To affirm the existence of an “Iraqi question” has certain implications. People usually speak, referring to the Shi‘a and the Kurds, of minorities and of the necessity of protecting them as such. But this misses the point concerning what is unique about Iraq.

There are, of course, minorities in Iraq: the Turkmen, the Assyrians and other Christians, the Fayli Kurds, the Sabaeans and some others constitute ethnic minorities in some instances, confessional minorities in others, and a few carry the double burden of being both. The Kurds and the Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs are not minorities. The Shi‘i Arabs comprise the great majority of the country’s population, outnumbering the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds put together. What is relevant is that the three communities live compactly, in fairly defined areas, and each is adjacent to outside areas where they are in the majority — Iran in the case of the Shi‘a, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran in the case of the Kurds, and other Arab countries in the case of the Sunni Arabs. It is essential to regard them as the three constitutive elements of an Iraqi entity, however we define that.

This has specific political implications as each of these communities has a particular history. Of these distinct but not separate histories, political projects are born which transcend Iraq’s frontiers and which speak inside the country, except for the Kurds, in the name of Iraq. The political projects of the Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds are neither communitarian nor confessional: They have developed visions of history that transcend the communities in which they are rooted. As opposed to a communitarian project, such a political project goes beyond the simple preservation of the community. Take the example of Kurdish nationalism, a banner under which Iraq’s Kurds have moved step by step toward the realization of the national rights of a people, while taking account of the frontiers inherited from colonialism and from the rivalry of the Ottoman and Persian empires.

The relationship between the Shi‘i and Sunni Arab projects appears to be particularly complex. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who have furnished the country’s leading elites both in the Ottoman era and since, are searching to transcend their minority situation in Iraq by looking to the rest of the Arab world, which happens to be mostly Sunni. This is one of the bases for unionist and Arabist sentiments in the country. The various Arab unity projects — whether with Jordan, Syria, Egypt or Kuwait — are responses to the desires of a community searching for an entity larger than that framed by Iraq’s borders. At the same time, this unionist ideal has operated more as an instrument for marginalizing Iraq’s Shi‘i community than as a practical project. It has been used above all to transform the Shi‘a into a minority and to legitimize the monopolization of state power by Sunni Arab elites.

Iraqi Specificity

Most Iraqi Shi‘a, who are overwhelmingly Arab, have come to resent Arab unity as simply a means of disguising confessional domination. The Shi‘a, who demographically, geographically and historically consider themselves to be at the heart of Iraq, see themselves as most capable of defending Iraqi specificity. It is this designation of Shi‘ism as Iraq’s specificity that explains the “Iraqist” orientation of this community. This sentiment has been manifest among religious and secular Shi‘i tendencies alike. Today’s Islamic project is, at first glance, much like that of the men of religion at the beginning of the century: It implies recognition of the rights of the Shi‘i Muslim majority, the preservation of an Iraqi identity distinct from that of the rest of the Arab world, and maintenance of close ties with the rest of the Shi‘i world, notably Iran. The struggle against Western domination follows from these givens.

This “Iraqist” tendency has been manifest throughout Iraq’s modern history. In 1914, Shi‘i leaders were at the forefront of a struggle against the British, alongside Ottoman troops, at a time when the Sunni Arab provinces in the western part of the country called for a campaign against the Ottomans in collaboration with those same British. The Shi‘i campaign against Arab unity in the 1950s and 1960s was expressed in the anti-unity attitude of the Communist Party, reflecting the fact that unity had clearly become, by 1963, the rallying cry of the Sunni propertied classes.

Democracy must proceed in Iraq through acknowledgment of the different communities’ projects — above all, those of the premier community. This is neither confessionalism nor communitarianism. The Kurds are unable, by definition, to impose their nationalist project on the rest of Arab Iraq. Federalism is the maximum that they can hope to obtain from the center. The alternative thus lies between the Sunni project and the Shi‘i project. The Sunnis, whose elites have monopolized the destinies of the country since its foundation, are obliged to acknowledge today the impasse of the system bequeathed by colonialism. In treating the Shi‘a as a minority, they ended up mortgaging the independence of Iraq. This is because the Sunni elites do not possess a sufficient social base in Iraq to impose their project. The Arab Sunni community has become prisoner of the consequences of the domination exercised by their elites in the name of an ideal — Arab unity — by which it is has been constantly betrayed. The Shi‘i project, which displays more of a conception of Iraq’s identity than of a particular political regime, is a project in which the Sunnis can envisage themselves. History, though, has not accustomed them to living as a minority in the heart of the state.

It is this “Iraqist” vision that likely inspired the “great reservation” of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da‘wa Party regarding the results of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) gathering in Salah al-Din in November 1992. At this meeting the INC endorsed federalism and a tripartite presidency which, in the view of SCIRI and the Da‘wa, “consecrates confessionalism and ethnic division.” Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim refused to join the presidential triumvirate, and SCIRI suspended its participation in the executive committee that came out of the meeting (without pulling out of the coalition altogether). After Ahmad Chalabi, president of the INC executive committee, visited Tehran, a lessening of differences between SCIRI and the INC permitted a new representation in the core assembly, giving the Shi‘i Islamists 50 percent of the seats.

There are some 73 Iraqi opposition groups: a dozen Shi‘i religious groups, a dozen Kurdish, 18 democratic, 16 Arab nationalist, five Sunni religious. From these, four coalitions have been formed: the Kurdistan United Front, the INC, the SCIRI and the Arab nationalists installed in Damascus. This opposition splintering has grown worse since the March 1991 uprisings. The first opposition congress met in Beirut from March 11-13, 1991. Attended by 300 participants and 20 organizations representing the principal currents and tendencies, the meeting evinced a certain euphoria. The uprisings had not yet been defeated, and the opposition thought it was witnessing the last days of the regime. After more than a year passed without much change on the horizon a June 1992 congress in Vienna brought back together 160 regime opponents, but with a handicap that was later confirmed. The liberals and democrats in exile in London took charge, in line with American and British encouragement to form a unified opposition, but neglected to provide an essential place for the Shi‘i religious movement, which today speaks for the Shi‘i community.

The Kurds supported the Vienna outcome, hoping to lock in recognition of the principle of federalism. This meeting thus saw a sizable Kurdish presence alongside the liberals, but it was boycotted by the Communists and the pro-Syrian Baath, while the Da‘wa Party and SCIRI sent only observers. The November 1992 congress in Salah al-Din subsequently adopted federalism as the form of the future Iraqi state, despite the reservations restated by key opposition tendencies. It is out of this Salah al-Din meeting that the opposition “parliament” emerged, with a 26-member executive committee that chose as president one of the Vienna organizers: Ahmad Chalabi, a well-to-do businessman and an independent Shi‘i liberal. His good relations with Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani raised hopes for close ties and a direct line between Kurds and Shi‘a. On November 2, 1992, the meeting selected the Shi‘i-Sunni-Kurd triumvirate presidential council. Muhammad Bahr al-‘Ulum represented the Shi‘a, alongside Hasan al-Naqib for the Sunnis and Barzani for the Kurds.

In opposition to the Salah al-Din meeting and the “American influence it reflects,” a regrouping of Arab nationalist parties took place. In mid-December 1992, a “committee of coordination of Islamic and Arab nationalist currents in Iraq” was set up in Damascus. The following month “the coordinating committee of nationalist and democratic action in Iraq” brought together 16 groups, also in Damascus. It dissociated itself from the INC and denounced the January 1993 allied bombing of Iraq. While also hoping for a measure of coordination with the Kurdistan Unified Front, this assemblage brought together diverse communal groups with the Shi‘i religious movement, all of whom shared some uneasiness with American policy and rejected the mode of representation of the INC leadership. Whether irony of history or balance of forces turned upside down, alliance with the Shi‘i religious movement has now become a leitmotif of the Arab nationalist current.


All of the opposition groups are obliged to take note of the extent of American hegemony in the wake of the allied victory over the Iraqi regime. Does that mean they must rely solely on American support, as do the Kurds, the democrats and the liberals, not to mention the INC leadership? Or rather, is it necessary to emphasize the forces inside Iraq, as advocated by the Shi‘i religious movement, the Arab nationalist current and some of the groups lately converted to democratic tenets?

The question is now all the more important because of the major insurrection Iraq experienced in March 1991. The defeat of that uprising can be laid directly at the doorstep of the allied forces on the scene, who made no effort to prevent Saddam Hussein’s army from turning on the Iraqi people. We know now that these few weeks of repression probably resulted in more victims than did the war itself. Western responsibility for the frightful suppression of the March 1991 insurrection hangs like a shadow over all of the opposition.

All the leaders of the principal movements, Kurds and Shi‘a alike, have acknowledged this responsibility. The Kurds are totally dependent on the presence of allied forces based in southeast Turkey, and so prefer to believe that it was a question of hesitation and not a willful political act. For the Shi‘i religious movement, the “intifada of Sha‘ban” (named for the month of the Muslim calendar) was a lost opportunity. What checked the uprising, they agree, was the war machine of Saddam Hussein. But it was “the US and the Western allies which gave Baghdad the green light to rocket insurgent towns, and to mass its armor and use phosphorus and fragmentation bombs in unprecedented acts of savagery.” The Communist Party agrees that “the West lent a strong hand to Saddam to suppress the intifada in the south.”

As far as the Kurds are concerned, no armed action against the regime can succeed without a measure of practical coordination with Washington. The Shi‘i religious movements, though, insist that one must look instead to another popular upheaval, with the assistance of neighboring countries. The March 1991 uprising, they say, reflected Iraqi reality: In other words, it will happen first in the Shi‘i and Kurdish regions. But the difficulty is, in the words of a Kurdish leader, “the need to rely on the marshes and on the mountains,” referring to the fact that Kurdistan, and not the south, is the region where the opposition enjoys some measure of self-organization. All Iraqi oppositionists recognize that they will have to think carefully before undertaking another uprising like that of 1991.

For the time being, the regime continues to attack the southern marshes, draining some lands and flooding others in order to flush out and hunt down the population. The most recent offensive against the marshes began on March 4, 1994, with three divisions and a Republican Guard regiment.

Three points regularly appear in the appeals that the opposition as a whole has addressed to the West: establish in the south a security zone like that in the north; unblock frozen Iraqi assets abroad in order to assist the population affected by the embargo; and institute an international war crimes tribunal to try Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants. Differences exist, however, regarding the utility of the security zones south and north. Some see in them the beginnings of the dismemberment of the country. The embargo is also a point around which there are differences among the opposition, given that the principal victims are ordinary Iraqis.

Two developments have constituted a veritable “cold shower” for Iraqi oppositionists seeking Western support. One was Bill Clinton’s declaration on January 14, 1993, shortly before he assumed the presidency, expressing the need to “depersonalize” the conflict with Saddam Hussein on condition that Iraq respect the UN Security Council resolutions. The second was the allied bombings in January and again in June 1993, which were more an exercise in “muscular dialogue” than a serious effort to destabilize the regime.

Today the majority of the opposition share the view that maintaining Saddam Hussein in power, in a weakened position and in a ruined country, corresponds objectively to American interests in the region. The more fervent advocates of relying on the West have since lost a lot of credit, whereas the anti-Western tendencies — the Islamists, Arab nationalists and Communists — have seen their position reinforced. At the same time, this new realization of what constitutes American policy — which seems to delay indefinitely any political change in Baghdad — has also contributed to marginalizing the opposition as a whole. This opposition has thus reappropriated the reflexes of an opposition in exile without appreciating that in the new situation the keys to liberation lie elsewhere.

If a new upheaval like that of March 1991 is unlikely, the degradation of living conditions and the economy makes today’s situation extremely tenuous. The high cost of living has already provoked food riots in Basra, Mosul and in some quarters of Baghdad itself — Madinat al-Thawra, Shu‘la, the large market of Shurja. The dinar today is worth less than 500 per dollar, as against the official rate of $3.20 per dinar. The difference between official prices and those of the black market has steadily increased. Sugar, for example, costs 75 dinars a kilo officially but 150 in reality. Tensions have been aggravated further by brutal political shifts: First the parallel market was encouraged, then inflation provoked a crackdown. Similar reversals occurred around private sector imports.

One difficulty for the opposition is that the obligatory discourse of democracy, which permeates the entreaties of the INC, has not contributed toward what is required: a genuine political project based on Iraqi identity. The INC has recognized the plural character of the Iraqi population but, in so doing, they have at the same time obscured the identity of Iraq. In setting up an opposition “parliament” comprising the ethnic and confessional parties and organizations, with Lebanese-style apportionments that satisfy no one, they have opened the door to interminable recriminations and to a perpetuation of these very divisions. The triumvirate presidency acknowledges the three principal Iraqi communities but it does not offer a framework for communal coexistence.

The Shi‘i Project

The Shi‘a are themselves divided among partisans of religious and secular movements. Those who reject confessionalism are a majority among the religious movements and a minority among the secular ones. The others — a majority of the secularists and a minority of the Islamists — prefer a simple defense of the rights of the Shi‘i community, insofar as they are the majority community in Iraq. Today the major carrier of the Shi‘i project, the religious movement, is confronted by its own unique contradictions. Appeals for “the required unity of the religious movements” and for a single Islamic front cannot mask this fact.

These divisions do not bear on the essentials of “the Shi‘i project.” For the religious movement, which since the March 1991 uprising sees itself as speaking for the whole of the community, internal divisions are above all the result of attitudes towards the regime in Tehran and the consequent independence of Iraq’s Shi‘a, though close ties with Iran is something no Shi‘i questions. Velayat-e faqih, the doctrine of direct rule of the senior clerics extolled by Ayatollah Khomeini, is not any longer an issue. All tendencies have endorsed the principle of free elections, as well as the need for a constitutional and parliamentary regime acceptable to all Iraqis.

Whether this new situation is the fruit of conviction or simply of the practical impossibility of applying the velayat-e faqih after Khomeini’s death, it is an important development. It holds out the prospect that Sunni Iraqis will eventually rally to the Shi‘i project. Sunnis need no longer fear the coming of an Islamic Republic that would bind Iraq to Iran. The new situation fills, in part, the gap between Khomeinist partisans of velayat-e faqih and the rest of the Shi‘i hierarchy, more or less hostile to any direct role of the ‘ulama’ in political affairs. This new unity was illustrated at the time of Ayatollah Khu‘i’s death, when there was unanimous acclamation of both Khu‘i and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who have embodied the two opposing orientations, as marja‘ al-taqlid (source of emulation).

Certainly the factors underlying the mounting power of the Islamist movements in the Muslim world also exist in Iraq. But the communal nature of Iraq’s society, along with an independent religious hierarchy, are the essential elements underlying the evolution of an Islamist Shi‘i movement there and its apparent “folding” into a single project to which secular Shi‘a can adhere as well.

Directly affecting the political future of the country is the problem of the independence of the marja‘iyya. This is all the more the case following the death of Ayatollah Khu‘i in August 1992. Baghdad and Tehran each attempted to designate their own marja‘ for all Shi‘a. All the men of religion would likely admit today that, as a result of decades of Iraqi repression against the clerics there, Najaf has lost influence to Qom. Today the marja‘iyya is in Qom, and no longer in Najaf. But many Shi‘a worry about the increasingly heavy-handed interventions by both regimes to modify the “natural” process of designating the new marja‘. Once again the Shi‘i marja‘iyya, whose independence has been a force in history, confronts state attempts to seize control. All of them rejected the choice of Baghdad, which has a penchant for appointing ‘ulama’ of no particular qualification from Najaf, to the point that the Iraqi authorities have since had to back down. Subsequently, following the wishes of the Iranian authorities, the majority recognized Ayatollah Golpayegani in Qom as the successor to Ayatollah Khu‘i. But Golpayegani died at the end of December 1993, providing little respite to the dilemma. The desire of the “supreme guide of the Islamic Republic,” Ali Khamenei, to revive the theory of velayat-e faqih aroused the strongest opposition in the heart of the religious hierarchy. Today the confusion appears to be complete with the entry of Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, spiritual guide of the Hizballah in Lebanon, to attempt to counter the ambitions of Khamenei and other Iranian ‘ulama’ by claiming for himself the marja‘iyya, leaning on the reputation of Ali al-Sistani, a student of Khu‘i and today the highest ranking Shi‘i cleric in Iraq.

A Federal Solution?

The future of Iraq, in its present form as a nation-state, is a question mark. All the components of the opposition proclaim loudly and strongly their attachment to the unity of Iraq. This attachment to unity, while heartfelt, is also a response to an obvious apprehension concerning an eventual division of the country. But this leitmotif seems at times like a ritual, because the nature of this unity remains to be defined.

The Kurds have put forward the slogan “democracy for Iraq, autonomy for Kurdistan.” After having vainly tried to secure this autonomy by dealing with Baghdad, the Kurds have now defined their program as a federal Arab-Kurdish state. Washington has officially endorsed the idea of Iraqi federalism. Ankara, which rejects anything that might become a Kurdish state in Iraq, is upset with what it sees as a US inclination to sacrifice what it considers to be Turkey’s national interests. For their own reasons, Iran and Syria are also apprehensive at the dismemberment of Iraq. The question of Mosul, whose situation was only fixed in 1925 with its incorporation in the new Iraqi state against the wishes of the Kurds, seems to be at issue once again.

A federal Iraqi state will not only pose a challenge to neighboring countries with Kurdish populations. It will establish in the Arab world as well a new mode of political relations. The least one can say is that the history of the region has not been hospitable to the federal idea. Faced with this regional blockage, the Iraqi Kurds are betting on the divergent interest of Turkey, Iran and Syria, and on the democratic evolution of Turkey, to facilitate a federal solution, with the aid of the US. The initial success of the Kurdish United Front, based on understandings between Barzani and Talabani, allowed the Kurds, for a time, to speak with one voice on the matter.

Meanwhile, the only ones among the Arab opposition who have sanctioned federalism are the liberals and the Communists. Over the last decades, the Communist militants often found sanctuary in peshmerga-controlled areas where they could escape Baghdad’s repression. The Shi‘i religious movement has remained circumspect, to say the least. Federalism was one of the areas of disagreement among the opposition, provoking discussions and clarifications which resulted in some realignments. The Arab nationalist groups, faithful to their conception of the Iraqi state, and the Iraqi Muslim Brothers, admittedly a small minority but representing an Arab Sunni sensibility, have been openly hostile to the federal idea. Talabani’s remarks concerning the aid that Israel and the Jews might give to the Kurds has not contributed to a calmer discussion between Arabs and Kurds on this point. According to the Kurdish leaders, the problem in the end is that neither the Shi‘i movement nor the Arab nationalists will clearly recognize the Kurdish right to self-determination.

The policy of Saddam Hussein toward Kurdistan has been, since the regime lost control of the north, to push the Kurds to do something decisive in the direction of secession, confident that neither Turkey nor Iran would stand idly by. Baghdad’s withdrawal of 25-dinar notes in May 1993, officially part of a campaign against counterfeiters, put the Kurdish authorities in a very embarrassing position because they were subsequently unable to pay the employees of the new administration. Since an Iraqi Kurdish currency based on the Iraqi dinar would be impractical, Baghdad was probably hoping that the Turkish lira would replace Iraqi money in Kurdistan, which would have been a move in the direction of secession.

Kurdistan’s autonomy, which has attracted the intervention of the Turkish and Iranian armies, has sunk into penury and economic crisis, and into internecine fighting between the PUK and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan followed by confrontations between the PUK and KDP. Subject to the double blockade of the international community and of Baghdad, the autonomous Kurdish region is constantly under threat of attack by the Iraqi army. A number of Kurdish leaders have said privately that at best the Kurds will only have the eventual choice of famine or surrender to Baghdad.

The future of “the Iraqi question” will have a decisive impact on the evolution of the region. For the first time an elite in power in an Arab country may, by ceding its place, sign the death warrant on a state system issued by colonialism, a system to which numerous elites in neighboring countries are also clinging.

Translated from the French by Joe Stork.

How to cite this article:

Pierre-Jean Luizard "The Iraqi Question from the Inside," Middle East Report 193 (March/April 1995).

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