Khalil Osman on Sectarianism and Making of Modern Iraqi State

September 30, 2022 1:58 pm

Khalil Osman is a Senior Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations (UN). Before joining the UN in 2007, he taught politics at Indiana University. During his career in journalism, Dr. Osman worked in and reported from North America, Europe, Africa, and several countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Turkey. He reported for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Canada International (RCI). Dr. Osman is the author, most recently, of Sectarianism in Iraq: The Making of State and Nation since 1920 , widely acclaimed as a seminal work on Iraqi social, religious and ethnic fabric and the country’s sectarian affiliations following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Dr. Osman spoke to Reza Akhlaghi about his book and the security situation in Iraq.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are those of Dr. Osman and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


What are the key points covered in your book?

Well, what motivated me to write my book was a desire to fill a gap in the scholarly literature on Iraq – a country in which I developed keen interest and extensive knowledge during my journalistic career. While on assignment for the BBC in Iraq following the war in 2003, I came to realize that while sectarianism had, over the past two decades or so, been more and more important in the political life of Iraq, and the wider Middle East for that matter, literature on Iraq for the most part shied away from engaging in objective scholarly analysis of this phenomenon. I noticed that most writings which addressed the issue of sectarianism until then were mostly descriptive and superficial, lacking the theoretical sophistication and methodological rigor characteristic of the social and political sciences. My book attempted to address this gap by articulating a wide-ranging, theoretically-grounded social scientific explanation of sectarianism and the making of the modern Iraqi nation-state that goes beyond the worn-out or hackneyed analyses which tend to focus superficially on the sectarian bases of political power by charting the changing patterns and configurations of the political elite’s communal makeup. I sought to make a contribution to the scholarly knowledge and objective writings on Iraq that parts company with such clichéd explanations which reek of bias, finger-pointing, recrimination, and narratives of communal victimization.

By linking sectarianism to the trajectory of the making of the Iraqi nation-state, my book provides an exploration into sectarianism in Iraq as a socially-constructed, historically-contingent primordial attachment. In other words, Iraq was not necessarily fated to fall into the clutches of sectarianism and Iraqis were not necessarily predestined to suffer the horrors of sectarian strife. Rather sectarianism in Iraq was born out of political and other developments that led to the sharpening or hardening of sectarian identifications and solidarities.

My book seeks to show how and why sectarianism crept into the social and political fabric of Iraq as the process of building the modern Iraqi nation-state unfolded giving rise to communal struggles over political, cultural and other material and non-material power resources.

To understand the present, it was necessary for me to interrogate the past, to unearth the historical background and the beginnings of the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian rift.

Talk about your research and journalistic work in and on Iraq. What drove you to write on sectarianism in Iraq?

The first inklings I got about the potential slide of Iraq into a sectarian quagmire that could fray the country’s social fabric and even rend it completely asunder were in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Of course, I am referring here to the post-Gulf War uprisings which swept southern and northern Iraq and nearly toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Naturally, as my book dealt mainly with sectarianism, the northern uprising, where the ethnic nationalist Kurdish dimension was pronounced, fell outside the scope of my investigation.

There were scenes during the rebellion in the predominantly Shi’ite south, where pent-up communal sectarian sentiments and feelings of victimization seeped out through slogans laying claims to a communal entitlement to power on the side of the rebels, such as “Maku wali illa Ali wa nrid hakim Ja’afari” (There is no master except Ali and we want a Ja’afari ruler). This was a manifestly vigorous assertion of sectarian identity on the part of the Shi’ite rebels. On the other hand, loyalist forces which crushed the uprising, namely the elite Republican Guards, sent tanks that rolled into the Shi’ite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala displaying banners declaring an intention to commit sectarian genocide. The banners reportedly read, “La Shi’ah ba’ad al-yawm” (No Shi’ites after today). Needless to say, some have dismissed such reports and eyewitness accounts as fabricated or grossly exaggerated. But that’s beside the point. Regardless of the actual scale of such occurrences, the fact that reports about them were widely circulated by both sides–the rebels and the regime–and their supporters, was indicative of the emerging prevalence of resolutely sectarian frames of mind, discourses and interpretations of political developments among Iraqis.

The issue of sectarianism came to the fore with a vengeance, so to speak, following the overthrow of the Ba’ath Party regime by the US-led coalition in 2003. During several duty trips that I made as an international journalist to Iraq in the early months and years of the post-Saddam period, I observed how spiraling communal antagonisms and intensifying scramble for power were laying the foundations of a system of governance based on identity politics. Unfortunately, these fears and other ominous signs of the coming sectarian inferno were not taken seriously.

How did sectarian conflict unfold in Iraq and what was the role of Iraqi opposition in its unfolding?

One can certainly speculate about this. But it is very difficult to establish that sectarianism was deliberately planned for or foisted on Iraq. I can safely say that as I closely followed and worked on Iraqi issues during the 1990s, I could observe that ethno-sectarianism was surely becoming more important in the landscape of the Iraqi opposition in exile. This unfolded alongside growing religiosity and increased prominence of sectarian identifications inside the country due to several developments, including the regime-sponsored Faith Campaign (al-Hamlah al-Imaniyyah). Politicking, rivalry and intriguing among opposition parties and groups fed the increasing salience of ethno-sectarian identities and sentiments in coalition-building among opposition groups in exile. Emboldened by Western and regional hostility to Saddam Hussein’s regime and hoping to get over their excessive fragmentation and factionalism, exiled opposition groups began to devise cooperative mechanisms and forge coalitions to coordinate activities. Interestingly, the process of forging these coalitions was marred by intense rivalry among opposition political groups, many of which laid claims to larger shares of representation on their leadership under the rubric of guaranteeing representativeness and inclusiveness.

How would you put in context U.S policies that contributed to the unfolding of sectarian violence in Iraq?

Many Iraqis and some Iraq specialists and scholars, especially in the Middle East, remain unbending in their denial of the existence of a deep-seated sectarian problem in Iraq. I am not a proponent of a sectarianism-by-design argument. Laying the blame for Iraq’s current sectarian woes at the door of America, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or what have you, distracts from the root causes of Iraq’s sectarian maladies.

I am not downplaying the role of regional and international powers or their meddling in stoking the fires of sectarian strife in Iraq. But these factors were beyond the scope of my investigation. I sought to understand what internal historical and socio-political factors account for the slide that Iraq – a country where Sunnis and Shi’ites had coexisted for many years—exemplified among other things, by a high percentage of inter-sectarian marriages – has undergone from social harmony towards sectarian conflagration and institutionalized sectarianism.

Of course, the US made many mistakes which contributed to the pandemonium that crept into Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Clinging tenaciously to the neoconservative ideological aversion to nation-building fostered the adoption of policies that contributed to the security and political vacuum in the immediate aftermath of the war. One example was the deployment of an insufficient number of troops to carry out efficient policing functions in post-Saddam Iraq. Pentagon civilians and their associates in the Iraqi opposition at the time were under the illusion of redistribution of Iraqi oil wealth once the country transitioned to a new and competent governing body. However, developments on the ground proved otherwise.

Internal struggles between the US State Department and Department of Defense consigned all thoughtful pre-war planning for post-Saddam Iraq to oblivion. For instance, the protracted bureaucratic guerrilla warfare between State and Defense wrote the epitaph of the painstaking planning for post-Saddam Iraq that was undertaken by the Future of Iraq Project. Of course, there was no guarantee that such plans would have been implemented as planned. But the fact that State and Defense were at loggerheads when it came to policy towards Iraq prevented the implementation of any existing plans for post-Saddam Iraq.

Why do you think the British, while establishing the first King Faisal rule in Iraq, set about to create a system of governance based on an imbalance in the distribution of power across sectarian communities?

The birth of the Iraqi nation-state came at a critical historical juncture in Sunni-Shi’ite relations. Fears of existential threats posed by the expansion of European colonialism in the nineteenth century had induced a defensive reaction that made it possible for mass anti-colonialist mobilization transcending the primordial Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide. The consequent inter-sectarian rapprochement generated an impetus for cross-communal coalition-building against the British occupation of Iraq during and after World War I. But, as shown in my book, this rapprochement gradually fizzled out as the political elite moved to build the institutional framework of the state – a state whose failure to achieve inclusiveness bred brittle inter-communal cohesiveness and national identity.

The Iraqi state system whose foundations were laid by the British was, from its very outset, one characterized with disparities in the representation of communities in the corridors of power and state administration. There were several reasons for this differential distribution of power among communities. For one thing, the Sharifian officers-cum-politicians were almost exclusively Sunnis. They were former Ottoman army officers, both regular and reserve, who mostly descended from urban Iraqi Sunni families from the triangle bordered by Baghdad, Mosul and the towns of Rawa and ‘Anah in Anbar. Many of them had defected during World War I and joined the anti-Ottoman Arab revolt, which was led by Sharif Hussein, King Faisal’s father. They had also served in Faisal’s short-lived Arab government in Syria. Therefore, many of them were already known to the British. Collectively, the Sharifians became a core power elite group under the British and the Hashemite Monarchy. Moreover, urban Sunnis had a number of comparative advantages which they had gained under the Ottoman rule. Urban Sunnis had, over the four centuries of Ottoman rule, accumulated social capital and wealth, gained useful administrative experience in running state bureaucracy, and benefitted from opportunities for modern education made available to them since the tanzimat reforms which started in 1839.

In contrast, the Shi’ites had a number of comparative disadvantages, so to speak. They were at the time mostly rural, semi-nomadic or nomadic. The number of Shi’ites who had received modern education and gained state administrative experience during the Ottoman period was very small. Distrust between them and the British ran deep, mainly because of the role played by some of their senior clerics in mobilizing Shi’ite tribes to volunteer to fight on the side of the Ottomans during World War I and later in instigating the anti-British armed rebellion in 1920 which spread to some Sunni Arab tribal areas, such as Anbar. There was also theologically-grounded reservation by the Shii’te for working with a state not ruled by an infallible Imam. This was compounded by the aversion of the Shi’ite top clergy, who did not harbor this traditional reservation. Leading figures among the top Shi’ite religious grandees, such as Shaykh Mahdi al-Khalisi, discouraged the faithful from taking part in a state administration where the British colonial power called the shots. These strained relations between the top Shi’ite clergy and the state undermined efforts made by King Faisal-I aiming at the inclusion of marginalized communities in the state apparatus. Of course, those efforts on the part of Faisal faced some Sunni resistance and raised the ire of some Sunni notables. Ultimately, the deck was stacked in the favor of the Sunnis during the formative years of the modern Iraqi nation-state.

What does your research show you about the Iraqi sectarianism between the period 1920-2003 and after the 2003 invasion?

Of course, there are marked differences. Sectarianism in the pre-2003 period was not institutionalized, although it manifested itself in different ways and forms. In the realm of politics, it manifested itself in the political leverage and preponderance of power enjoyed by Sunni Arabs. Although this relative political advantage tended to reproduce itself in the political system despite the recurrence of changes at the helm of political power mainly through military coups, it was not enshrined in explicit arrangements, norms and/or rules determining the distribution of political power in the state apparatus among communities.

There was no codified quota system or division of power among communities. Still, the uneven communal access to power resources bred feelings of marginalization among other communities. Such feelings were exacerbated as the state slid ever deeper into the throes of dictatorship, autocracy and totalitarianism. Like dictatorships everywhere, Iraq’s variety of dictatorship did not recognize plurality and difference and refused to give any space for diversity of opinion, dissent and independent voices. As it worked towards ideological exclusivity and the total erasure and elimination of political diversity and pluralism, the dictatorship cultivated and inculcated the values of intolerance, hostility and hatred towards the “Other.” As such, it undermined values of citizenship and contributed to the sharpening of ethno-sectarian identification.

In education, sectarianism in the pre-2003 period manifested itself in the primacy given to the Sunni and Arab nationalist narratives in the curricula. This led to a sort of subterranean resistance, mostly away from the prying eye of the repressive state, which led to the hidden excavation and revival of alternative communal narratives. In society, sectarianism expressed itself in subtle and covert cultural practices and prejudices vented out at times through satire or slogans chanted at demonstrations or religious processions.

There is an ongoing discussion in the entire political spectrum on Iran’s influence in post-Saddam Iraq. How much influence does Iran exert over Iraq today and how subservient Iraq’s political and power elite are to Tehran?

I am not sure that “subservient” is the right characterization here. But regardless of the rights or wrongs of terminology, Iran as Iraq’s neighbor, obviously has concerns about political and security developments unfolding across its borders. The current Iranian leadership’s perceptions of the Islamic Republic’s national interests in Iraq are largely shaped by the traumatic experiences of the Iraq-Iran war. As such, they believe that a friendly, Shi’ite-led government in Iraq is a guarantee against the re-emergence of another hostile Saddam Hussein-type of government in Baghdad that would pursue policies inimical to Tehran.

The Iranians are also naturally concerned about the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, they were quick to channel resources to support the counter-insurgency efforts of the central government’s forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces which contributed to containing and stopping the rapid expansion of ISIS at the time. But the Iranians are also supporting non-government Shi’ite armed groups that came together under the umbrella of “Popular Mobilization” (al-Hashd al-Sha’abi) to fight ISIS. Many of these groups, such as the Leagues of the People of Righteousness (‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) and the Party of God Battalions (Kata’ib Hizbullah), began as anti-Coalition insurgent groups. Their growing popularity among the Shi’ites, which they earned due to their battlefield exploits against ISIS, has turned them into potential rivals to established Shi’ite political parties, such as the Islamic Da’awah Party of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq of Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim. There are indications that this is already contributing to exacerbating the fluid nature of the Iraqi Shi’ite political landscape and to intensifying intra-Shi’ite rivalries.

Iran’s rising influence in Iraq, however, has its limitations. It runs against the grain of Sunni Arab distrust of Iranian intentions. Many Sunni Arabs view Iran as a member of a tripartite ‘axis of evil’ of sorts – the other two members being the US and Israel – which is implacably predisposed to inflict harm on Iraq. Against this backdrop, growing Iranian influence among the Shi’ite political elites feeds Sunni perceptions of them as mere pawns of Iran’s rulers. This makes Iranian influence a major apple of discord across sectarian fault lines. As such, it chimes in with the yawning Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian gulf in Iraq.

While some Iraqi Shi’ite parties might see Iran as a force multiplier in their efforts to pursue their own political ambitions, wellsprings of distrust or wariness of Iranian intentions still run deep in some Iraqi Shi’ite quarters and among Iraqi secularists. This stems mainly from a strong undercurrent of Iraqi nationalist sentiment prevalent among Iraqis, notwithstanding the contending visions across communities of what it means to be Iraqi. While such a nationalist streak is pronounced among groups such as the Sadrists, it has also been visible in the Da’awah Party’s inclination to chart an independent course and keep a distance from Iran even during the 1980s when many of its leaders took refuge in the Islamic Republic.

Moreover, despite sectarian and religious affinities between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ites, the popularity of the Najaf religious seminary (hawzah) restricts Iran’s religious and moral influence in Iraq. The paramount Najaf-based jurist, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani–widely revered among Iraqi Shi’ites–adheres to a conception of the relationship between religion and politics that is quite different from that advocated by the Iranian clerical leadership. While in Iran the clerical leadership exercises power based on a version of the doctrine of welayat al-faqih (governance of the jurist) which sees the jurists as entrusted with ultimate political authority and leadership in society, Sistani’s interventions in politics in post-Saddam Iraq are anchored in a different conception of welayat al-faqih, which sees the role of the jurists as that of providing religious guidance to the political process rather than taking an active and leading part in governmental affairs and steering the ship of state.