Baathist Rule, 1968-2003

Baath Party flag. 

Founded in 1940, the Baath Party espoused a utopian political and economic philosophy that should have, in theory, resolved inter-sectarian strife in Iraq. The Baath offered a populist and pan-Arab ideology that privileged individual merit, not communal affiliation.

Developed in the waning days of the colonial era, it is not surprising to find that it has socialist tendencies in which leaders are encouraged to dismantle the existing elite, a class produced by largely European interventions. In practice, as manifested in Iraq, political instability in conjunction with the entrenchment of the Sunni elite did not foster an equitable distribution of power.

It seemed at first that the secular Baath Party would incorporate Shi'is into their government. In the 1960s, 50% of the party’s civilian leaders had been Shi'is. Sunnis, however, who dominated in the military, asserted supremacy in the party after it took power, making it a vehicle for their personal aspirations. Hassan al-Bakr emerged as president, and he appointed his cousin Saddam Hussein as Vice President and head of security operations.

These Baathist leaders favored their own networks of patronage, generating a system of nepotism that allowed members of their family, like the Minister of Defense, who was also Hussein's brother-in-law, to benefit from the spoils of the political victory. By the early 1970s, Shi'is represented no more than 5% of Baath party leaders.

In this way, Baathist rule perpetuated the divide between Shi'is and Sunnis that existed under British and Ottoman rule. It was not that the Baath promoted religious conflict per se, but instead its leaders acted in accord with their desire for greater access to political power and material benefits.

Hassan al-Bakr, General Secretary of the Aab Socialist Baath Party, circa 1974 (left). Saddam Hussein, fifth president of Iraqi, circa 1979 (right).  

In response to the uneven distribution of power and resources, many Shi'is began to gather in the mosque to seek solutions in religious texts to their political woes. Disenfranchised Iraqis did not necessarily do so out of a primal need to assert their sectarian identity, but because all secular means of opposition had been closed to them.

The Hashemite monarchy, the revolutionary regimes of the 1950s and 1960s, and now the Baath Party had stamped out political parties, like the once-popular Communist Party, and along with them democratic process.

With no legitimate secular form of political activism, the mosque, a safe haven, became a place where the politically discontent could gather. With the emergence of political Islam in the 1970s and 1980s, Islamic holidays like ashura, when the legitimacy of a ruler can be tacitly called into question, came to be commemorated in Iraq with an ominous fervor by citizens of the south.

The inspiration for this politico-religious revival was the late Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of the present-day firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He headed the Islamic Call (Dawa) Party. Al-Sadr wanted Iraq to be ruled as a theocracy, not as a secular Baathist fiefdom. Given that so-called Baathist “law” was highly personal and arbitrary, the insistence on Islamic sharia, which is codified and just, held great appeal to many Iraqis.

Once again, events in the eastern state of Persia, now Iran, contributed to the fate of Shi'is in Iraq.

In 1979, the highly secular Iran experienced a Shi'i Revolution to create the Islamic Republic of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Iraqi Baath was no longer content merely to ignore Shi'i interests in their country; its leaders began to actively destroy them. On ashura in the very year of the Iranian Revolution, Iraqi troops marched on Karbala and arrested the young men who passionately paraded to the shrine of Imam Husayn.

Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.

Wars with foreigners allowed the Baath to justify its marginalization of Shi'is.

The Iran-Iraq War was fought between 1980 and 1988, and it led to the deaths of as many as 1 million people. Just as during Ottoman times, the government of Iraq proved suspicious of its Shi'i subjects who, it feared, might prove loyal to clerics in Iran. So, the Baath terrorized Shi'is. In one case, Saddam Hussein exiled of 250,000 Iraqi Shi'is whose loyalties were ostensibly to the enemy nation.

Similarly, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 also provided the Baath with an excuse for stamping out unrest and further marginalizing Shi'is in Iraq's southern regions. During this conflict, disillusioned Shi'is took over the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, thereby expressing their rejection of a regime that had caused them distress. Using armed helicopters, the Baath put down the revolts in the south. In doing so, the Iraqi government killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians.

Finally, there was the Iraq War, which ended the Baath’s reign in 2003. Much like the British occupation after World War I, this conflict heightened sectarian tensions rather than neutralizing them. The United States fought this war in part to bring democracy to the Middle East, and yet its administrators enacted policies that in retrospect clearly facilitated the organization of political groups according to communal interests, not civic ones.

L. Paul Bremer, who administered the Coalition Provisional Authority during the first year of the occupation, formed a 25-person Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in July 2003. The IGC consisted of 13 Shi'is and five Arab Sunnis. These actions reproduced a society in which affiliation to a communal group, not democratically inclined political leanings, determined access to power.

Members of the U.S. Army pose under the "Hands of Victory" sculpture in Baghdad, Iraq during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, November 2003.

In his memoir, Bremer laughingly dismisses the one appointee who represented a political party, a Communist denigrated as a 1970s throwback. The IGC ensured that access to power was once again determined by ethnic and sectarian identity, and so a civil war soon broke out between Shi'is and Sunnis in Iraq.

The political dynamics in Iraq, and the supremacy of Sunni interests over a more collective sense of nationhood have proved remarkably consistent from the Ottoman Empire to the present.

ISIS and Iraq

In 2006, Nuri al-Maliki (right) became Prime Minister of Iraq, and he remained in this post until summer 2014. For some Iraqis, it may have seemed that the injustices of the past—those begun under Ottoman rule—were finally righting themselves. Al-Maliki is a Shi'i who had been a member of the Islamic Call Party since the 1970s, and so had been an important oppositional voice against the Baath. Thus, he was a former dissident with a strong sense of his Shi'i identity.

Al-Maliki's administration, however, did not lead to a new equilibrium in Iraqi society, but instead to a determined Shi'i effort to avenge past wrongs by disadvantaging Sunnis. On 16 August 2014, The Economist noted, “Some Sunnis came to support the extremists of IS [ISIS], seeing them—often reluctantly—as the only defence against a brutal security apparatus.”

In Iraq, the Islamic State is the most recent and most awful manifestation of a historic struggle between Sunnis and Shi'is for economic and political power, which dates to the Ottoman era.

The rise of the Islamic State as an aberrant entity in the midst of a long-standing state provides tangible evidence of the conclusion of Yara Badday, an Iraqi-American who is the daughter of a Shi'i father and a Sunni mother. She writes that “cultural differences themselves are not the cause of violent conflict, but rather the glaring inequalities over political power, land, and other economic assets.”

Badday's statement encourages readers interested in the conflict and Iraq—as well as tensions elsewhere in the Middle East—to look beyond simple analyses that rely heavily on religiously infused understandings of behavior.

After all, and as seen in Iraq over the past century or more, the rhetoric of religiosity all too often conceals more mundane manipulations by political actors pursuing their worldly desires for power and treasure.