Watching pundits on TV, you’d think the chaos in Iraq has a simple source: It’s Shia vs. Sunni, stupid. “Iraq’s crisis is the result of ancient hatreds” bubbling for “thousands of years.” Our mistake was removing “bad guy” Sunni Saddam from power and putting the “Iranian-supporting Shias” in his place.
Wrong and wrong.
First off, some history. The theological schism between Shia and Sunni Islam is old, but it’s not “ancient” as historians often use the term, to refer to the period before the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. The schism’s defining moment came with the martyrdom of Hussein Ali during the Battle of Karbala in the year 680.
Third, absent tyranny, it was inevitable that Shia political parties would take a preeminent role in Iraq’s political future. After all, Iraq’s Shia community is twice the size of Iraq’s Sunni community.
Regardless, the very idea of homogeneous Shia and Sunni political communities is highly suspect. Take Iraq’s 2014 parliamentary elections. The major winners were three Shia-centered political blocs, three Sunni-supported political blocs, and three Kurdish political blocs. Ayad Allawi, leader of the second largest Sunni-supported group, is a secular Shiite. His political movement rests on the principle of inclusive Iraqi nationalism. By evident electoral reality, Iraq’s political character is far more complex than a simple Shia vs. Sunni divide.
To be fair, Iraq’s Kurdish political community is well-known for its independence agenda. It’s no accident that Kurdish forces have embraced territorial opportunism amidst the chaos of ISIS’s advance. Still, aside from the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and the present disaster engendered by Maliki’s abuse of power and ISIS, Iraqis have traditionally embraced a tolerance borne of intermarriage, mixed neighborhoods, and national unity. Indeed, a great myth about Saddam is that the dictator was a servant of Sunni Islam. In reality, Saddam used identity politics to build his personal power. Iraq’s tradition of tolerance is perhaps best encapsulated by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani, Iraq’s foremost Shia cleric, has steadfastly retained independence from the Iranian theocrats in Qom. By calling for a new government in Baghdad, Sistani is again showing his awareness that solving Iraq’s difficulties requires cross-sectarian dialogue.
Conversely, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei has no interest in dialogue. He seeks only the expansion of Iranian governing power. Hence Khamenei opposes U.S. intervention in Iraq.
The major problem with simplistic labels is their encouragement of inadequate analysis. They tempt easy, all-encompassing explanations. While that temptation is understandable, it’s deeply unhelpful.
Just look at the Obama administration’s relationship with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. As I’ve argued before, even though Maliki is a paranoid man and a deeply problematic leader, it was predictable that he’d move toward Iran (aka the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) when in 2011 Obama wrote him off as an impossible partner. Thus, Obama’s new reengagement with Iraq isn’t solely about confronting ISIS; it’s about tempering Maliki’s relationship with Iran. Demanding concessions from Maliki as a prerequisite for U.S. support (as Hillary Clinton did) might have felt good, but it would never have worked. In the Middle East, political influence is earned by two things — presence and reliability.
This issue isn’t about theory. For America, a better understanding of Iraqi politics offers great opportunity.
Consider ISIS’s seizure, this weekend, of key Iraqi border crossings to Jordan and Syria. On paper, ISIS’s encroachment into Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province seems like further evidence for the casual “Sunni vs. Shia” narrative. However, given recent history, it’s highly unlikely that Anbar’s tribes will accept submission to ISIS dominion. Although ISIS seems to have learned that killing everyone won’t serve its agenda, the group’s ideology will ultimately cause dissention in the communities it now claims to own. Crucifying people on the streets doesn’t win friends.
Iraq is complicated, and the country is more than the sum of three divided parts. Splitting Iraq, as many pundits are now suggesting, would only exacerbate the sectarian segregation that both ISIS and Iran desire. It would fuel extremists with blood feuds and isolate moderates open to compromise. Iraq is a country of many ideologies and agendas, like America — Ron Paul and George W. Bush, for example, are Republicans with very different perspectives. Reducing Iraqi politics to casual labels is a terrible mistake.