June 24, 2014
The Problem of “Iraqi-ness”
By Khaled Salih
Advisor to Kurdish negotiators for the drafting of the permanent constitution of Iraq

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to terrorize and take over areas of Iraq, Kurdish scholar Khaled Salih, who was involved in drafting Iraq’s constitution, argues that problems of power-sharing and social pluralism lie at the heart of the country’s troubles.

When the American troops left Iraq in December 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama justified the departure with confidence because Iraq had become a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” country. Now, Iraq is none of those things.

A few weeks ago, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – an offshoot of Al Qaeda – took control of Mosul, where it caused the collapse of several divisions of the Iraqi army, seized a substantial amount of weapons and vehicles, released thousands of prisoners, killed captured soldiers, created half a million internally displaced refugees, and caused panic in many parts of Iraq.

Shortly thereafter, ISIS took over other towns and cities, including Tal Afar and Tikrit. Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, unsuccessfully called for a state of emergency and asked for outside help. Government officials in Baghdad were talking about “a catastrophe in the making.”

The level of violence displayed by the ISIS fighters surprised the interna- tional media and many commen- tators.

The level of violence displayed by the ISIS fighters surprised the international media and many commentators. Looking at Iraq’s political development might help us understand the current events and the likely outcomes.

In 1921, the United Kingdom created the Kingdom of Iraq under British Administration. Eleven years later, Iraq was given the status of a fully sovereign state under the Hashemite kingdom. Political violence, revolts, and military coups became common in Iraq, and, in 1958, the Hashemite monarchy was abolished in a bloody military coup.

Following the establishment of a new republic, the country saw even more violent coups and counter-coups. Violence became the dominant political action and language used to impose political order.

After the Ba’ath Party took power in 1968, the violence in Iraq turned to brutality against political opponents of the Ba’athist ideology, Saddam Hussein’s personality cult, and the imposition of Sunni Arab hegemony.

This violence went beyond Iraq’s borders when Hussein waged an eight-year war against Iran (1980–88) and invaded and annexed Kuwait (1990–1991). During the Iraq–Iran war, Hussein carried out a genocidal campaign against the Kurds in which more than 180,000 people were killed, and more than 4,000 villages and towns were destroyed. Chemical and biological weapons were used against unarmed civilians. The name of the Kurdish town Halabja became internationally known.

Hussein used Anfal, the Quran verse that sanctions mass killing and looting, to justify his actions and rally support among Muslims and Arabs. Very few Arab or Muslim leaders protested the cruelty of Hussein’s army during the Anfal operations.

Politicians, diplomats, ideologues, academics, and the media have time and again talked about the creation or re-creation of the Iraqi state and people, suggesting that all the groups should – if not must – adopt one identity and become “the Iraqi people.”

No one understood the difficulty of such a task better than King Faisal I of Iraq. In the mid-1930s, he wrote a note that deserves to be cited in full:

In Iraq, there are ideas and aspirations that are totally antagonistic. There are innovating youngsters, including the government officials; the zealots; the Sunna; the Shi’a; the Kurds; the non-Muslim minorities; the tribes; the shaykhs, [and] the vast ignorant majority ready to adopt any harmful notion … Kurdish, Shi’i and Sunni tribes who only want to shake off every form of [central] government. My heart is full of sadness and pain because, to my mind, there is no Iraqi nation in Iraq as yet. Rather, there are human masses devoid of any patriotic notion, full of traditions and religious nonsense and absurdities and there is nothing that is binding them together. They are quick to do mischief, inclined towards anarchy, ready to rise at any time against any government whatsoever, and we want … to mold a nation out of these masses. … He who understands the difficulty of molding … a nation under such circumstances must recognize the effort necessary for such an achievement.

Successive governments in Iraq tried, without success, to create an Iraqi nation. During the British and monarchy periods, the Sunni Arabs gained support to dominate the emerging institutions of the nascent state.

Between 1968 and 2003, Sunni ideas and perception of “Iraqi-ness” led to systematic marginalization of the Shia population and violent subordination of the Kurdish minority. “Iraqi-ness” was equal to Sunni Arab supremacy and adventurism, which eventually led to the destruction of the Iraqi state in the 2003 war against Hussein.

From a Sunni Arab perspec- tive, the current violence is justified because of the dramatic shift in their status and power.

After the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2003, many dreamed of forming a new Iraq with a different identity in which no single group would dominate the rest. The Kurds promoted a plural, democratic, and federal Iraq to avoid future atrocities and violence.

However, like the Brits 90 years before them, the Americans denied the political and social reality of Iraq and began state- and nation-building efforts. American officials were publicly and privately mixing up the two processes. They labeled their entire engagement in Iraq as a nation-building enterprise.

During the first round of talks in 2003, American and British diplomats and military officials emphasized the idea of “Iraqi-ness.” This resonated badly among the people and leadership in Kurdistan. In the past, “Iraqi-ness” meant Arab domination. In a new Iraq, the Kurds wanted to be partners, shareholders, and co-decision-makers.

Masoud Barzani, now president of the Kurdistan Region, responded by saying, “The fact remains that we are two different nationalities in Iraq – we are Kurds and Arabs. If the Kurdish people agree to stay in the framework of Iraq in one form or another as a federation, then other people should be grateful to them.”

After a new constitution was established in 2005, Sunni–Shia tensions among the Arab population replaced the Arab–Kurdish conflict as Iraq’s main political divide. The Shia population has been gradually dominating most of the country’s institutions, resources, and positions, and Sunni Arabs have experienced rapid marginalization.

From a Sunni Arab perspective, the current violence is justified because of the dramatic shift in their status and power. Sunni Arabs were the bearers of the Iraqi state for almost 80 years. They controlled almost all government agencies and resources, and exercised maximum political violence to impose their interpretation of “Iraqi-ness.”

Al-Maliki has now been in power for eight years, and many Sunni Arabs have concluded that he will not share power with them. They are not willing to live under Shia domination, and will use as much violence as they can to change the political game in Iraq and Greater Syria. They have also demonstrated a willingness to challenge the state borders of the Middle East like no other group.

If the Americans need to use military power to bring about a regime change in Iraq, Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Greater Syria might become a major challenge for the regional and international system.

Khaled SalihDr. Khaled Salih had personal involvement in the development of the Transitional Administrative Law (Iraq's post-war interim constitution), and was the advisor to the Kurdish negotiators for the drafting of the permanent constitution of Iraq. He is now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Kurdistan, Hewler.