Behind the Ethnic and Sectarian Tensions in Iraq

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

Approximate distribution of ethno-religious groups in Iraq – Rafy, Kathovo and Alex Ireland, licenced under CC BY-AS 3.0
Approximate distribution of ethno-religious groups in Iraq – Rafy, Kathovo and Alex Ireland, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Iraq is currently one of the most unstable and violent countries in the world, split between three rival ethnic and religious groups – the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi’a Arabs. Presently, the north-east is ruled separately by Kurds as the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region (with consent from central government) and Sunni Arab militias – including IS – carve out their own areas of rule in Sunni regions. The Shi’a-led central government is left to rule the Shi’a parts and not much else. But before Iraq can be fixed, one must understand what has caused it to fracture.

When the borders of modern Iraq were drawn in 1920 by the French and British, no attention was paid to the groups living within the region. As a result, the Iraqi borders bound together three (largely) geographically separate ethnic and religious groups, all competing for resources and political influence. Now, the Kurdish ethnic minority, mostly followers of Sunni Islam, make up 10-20% of the population and are concentrated in the north-east. Arabs are an ethnic majority, but bitterly divided between followers of Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Sunni Arabs constitute 20-30% of the population, concentrated in a band across the middle and west of Iraq, whilst Shi’a Arabs make up 60-70% and mostly inhabit the south-east.

The Kurds

The Kurds have endured a troubled history with the rest of Iraq, having pursued autonomy since the Ottomans were overthrown in 1918. Their fortunes have alternated between promises of self-rule and armed conflict whenever these promises fell through. The worst excesses of this are demonstrated by Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds in 1986-89, which killed up to 100,000 civilians, some with chemical weapons.

The Kurds currently govern themselves within Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the north-east where the Kurds are concentrated, but they want true recognised independence. Unfortunately, Syria, Turkey and Iran all have sizeable Kurdish areas that border Iraqi Kurdistan, so vehemently oppose any solution in Iraq that might encourage their own Kurds to seek independence. It is unlikely that the Kurdish autonomous region will ever reintegrate back under central Iraqi control, because of the history of repression and violence between them. Current tensions include disputed territory claimed by both parties on the fringes of Iraqi Kurdistan (including some major oil fields), and disagreements over power-sharing in central government.

The Sunni Arabs

Sunni Arabs also have large grievances. Sunnis ruled Iraq since its inception until Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. Sunnis were the majority group in prestigious government and military positions, as well as the main beneficiaries of government policy. Since 2003, many Sunnis have been simply expelled from the government and military, and the government has been overwhelmingly run by Shi’a. The sudden loss of status and access to jobs has been hard for Sunnis to bear, both as individuals and as a group, and the situation is worsened by the persistent rumour, spread under Saddam Hussein to justify his rule, that Sunnis are a majority in Iraq. This makes many Sunnis unwilling to accept even an objectively fair distribution of power. Many Sunnis fear that a government run by Shi’a would benefit only Shi’a, consigning them to economic neglect and political maltreatment.

Sunni grievances have been dramatically worsened by the antagonistic behaviour of the Shi’a ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was in power 2006-2014. He purged Sunni rivals from government and the military, arresting leading figures and confiscating property. When, in 2012 and 2013, Sunnis began widespread protests at their political marginalisation and persecution, al-Maliki’s government used the army to repress them. More than 200 Sunnis, many unarmed protesters, were killed over the one-year period in sporadic incidents. Many Sunnis cite this response to their peaceful demonstrations as a factor in turning to military alternatives in 2014 (the most notable of these being Islamic State).

The Shi’a Arabs

Iraq Tensions Lead Picture
Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister 2006-2014, squandered an opportunity to rule for all of Iraq rather than just his Shi’a sect – public domain

The Shi’a Arab majority, although now in power, have not forgotten their treatment under successive Sunni governments. Aside from general marginalisation and persecution, they faced periodic instances of violent repression, such as Saddam Hussein’s response to the 1991 Shi’a and Kurdish uprisings, in which tens of thousands of Shi’a civilians were killed. Even since 2003, Iraqi Shi’a have faced extreme violence at the hands of Sunnis. During the Iraqi insurgency following the American-led invasion, some Sunni militant groups (most notably Al-Qaeda in Iraq) pioneered the tactic of indiscriminate attacks on Shi’a civilians and holy sites in an attempt to start a wider sectarian war. For their own part, some Shi’a responded by forming death squads targeting Sunnis, adding to Sunni resentment.

The bitter divide in Iraq between Sunni and Shi’a Arabs poses a major problem for the country. The Kurdish issue has been partially solved by the granting of autonomy, but can still cause difficulty. These problems are given an extra dimension by the fact that each group is concentrated in different regions of the country, giving Iraq the appearance of a state created out of three potential nations glued together. In times past, it may well have fractured (relatively) cleanly along these lines, as the various militias take de facto control of each region. In today’s world of defined states such an outcome is harder, which may or may not be a good thing for Iraq’s people.


05 16 21

65 10 27


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