Iraq’s History Still Divides Children of Mesopotamia

Times Staff Writers

The myth of a unified Iraqi identity may have finally been laid to rest this month.

More clearly than any other measurement since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, preliminary results from the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections show Iraq as three lands with three distinct identities, divided by faith, goals, region, history and symbols.

Iraqis of all stripes say they are the descendants of Mesopotamia, the glorious great-grandchildren of the cradle of civilization.

Iraq, they point out, gave birth to law and the written word. And asked their faith, Iraqis often testily answer with the refrain: “There is no Sunni. There is no Shiite. We are all Iraqi.”


But the preliminary election results, which have trickled out through a series of haphazard leaks and news conferences and remain disputed by all parties, show a nation starkly fragmented into ethnic and religious cantons with different aims and visions.

Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Shiite Muslim provinces of the south voted for religious Shiite parties, according to the early results from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in Sunni Muslim Arab areas of central and western Iraq voted for Sunni parties. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Kurdish provinces of the north voted for Kurdish candidates. Nationwide, only about 9% voted for tickets that purported to represent all Iraqis.

The results were like a bracing splash of ice water for U.S. officials, who had predicted that a secular, centrist Iraqi government would emerge after the invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein. Many longtime observers of Iraq had hoped this month’s vote would foster national unity by bringing to power moderate politicians who might help draw down a minority Sunni Arab-led insurgency against a government now controlled by the country’s majority Shiites, and stanch Kurds’ secessionist tendencies.

Instead, more than 240 of the 275 legislators, who will decide the composition of the future government, will probably be Shiite Islamists, Sunni Arab sectarians or autonomy-minded Kurds. The Shiites, who make up about 60% of the nation’s population, will hold by far the largest share.

“Iraq is still very much in a stage of identity politics,” a U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition he not be identified, acknowledged after the vote. “Every community is very afraid of the other community. Kurds are afraid of Arabs. Shiites are afraid of Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis are afraid of Shiites doing to them what the [Sunni-dominated] Baathists did to the Shiites” during the Hussein era. “It’s going to take some time for the communities to gain the trust of each other and to create cross-sectarian alliances.”

Though Iraqis often speak lovingly of golden ages when they were one big happy family, Iraq has been a shaky proposition since its 1920s founding. Rather than a shared history, the paths of Iraq’s Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds diverged from the beginning of the nation’s inception as a product of British colonialism.

Sunnis collaborated with the British, who supported the Sunni Arab monarchists. Shiite insurrectionists heeded the calls of their clergy and fought a jihad, or holy war, against the British, who crushed them and reaffirmed their second-class status. Kurdish nationalists unsuccessfully sought independence, first by diplomatic channels, later by the gun.

Iraq’s post-World War II order was no less divisive. Sunni Arab nationalists forced their pan-Arab ideology on the diverse country after Britain’s departure. Hussein’s Sunni-run government magnified discrimination to the point of mass killings, with Shiites and Kurds punished not so much for who they were but for refusing to accept the Baath Party’s version of Iraqi identity.


Nonetheless, Hussein’s au- thoritarianism was the glue that held Iraq together for decades. Now that he is out of power, the nation’s troubled identity has again been cast into flux.

Does the nation continue to bow before the philosophy of Arab nationalism, or that of Shiite mysticism? Is Iraq’s national hero Hussein or the 7th century Shiite caliph Imam Ali? Or, for that matter, is it the late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani?

“What does it mean to be an Iraqi?” wonders Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician. “We didn’t have something to be proud of, a development or an advance. The only thing we have in common is oppression.”

A further erosion of Iraqi identity could pave the way for a partitioning of the country, with unpredictable results.


Kurds, already soured on the idea of Iraq, could bolt the union, taking the oil-rich city of Kirkuk with them and realizing the worst fears of Turkey and Iran, each with sizable and restless Kurdish minorities. Shiites, too, unified by their religious iconography, have begun seriously talking about setting up a nine-province, oil-rich southern region. That would leave an angry and resentful Sunni Arab center and west of the country determined to continue staging an insurgency that could inflame passions throughout the Middle East.

Many Sunni Arab nationalists and former Baath Party adherents blame Iran and the United States for interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs and whipping up sectarian and ethnic passions. The U.S., they say, started the troubles by doling out seats on the initial post-invasion Iraqi Governing Council according to ethnicity and sect rather than who was best qualified.

Iran, they say, has flooded the country with religious imagery and propaganda, bolstering the fierce sectarianism of the country’s Shiite majority in order to achieve its own ends.

Regardless of the cause, the very idea of Iraq may be slowly fading, politicians and common Iraqis acknowledge, often sadly. Even the Iraqi flag seems to appear only in the posters of politicians bankrolled by U.S.-funded aid organizations. Government buildings such as the ministries of education and health are often festooned with posters of bearded and turbaned Shiite clerics instead of the red, white and black flag of Iraq.


In the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Dahuk, the Iraqi flag is nowhere in evidence, replaced by the red, white and green flag of the ill-fated Mahabad republic, the Kurdish state briefly established in northern Iran by rebellious Kurds aided by the Soviet army in the chaotic aftermath of World War II.

“There are very few Iraqis who still care about the Iraqi national flag,” says Suha Azzawi, a women’s rights activist and Sunni Arab nationalist. “Only in the west and in Baghdad do people really have patriotic feelings toward the flag.”

Many also blame politicians and clerics who have courted supporters with symbols of faith and ethnicity. Iraq remains a religious and tribal society where codes of honor and loyalty are deeply ingrained. Politicians successfully exploited and exacerbated those character traits, said Nabeal Mohammed Younis, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad.

“You don’t need to do much,” he said. “You just talk to them and say, ‘I am like you,’ and you can get their votes.”


The pull of religion is a powerful one. Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni politician whose Arab nationalist ticket will probably win about 11 seats in the legislature, described the plight of his brother, Yassin, who went into the polling booth to vote for his sibling’s bloc but had second thoughts and nearly voted for a Sunni coalition dominated by religious leaders.

“When he went to vote, he heard the mosque’s loudspeaker calling out in his head,” Mutlak recalled in amazement. “ ‘You will go to hell. You will not see heaven if you vote don’t vote for” the Iraqi Accordance Front, which is topped by Islamists.

Some Iraq experts compare the situation to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. In times of crisis, they say, people tend to seek out their own kind and stick close to them just as citizens of former communist countries sought refuge in religion and ethnicity, catalysts for wars in Chechnya, Yugoslavia and Tajikistan.

But Iraq’s situation is by no means hopeless. In some quarters, Iraqi national identity remains strong, said Juan Cole, a professor of history and a leading authority on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan.


“I would argue that all national identities have been recently created, so Iraq is not significantly different,” he said. For 85 years, “Iraqi nationalism has been drilled in through the school system and in other ways.”

Baghdad jewelers say charms in the shape of Iraq are among the hottest items for sale nowadays.

“With the war, occupation, terrorist activities, no government and lack of sovereignty, we gradually were losing the identity of Iraqi,” said Hiam Salih Abassi, 38, a homemaker who recently purchased two of the charms. “When you lose anything it becomes dear to you, and that is why we look for these simple things to bring back Iraq.”

With the collapse of Baathist-imposed Arab nationalism, Iraqis need to work out a new identity that includes all Iraqis, just as Canada managed to accommodate the Quebecois and Britain the Scots, Cole said.


In the worst-case scenario, questions of Iraqi identity will be resolved on the streets by the AK-47s each Iraqi household seems to have stashed away. In the best-case scenario, Iraqi identity will be renegotiated passionately yet peacefully in courts, classrooms and legislative chambers. An article in Iraq’s constitution addresses the issue of the flag.

Even Hussein’s ongoing trial on charges involving the slayings of 146 Shiite villagers in 1982, divisive though it is, can serve as such a forum. At times this month, the trial resembled not so much a legal battle as a dysfunctional family -- a Kurdish judge, a Shiite prosecutor and Sunni Arab defendants -- squabbling at a holiday dinner over traumatic events two decades ago.

“Now this guy has shown himself to be a man of the Dawa Party,” Hussein said of a Shiite man testifying recently, as if he were an errant son whose mere membership in a political party outlawed under the former government was enough to discredit his version of events.

“Don’t talk about politics,” said lead Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, sounding like a flustered parent. “Our case is not political. We are involved in a criminal case.”


Some Iraqi leaders have taken first steps to avert a breakup of the country. Under heavy U.S. pressure, they’ve begun exploring the creation of a broad-based coalition government that includes Iraq’s different segments. Others have begun publicly acknowledging the divisions within the country and urging moderation.

“It was not in our hands that Iraq is divided into three geographical parts,” Sheik Hamid Assadi told Shiite congregants at the Bratha Mosque in Baghdad last week. “It is a natural division. But the unnatural thing is fanaticism toward or by one sect or ethnicity.”

With many of the country’s tribes and families divided between Sunni and Shiite, the increasing identification with one or the other inspires revulsion among some Iraqis even as the divisions deepen.

The politicians “talk in a vocabulary that separates us,” said Ali Abdul Salman, a 25-year-old Oil Ministry worker, enjoying his day off among men talking politics, playing backgammon and puffing on water pipes in a cafe. “That is horrifying.”


Born to a Sunni Arab mother, Shiite father and Kurdish grandmother, Salman said he couldn’t help but still believe in an Iraqi identity. “We all carry the same identity card which says we are all Iraqis,” he said. “When I leave the country, what I will carry is my Iraqi passport, and it doesn’t say Sunni, Shiite or Kurd.”


Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.




Iraq’s election results

Preliminary results from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq make clear the religious and ethnic split within the nation.

In largely Shiite provinces, religious Shiite candidates drew an overwhelming percentage of the vote. Similar results were found in provinces dominated by Sunni Arabs or Kurds.


The main secular political slate garnered no more than 14% of the vote in any province.

Dominant groups in provinces

Population (2004 estimate):

26.07 million with almost 75% living in the region stretching southeast from Baghdad to Basra.



Shiite Muslim 60%-65%,

Sunni Muslim 32%-37%,

Christian 3%,


others less than 1%.

Ethnic groups:

Arab 75%-80%,

Kurdish 15%-20%,


Turkmen, Chaldean, Assyrian, or others less than 5%.

Note: Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but differ from their Arab neighbors in language, dress, customs and political outlook.


How selected provinces voted


*--* Province (religious/ Approx. % of vote*: ethnic majority) Shiite Sunni Arab KurdishSecular religio us Al Anbar (Sunni Arab) 0.04% 92% 0.04% 3% Baghdad (mixed, with 60% 21% 1% 15% Shiite majority) Irbil (Kurdish) 0.02% 0.05% 98% 0.41% Najaf (Shiite) 86% 0.11% 0% 8%


*Percentages do not add up to 100% because of votes for other minor parties.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Associated Press, Times staff reports