the clash of Sunni and Shi’a, or of Arab and non-Arab Muslims, was to be found. The more acute soldiers, those who had the time to observe how those oily Iraqi contractors, the ones who never did what they promised, but were so good at promising, and so very good at making off with fantastic amounts of American taxpayers’money, who had no control over what was going on in Iraq in a policy that would not work, could not work, but the more it did not work, the more money was put in to it, as if we give them this, and then that, and then this, and ultimately some of them will be grateful to us, genuinely and not falsely, permanently and not temporarily. Had the Administration’s policymakers thoroughly understood Islam, had they read such texts on the Arab mind that went more thoroughly into the tenets of Islam, the attitudes of Islam, the atmospherics of Islam, the learning curve in Iraq would not have been so nearly flat but rather sufficiently steep for the adventure in Iraq to have ended far sooner, and for the last 2-3 years we might have, from a safe distance, been enjoying the spectacle of Sunnis and Shi’a at each others’s throats, with men and money and materiel pouring in from Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt, for the former, and from the Islamic Republic of Iran, for the latter. Instead we have had hallucinatory reports, hallucinatory speeches, hallucinatory hopes all over official Washington. Any American soldier of reasonable intelligence, assigned to Baghdad or Tikrit or Tel Afar or Mosul or Fallujah, , could see for himself that there was no “Iraqi” people, there were no “Iraqi” patriots, and that hands were out – hands were always out – for me, for my family, for my tribe. And that was about it.
What a surprise, then, to keep being surprised. What a surprise to find out that the Shi’a, who made up the entire delegation of influential Iraqis-in-exile (Chalabi, Allawi, Makiya, all the others), were set not on creating a “new Iraq” but on merely creating an Iraq in which the Ba’ath, and with the Ba’ath the Sunnis, would be put permanently in their place, and the Shi’a Arabs would dominate. What a surprise for the American policymakers, who continually ignored or misinterpreted the evidence. That first purple-thumbed election was interpreted as “democracy on the march.” It was nothing of the sort. It was the Shi’a, keenly aware that they constituted 60-65% of the population, and knowing that obtaining power through this “democracy” would please the Americans, and the Americans were useful for a good while longer, useful because they would keep distributing largesse, billions and billions of it, useful because it was always hoped they would not only train the Shi’a (thinking all the while, those Americans, that they were training “Iraqi” police and “Iraqi” soldiers), and of course, wasn’t in pleasant to have the Americans fighting and dying in Anbar Province, putting down the Sunnis, both the followers of Al-Zarqawi, who regarded the Shi’a as Infidels, and the local Sunnis who simply opposed the Shi’a because they wanted to retain political, and hence every other kind of power, for themselves, for the Sunnis. Let the Americans do as much of the fighting and dying as possible – why not?
But the civil war now in its early stages in Iraq was not caused by the American presence. It could not have been prevented by anything done, or not done, by the Americans. It reflects many things. It reflects the new demographic balance. Just as in Lebanon, the Shi’a Arabs have outbred the Sunnis, and where at the beginning of Saddam Hussein’s regime they constituted less than 50% of Iraq’s population, they now constitute 60-65%. And 30 years of persecution and murder of Shi’a by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-officered army, and in some cases by units consisting entirely of trustworthy Sunnis, has reinforced, but did not create, the Shi’a distrust and fear of Sunnis that goes back to the first century of Islam. “Taqiyya,” the doctrine of dissimulation or lying about the faith, originates in a practice of the Shi’a that began not because those Shi’a were worried about non-Muslims, but because they were worried about Sunni persecutors. All of this has to be kept firmly in mind, lest the temptation to believe those who will certainly insist that “the Americans caused it” or “everything was just fine in Iraq” (how quickly amnesia sets in about Iraq, and especially Iraq from 1968 to 2003), and thereby some Americans, ignorant of the Sunni-Shi’a relations, will be quick to blame, if not themselves, then the current Administration. But the current Administration can be blamed not for causing, for not recognizing the inevitabiliy, of the war that would inevitably result, at whatever level, using whatever means, once it was clear that the Sunnis were losing political and economic power and would not be getting it back.
Was this really impossible to predict? Or was it merely impossible to predict for those who believed the assurances of Ahmad Chalabi, and other Shi’a, all of whom had a stake in inveigling the United States into invading and removing Saddam Hussein. These clever, plausible, thoroughly westernized and secularized Shi’a knew that no Arab state would help them, for the Arab Sunni regimes had no quarrel with Saddam Hussein as long as he was killing Kurds or Shi’a – why should they? It made no sense for them to object. That didn’t mean they weren’t worried. No doubt Saudi Arabian rulers assumed that Saddam Hussein would be removed, but had no idea the Americans would actually start in on this “democracy” project that would ensure Shi’a dominance, and of course there was no way they could straightforwardly oppose such a project. That didn’t mean they couldn’t try to prevent those crazy Americans from crazily going through with their plans – not because they, the Saudis, had any desire to prevent American mistakes, but only because they now feared the power of the Shi’a, and the power of the Shi’a in Iran and Iraq to affect Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia itself, by appealing to the Shi’a there, and possibly leading them to become worrisomely restive.
How, for example, did J. B. Kelly, who spent a lot of time in the Gulf, working for Sheik Zayed in Abu Dhabi [and even running into Adnan Pachachi, on the run from Saddam Hussein, and supposedly working for Abu Dhabi – but no doubt at the same time also offering his services, if the price was right, to Saudi Arabia with which Abu Dhabi was fighting over oil, and therefore over borders]and traveling all around the littoral, and over half-a-century became the great expert on the sheikdoms and their relation to teach other, and to Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, describe Iraq back in the late 1970s, when he wrote “Arabia, the Gulf, and the West” (published in 1980)? Here is what he wrote about Iraq:
“The Kurdish struggle for autonomy, which has gone on for well over half a century, is symptomatic of the political instability o Iraq, and of the centrifugal forces within Iraqi society. Iraqvilayets of the Ottoman empire and its modern metamorphosis as a unified nation-state. Even the appearance of nationhood is illusory, for the population of Iraq is made up of a number of separate communities, each distinguished from the others by racial, religious or even national differences. There are Sunni Arabs and Shii Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis, Turcomans, Jews [there may still have been some when Kelly wrote his book, more than thirty years ago] and Christians, none of whom, in the judgement of one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful scholars of recent Iraqi political history, ‘accepts the State of iraq in its present form, and to all of [whom] it remains an artificial political entity. [Abbas Kelidar, “Iraq: the search for stability,” Conflict Studies Because there is no general political community there is no common basis for the rule of law, so that political differences are resolved by violence, coercion and revolt. The Shiis, who constitute at least half the population of roughly eleven million souls [Kelly was writing in the late 1970s; the population, due to overbreeding, has ballooned in Iraq as it has everywhere Muslims live] and inhabit the lower half of the country from Baghdad southwards resent the Sunni supremacy in the government. The Kurds and Turcomans, who are Sunni and live mainly in the north and north-east, chafe under the Arab ascendancy; while the scattered groups of Jews [very few by then] and Christians are kept in subjection as non-Muslim minorities. is an artificial state, with no sense of historical continuity between its previous existence as three distinct no. 59].
One reason why a proper sense of Iraqi nationhood has not developed is that many in the Sunni community, which comprises about a quarter of the population and is concentrated principally in a territorial triangle whose apexes are Mosul, Baghdad and Rutha (in the west towards Syria), assert that their prime loyalty belongs to the Arab nation as a whole. Arab nationalism, however, is inseparable from Islam, and Sunni, or orthodox, Islam at that. Thus to quote the opinion of the scholar [Abbas Kelidar] just mentioned:
‘It has meant that nationalism as advocated by the Iraqi political elite could appeal to only one community, and in that sense it has become sectarian and divisive. In a mosaic society like that of Iraq the introduction of the concept of national autonomy linked to religion, as it is in the Arab nationalist ideology, could hardly encourage national cohesion.’
For the greater part of past twenty years, ever since the destruction of the monarchy, Iraq has been ruled by a military junta, and for the last decade at least this junta has been dominated by the leaders of the Iraqi branch of the Arab Baath Party. The army and the police, and more especially the officer corps, are traditionally recruited from the Sunni communities dwelling along the Tigris north of Baghdad, and along the middle reaches of the Euphrates. For the Sunni army and air-force officers drawn from these communities the pan-Arab and socialist ideology of the Baathist movement held a strong appeal, and it was they who overthrew Qassim in 1963, largely in the name of pan-Arabism. Though they had to wait another five years before achieving absolute power in the state, they succeeded in those years in purging the higher ranks of the armed forces of all Shii and other non-Sunni officers.
The purges did not stop there, however, but have continued down to the present day. Like so many revolutionary movements, the Baath party is riddled with factionalism, which in turn breeds cliques and conspiracies, rebellion and repression. Despite their pan-Arabism, they Syrian and Iraqi wings of the Baath are at daggers drawn, not least over their rival claims to ideological purity. Though the Baathist government in Baghdad gained power through the arm, it has attempted in recent years to present itself at home and abroad as essentially a civil regime. Its motives for doing so have been twofold: firstly, to give the outward appearance of conforming to Baathist dogma, which holds that the armed forces should be the military arm of the party, i.e. a ‘people’s army’ at the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle but subordinate to the party hierarchy; and, secondly to make the dogma a realty so far as the party’s actual control of the Iraqi armed forces is concerned. Hence the repeated purges of the latter’s ranks. Yet the fact remains that the Baath seized power by force of arms and it is dependent upon the same force of arms to stay in power. All its cosmetic efforts to give the illusion of civil rule cannot disguise this fact, or invest the regime with the political legitimacy it has lacked from its inception.
Supreme authority in Iraq is wielded by a tightly knit group of army officers and civilians, the Revolutionary Command Council, which also incorporates the ruling apparatus, or regional command council, of the Iraqi Baath. The chairman of the RCC and president of the country was until recently Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, a former major-general. The former vice-president, and secretary-general of the Iraqi Baath, who succeeded him as president in July 1979, is Saddam Husain, a civilian. Both men come from Takrit, a town on the Tigris about 100 miles north of Baghdad, in the heart of the Sunni ‘triangle.’ So also do the sixteen other members of the Baath’s regional command council. Almost from the outset Saddam Husain al-Takriti’s power in the government equaled, if it did not supersede, that of al-Bakr….”
Now suppose Bush and Rice and Rumsfeld and others they had done what they should have done beginning on September 12, 2001, which is to start studying, and start having their staff studying, what is contained in the Qur’an and Hadith, and what Muhammad, that Perfect Man always and everywhere to be emulated by Muslims, actually did, and not to rely on the espositos and the armstrongs either, for the acquisition of such information, and so had come to realize the significance of the changes, largely because of OPEC revenues, that had provided the wherewithal hitherto lacking, that transformed this or that local Jihad (against India, against Israel) into something much bigger, more potent, more permanently menacing. Suppose, that is, that they entered Iraq – as they claimed initially they did – only to find and destroy certain kinds of weapons, and not to rebuild, reconstruct, or otherwise attempt in Iraq or elsewhere to create an impossible “new Middle East” – but rather, to recognize the tenets and 1350-year history of Islam that explained why, in the Middle East (whether old or “new” hardly mattered), and in many other parts of the world, Muslim attitudes, atmospherics, behavior are a threat to all non-Muslims, whether they now live in countries where Muslims dominate, or as yet still live in the Land of Infidelity, the Bilad al-kufr, perhaps best translated as the Lands of the Infidels.
And suppose, then, they had entered Iraq with only one goal: to weaken the camp of Islam. Removing dangerous weaponry was not an irrational goal, nor is it clear to all today that even if the exaggeration and misstatements that have been uncovered are taken into account, that the expressed need to search Iraq for such weapons was irrational. But had they studied Iraq more closely, had they not relied either on the assurances of those most ingratiating and charming Iraqi exiles, or on those American policymakers who had been seduced by them, they might, more coldly, have recognized that Iraq was the perfect place for the two main kinds of divisions within Islam – the sectarian and ethnic – to appear, to widen, and to have the effect, without any further effort on the part of the Americans, of weakening the camp of Islam.
How many read that passage of J. B. Kelly in 2002 or 2003? How many read Philip Ireland? Gertrude Bell? How many read anything of value on Iraq, before they went in believing this “Iraq the Light Unto the Muslim Nations” Project was eminently doable, made perfect sense?
To comment on this article, click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Hugh Fitzgerald, click here.
Hugh Fitzgerald contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.