Here’s Why Sunni-Shia Split Might Make A United Iraq A Lost Cause

Is the United States “losing” Iraq? That’s likely the wrong question. What we should be asking, given continued tensions between Sunni and Shiite factions, is whether there is an “Iraq” to save at all.

“We are seeing the disintegration of the state of Iraq into three nations; the Shi’ites in the south and east, the Kurds in the north and a Sunni Caliphate under the control of ISIL from western Iraq to Syria,” Rick Brennan, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation, told Voice of America recently.

When American forces were just beginning to reckon with the daunting task of rebuilding the country after Saddam, it was apparent that long-held tensions between the three main groups (Sunni, Shia, Kurd) would be a crucial obstacle. Years of oppressive rule by the minority Sunnis under Saddam, which was largely a secular regime, made the majority Shiites resentful, adding to the conflict.

Of course, much of this dates even further back to the original partition of the Middle East by European governments in the first half of the 20th century. What we call “Iraq” is essentially an artificial construct, in the sense that it wasn’t a distinct national identity before Britain established the country in 1920.

That doesn’t mean it can’t succeed as an independent state. The U.S. is also an “artificial” state made up of various national identities, and even some European borders betray political rather than national realities. The “Germany” and “Italy” of today only date back to the mid-19th century; before this, they were broken up into several kingdoms and small states.

But even Iraq existed as a stable state for much of its history. Is it really doomed to fall victim to the rise of sectarian forces?

Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp spoke with Middle East expert Fanar Haddad, of the National University of Singapore, last month about the Sunni-Shia tensions in Iraq. Haddad told Beauchamp that “the roots of sectarian conflict aren’t that deep in Iraq,” and that, in fact, for much of the country’s history as a state “the default setting was coexistence.”

“Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms,” Haddad said, because for much of that time, Sunnis dominated the politics. It was not until the U.S. invasion in 2003 and toppling of Saddam’s government that “identity politics” became a salient force in Iraqi governance.

Brennan, the RAND political scientist, also told VoA that “fear and mistrust govern the Iraqi politics,” leading to a situation in which “Sunnis fear not having a stake in the future of Iraq, and the Shi’ites fear being dominated by Sunnis and repressed as they have for hundreds of years.”

That meshes with what Haddad told Vox: that the current conflict is about the legitimacy of the state’s claim to represent all Iraqis.

Here’s a key part of his explanation, quoted in full:

“When 2003 came along, a lot of Shias and certainly a lot of Kurds welcomed it. They saw it as their deliverance as Shias and Kurds as much as it was the deliverance of Iraq. On the Sunni side, there was no such sentiment because there barely existed a sense of Sunni identity before 2003. It simply didn’t exist in Iraq.

“Now, what you see is the reverse. The Iraqi government is not popular with anyone, the popularity of the government is rock bottom, I’d say, but Shias are more likely to accord the state, the post-2003 order some level of legitimacy. Whereas there is a body of opinion of among Sunnis who just do not ascribe any legitimacy to it whatsoever.

“That explains why, now, this rebellion is sweeping parts of Iraq. It’s not all religious fanatics. There’s a lot of people who place hope in this rebellion as a revolution, who see it as a nationalist movement. They see volunteering in the armed services as almost a sin, because they do not accord the Iraqi state any legitimacy whatsoever.”

This legitimacy question, and the historical narrative of the Shia majority being oppressed, makes Iraq ripe for a political breakup despite decades of coexistence. As the Pew Research Center recently pointed out, the Sunni-Shia divide has been a major factor in regional politics for centuries.

But Pew notes that the widely-held belief that Iraq is a majority-Shiite is actually only an assumption because “there is little reliable data on the exact Sunni-Shia breakdown of the population there.”

Still, the divide is a real one, and one that has become a dominant factor in Iraqi politics over the past decade. It may have been contained for many years by previous rulers, including Saddam’s despotic regime, but it seems clear now that a Pandora’s box may have been opened with the American invasion in 2003. Peace and regional stability may require more than the existing Iraq is capable of accomplishing.