The dark joke for Americans is that we learn geography and geopolitical history when we start bombing countries. It isn't far from the truth.
For instance, the generally accepted history of Iraq (for Americans) is that the Sunnis and Shias have been fighting for 14 centuries and peace is out of the question. But is that true?
Sure, Sunnis and Shias have fought wars in the past, but then so have Catholics and Protestants.
The truth is that the Sunnis and Shias mostly lived in peace in Iraq until we started bombing them.
This diary is the latest in a long series on the History of Iraq.
If you listened to the American media you would never know that historically the Muslim world was more tolerant to minorities than the christian world was.
For instance, in 1948 there were 150,000 Jews living in Baghdad and it was a center of jewish learning. They had been living there since the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century B.C.
It was only in the few years before the creation of Israel that hostility between Muslim and Jew began. By 1951 only 15,000 Jews were left in Baghdad.
When I speak of sectarianism in Iraq in this diary I have to make clear that I am not talking about the Kurds. The Kurdish have never accepted being a part of Iraq. They have been in open revolt more often than not, and the period of relative peace since America's 2003 invasion is one of the longest periods of peace in the modern history of Kurdistan.
In fact, until 1991, almost every drop of sectarian blood that was spilled in Iraq was in Kurdistan.
The Shia community has been politically isolated and impotent in the Iraqi region since the Ottomans decided to favor the Sunnis in the 16th Century. Traditionally they were exploited as sharecroppers and manual-laboring slum dwellers. It was only with the land reforms, starting under Qassim in 1959 and accelerated by the Baath, combined the the oil boom of the 1970's that saw the fortunes of the Shias begin to improve. Nevertheless, there was very little sectarian violence in Iraq's history.
The lone exception was the 1935 Diwaniyya revolt. The source of the uprising was both economic, involving the transition of power from tribal regions to the cities, and political.
The previous year the Iraqi government started conscription into the army while cutting agricultural subsidies. Meanwhile, many important tribal Shia sheikhs of the mid-Euphrates region were excluded from the new parliament.
In the end the revolt was crushed in just a week. Several hundred shias were killed in the process. But this was never more than a regional tribal uprising.
Nationalism over sectarianism
Starting from the British conquest of Mesopotamia in 1917 right up to the First Gulf War, Shias and Sunnis generally worked and lived together. When there was an external threat, they fought side by side.
You may have heard of the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920.
"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster."
- T. E. Lawrence, August 22, 1920
The Revolution ran from May to October of 1920, and cost the lives of 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqis, plus around 2,000 British. What was notable from this revolt was the cooperation between Shia and Sunni tribes.
The year 1948 saw the Al-Wathbah_uprising. This was largely a student and urban worker led protest that had more to do with class unrest and anti-British feelings. 300 to 400 died from police bullets in this revolt.
What is significant was that it was the first real show of popular nationalism in Iraq's history.
The 1979 Iran Revolution threatened to undo this peaceful coexistence. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on Iraqis to overthrow the Ba'ath government. Saddam believed this call was a sign of weakness.
When the government, suspecting a bomb, closed Karbala at the height of the pilgrimage season, violent clashes with police took place and spread to Najaf. After the Iranian Revolution, Shia frustration found an organized, religious outlet. In July 1979 riots broke out in Najaf and Karbala after the government refused to allow a demonstration in support of Khomeini. This alarmed the paranoid Baath government.
The Iranian government tried to portray themselves as "liberators of the Shiites" in Iraq. Hussein tried to portray himself as "liberator of Arabistan" (i.e. the oil-rich province of Iran with a large arab Sunni minority). Neither the targeted Sunni or Shia populations believed the rhetoric.
Hussein boasted he would be in Tehran in 3 days.
Much to Saddam's surprise, the Sunnis in Khuzestan (aka "Arabistan") failed to revolt against Iran, and instead came out in the tens of thousands to fight the Iraqi invaders. Meanwhile, the Shia of Iraq did the same.
the theory of sectarian strife was undercut by the behavior of Iraq's Shia community during Iran's 1982 invasion and the fighting thereafter. Although about three-quarters of the lower ranks of the army were Shias, as of early 1988, no general insurrection of Iraq; Shias had occurred.The carnage of the Iran-iraq war seemed to solidify the peaceful coexistence of Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. This mutual tolerance was part of an overall trend throughout the muslim world.
Even in periods of major setback for the Iraqi army--such as the Al Faw debacle in 1986--the Shias have continued staunchly to defend their nation and the Baath regime. They have done so despite intense propaganda barrages mounted by the Iranians, calling on them to join the Islamic revolution.
It appears, then, that, however important sectarian affiliation may have been in the past, in the latter 1980s nationalism was the basic determiner of loyalty.
In summary, prior to the war the Baath had taken steps toward integrating the Shias. The war placed inordinate demands on the regime for manpower, demands that could only be met by levying the Shia community--and this strengthened the regime's resolve to further the integration process. In early 1988, it seemed likely that when the war ends, the Shias would emerge as full citizens-- assuming that the Baath survives the conflict.
In Baghdad the Sunni and Shia lived in the same neighborhoods and often prayed in the same mosques.
So what happened? Why did 70 years of peaceful coexistence end in 1991.
"There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: and that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations' resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."
- President George H. W. Bush, February 15, 1991 on Voice of America
Very roughly speaking, the Shias of Iraq were discriminated against in the same way that Catholics were discriminated against in Ireland before 1916. So there was always some tension.
The Baath party was always a paranoid organization, and that meant that influencial Shia clerics were often targeted for brutal treatment at the hands of security forces.
In the end, the trigger for the Shia Uprising in 1991 was Saddam's defeated army.
On 3 March 1991 an Iraqi tank commander fired a shell through a vast portrait of Saddam Hussein which hung in Basra's main square.In Najaf, a mostly Shia demonstration erupted in a gun battle between army deserters and Saddam's security forces. The uprising quickly became spontaneous and spread across southern Iraq.
This act ignited an uprising across Iraq's Shia-dominated south.
Iranian-trained Iraqi exiles, mostly the Badr Brigades crossed the border and fought alongside the rebels. At the height of the revolution, the government lost effective control over 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
In a small way, the fact that the fleeing army travelled through southern Iraq first, the Shia sector of Iraq, was one reason the uprising took the form of a sectarian rebellion.
The uprising was partly fuelled by the disastrous defeat of Iraq's security forces and their forced retreat from Kuwait.The proximity of American forces was the other crucial factor. The coalition army could have rolled into Basra very easily, but it also would have meant the end of Saddam's regime.
People were convinced that the army would never be weaker or more demoralised.
But crucially, the rebels were convinced that they had the backing of the US, who would come to their aid to help oust Saddam.
According to Human Rights Watch, "in their attempts to retake cities, and after consolidating control, loyalist forces killed thousands of anyone who opposes them whether a rebel or a civilian by firing indiscriminately into the opposing areas; executing them on the streets, in homes and in hospitals; rounding up suspects, especially young men, during house-to-house searches, and arresting them with or without charge or shooting them en masse; and using helicopters to attack those who try to flee the cities."
Between 80,000 and 230,000 people died in the month-long 1991 Uprising. Nearly 10% of the population became refugees, and tens of thousands of Shias fled to Iran. Conflicts in the south continued until 1994.
The legacy of the 1991 Uprising was to drive a wedge in Sunni and Shia relations that has only grown wider and spread to other muslim nations.
President Bush's legacy now threatens to destabilize much of the Muslim world and destroy American influence in the region.