Central to understanding Iraq's past and present is noting the ethnic and frequently overlapping religious divisions within the country. These divisions mirror economic and political separations as well. Tensions among groups have been perpetuated by foreign rulers for centuries and Iraqi political leaders during the 20th century. Strong rulers controlled intergroup hostilities or exploited them to prevent a united backlash. Without a clear central authority, these conflicting forces threaten to plunge Iraq into an ongoing state of chaos.


In terms of ethnic groups, approximately 75% of Iraqis are Arabs; 20% are Kurds. Other relatively small groups comprise the remaining five percent. All but a small percentage of Iraqis are Muslim. The two main groups of Muslims are Sunni and Shiite (or Shia) with the latter comprising 60-65%. As this 2004 country profile map of majority groups shows (Figure 4a) the Shiites live mostly in central and southern Iraq, and the Sunnis are located in the north. Most of the Kurds are Sunnis and they live in the highlands of northern Iraq, where they are in the majority. Under Saddam Hussein, most of the ruling elite was from the Sunni Arab population. Poverty is widespread among the Shiites. Kurds had even less power than Shiites in national affairs although in recent decades they have won more control over regional matters. In the late 1980s, Shiites were represented at all levels of the ruling Baath party roughly in proportion to government estimates of their numbers in the population. (1)

(1) Population Demographics


Tensions between and among the religious and ethnic groups in Iraq have a long-standing history. During times of strong central rule, these conflicts were kept under control or exploited when necessary. The Sunni-Shiite conflict has existed since the beginning of domination by the Umayyad Caliphate in 661 C.E., and is based, in part, on events that occurred in Iraq hundreds of years ago. When the founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammed, died there was a dispute over who his successor would be. Some hoped his son-in-law, Ali, would be named caliph. When Ali's son, Hussein, tried to claim the post, he was killed in Karbala and his head sent to Damascus, the center of the Sunni Caliphate. The martyrdom of Hussein is one pillar of the Shiite faith. The other pillar is the belief in the Hidden Imam, who disappeared in the 10th century. Shiites believe that the Hidden Imam will return as a redeemer. These divisions continued during the era of Mongol rule in the 1200s. Tensions were perpetuated and in some ways exacerbated during Ottoman rule from the 16tth to the 19th centuries. Ottoman Sunnis favored their Iraqi coreligionists regarding educational and employment opportunities, and denied the Shiite political power. As a result, the Sunnis gained much more administrative experience. Foreign rulers used these divisions to their advantage.

Tensions among these groups surfaced after Iraq gained its independence in the 1920s. These tensions were a source of trouble for the newly elected king, Faisal I. The Allies who wrote the Treaty of Versailles after World War I created the modern borders of Iraq, an arrangement that resulted in a nation of people and religions that were not naturally cohesive and had longstanding animosities. Shiites in both urban areas and south of the Euphrates feared complete Sunni domination in the government, and even though the Shiites comprised over 60% of the population, they occupied relatively few government positions. On the economic level, aside from a small number of wealthy landowners and merchants, the Shiites worked as sharecroppers and menial urban laborers. Economic divisions reinforced the Sunni- Shiite split, and it intensified Shiite efforts to obtain a greater share of the new state's budget.

The new king had to build a local power base in Iraq. He accomplished this task primarily by winning the support of Iraqi-born military officers who had served in the Ottoman army, Sunni Arab businessmen, and religious leaders in Baghdad, Al Basrah, and Mosul. Faisal also had to relinquish some local control to win the support of the Shiite south, the Sunni Arab tribes, and the Kurds. The British encouraged the King to give chieftains control over their tribes, including judicial powers and responsibility for tax collection. Thus Sunni Arab urban leaders and some Kurdish chieftains came to dominate the government and the army.

In addition to the Sunni-Shiite split, other ethnic groups were included in new state, such as the Kurds and the Assyrians. Both groups had hoped for their own autonomous states, and rebelled against this forced national identity. The Kurds, the majority of whom lived in the area around Mosul, fought for their own independence throughout the 1920s. The Assyrians, distant descendents of the ancient empire located in the area north of the Tigris River and then residing in southern Turkey, were also unhappy at being included in the new Iraqi state. Britain had resettled 20,000 Assyrians in northern Iraq around Zakhu and Dahuk after Turkey suppressed a British-inspired Assyrian rebellion in 1918. As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who had sided with the British during World War I now found themselves citizens of Iraq. Thousands of Assyrians had been incorporated into the Iraqi Levies, a British-paid and British-officered security force separate from the regular Iraqi army. They had been encouraged by the British to consider themselves superior to the majority of Arab Iraqis because they were Christian. The British also had used the Iraqi Levies for retaliatory operations against the Kurds, in whose lands most of the Assyrians had settled. (2)

(2) History: Iraq as an Independent Monarchy


Despite the secular position of most Middle Eastern leaders in the early years after gaining independence, many in the area now promote a revival of Islam. Given the strong link between these first national leaders and the West, those who are now pro-Islam are often anti-Western. This attitudinal development was fostered by the spread of literacy, wider access to education, and the growth of modern communication networks. With the formation of new classes and political institutions came increased pressure to end foreign rule and to widen political participation. Most early political movements were secular and the years immediately following World War II seemed to be a time of great hope and optimism for the peoples of the Middle East. By the 1970s, however, Muslims in many countries began to seek, often violently, the revival of Islamic law in both governmental and wider societal spheres. The most successful attempt to establish an Islamic state was the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1978 and 1979.

The Islamic revival has many causes: the perceived failure of mass political movements in the second half of the 20th century, the deeply undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes in power in almost all Middle Eastern states, continued tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, pro-Western attitudes of rulers like the Shah of Iran and Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, the increasing gap both within and among states between rich and poor, and widespread misery and despair caused by war, inflation, unemployment, and poverty. Politically motivated Islamic groups continue to operate in many Middle Eastern countries in the early 21st century. In general, these groups express anger and frustration against what they regard as corrupt and illegitimate regimes, against U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and continuing U.S. support for Israel. However, violence has not been confined to the struggle against tyranny and injustice, but has also been directed against individual advocates of tolerance and democracy. Most Middle Eastern governments have responded with varying degrees of repression, both against Islamists and those urging respect for human rights. It is also widely believed in the Middle East that the West, and especially the United States, largely controls the affairs of the region, and that the corrupt governments of the Middle East survive because the West needs them in order to protect its interests there. These beliefs have caused considerable anti-Western sentiment and widespread feelings of cynicism and disempowerment. (3)

(3) Population Demographics


In the wake of Hussein's overthrow in 2003, the crucial question is what will be the role of different religious and ethnic groups in Iraq. Questions of representation are important as are long standing ethnic divisions. There are efforts to redress past inequities, a stated desire to protect minority rights, and the need to balance religious and secular goals. The US guided political process has tried to address these concerns yet they are frequently at cross purposes with one another. Shiites hope for proportional representation given their majority status and both Kurd and Sunni Arabs want their minority rights protected.

There are also divisions within the Shiite world itself. Each of the three major Shiite factions has its own militia. As is often the case, when people are denied political power, religious leaders come to the forefront to lead. This has certainly been the case in the Shiite world in Iraq, and Shiite clerics are viewed as protectors of their followers, hence the development of militias independent of official Iraqi forces. One group is lead by Moktada al-Sadr whose anti-American position is appealing to his followers. His main rival is Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Al-Hakim encouraged retaliation for the bombing in Samarra and his anti-American position is also winning him additional support. Most importantly, the United States has aligned itself with secular Iraqis who simply do not have influence with many of the Iraqi people, especially in time of hardship and violence. The Sunni Muslims, who have always had access to political power, do not have the same religious leadership that can influence and incite their followers.

Many within Iraq are concerned that the US has dominated the process too much. The Shiites, the majority group, claim the process is undemocratic, religious fundamentalists want an Islamic foundation to the political and legal system, and the Kurds want to retain autonomy in their own region. In October 2005, Iraqi voters approved a new, permanent constitution to replace the interim constitution adopted in June 2004. Voters in provinces largely populated by Shias and Kurds, who represent 80 percent of Iraq's population, overwhelmingly approved the constitution. The electoral laws permitted a rejection of the constitution if two-thirds of voters in three provinces voted against it. Voters in two Sunni-dominated provinces voted no by margins of more than two-thirds, but in a third Sunni-majority province, Nineveh, only 55 percent voted against, failing to reach the two-thirds majority required for rejection.

The December 2005 vote returned a Parliament with the following representation:

United Iraqi Alliance (alliance of main Shiite parties): 128 seats

Kurdistan Alliance (alliance of main Kurdish parties): 53 seats

Iraqi Consensus Front (alliance of main Sunni parties): 44 seats

Iraqi List (alliance of main secular parties): 25 seats (4)

But the election of a new government cannot undo centuries of ethnic and religious divisions. Indeed with the chaos wrought by the insurgency, Iraq is returning to a familiar pattern-the resurgence of local authority and the power of tribal and family loyalties. One result is the return to overt hostilities between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, most evident in the killings of death squads by both sides. More subtle tensions within the social landscape have surfaced as well. Tensions within intermarried families and the complete absence of any new intermarriages reveal the absence of accommodation. Furthermore, to escape the danger of the insurgency, people are withdrawing to regions of the country that are ethnic and religious strongholds for a sense of safety and protection. Another affect has been the resurgence of local authority. Secular institutions have disappeared and those services are now being provided by families and clans. Opportunities for socializing among groups have disappeared and resulted in a retrenchment into familiar negative attitudes and behaviors. (5)

Extreme violence began in late February 2006, and its continuation seems to threaten even the most optimistic efforts to restore peace to the country. A February 22, 2006 bombing of the Shiite Askariya Shrine in Samarra led to retaliatory bombings of Sunni mosques and continued killings on both sides, with escalating violence causing many to fear a descent into a full scale civil war. Many hoped for a reduction of US troops in Iraq, but the increasing violence of recent weeks has led to a delay in this decision.

(4) www.msn.encarta:Iraq: History: Saddam Hussein's Role: Kurdish Strife
(5) "Votes in Iraq Show Shiites and Kurds Falling Short." New York Times. January 21, 2006.
www.msn.encarta:Iraq: History: Post-Hussein Iraq: Transition to Civilian Rule


1. To what extent do ethnic and/or religious divisions mirror economic and political divisions within Iraq?

2. How are current ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq the result of long standing causes?

3. How have religious tensions within Iraq been shaped by forces outside of the country?

4. How is politics the battlefield upon which religious and ethnic battles are fought?

5. Upon what common issues can Iraqis agree despite religious differences?

6. To whose advantage is it that Iraqi religious groups put aside their differences?

7. Which forces in the past have benefited from the internal religious divisions within Iraq?

8. Why do some religious leaders work against Western efforts to promote democracy?

9. How has the current political process accepted the religious tensions within the country and tried to accommodate them?

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (