Searching for Identity in Post-War Iraq

A sectarian religious government or a pluralistic democratic system?

Have the militia become the best option for implementing policy?

The situation in Iraq is complex and multifaceted in ways not often understood outside Iraq. The popular press refers to the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds as though they are monolithic groups. In the case of the Shiites, there are three main political blocs: the Sadr, Dawa, and SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) movements. Within each of them there are additional factions. More complexity is added at the provincial and district levels where there are different ideologies and interests.

Three important elements must be kept in mind: 1) foreign connections; 2) representation of the broader public; and 3) the role of militias. Regarding the first, groups within Iraq have different attitudes toward foreign neighbors, even within the same religious tradition. Within the Shiites, for example, the SCIRI is pro-Iran but the Sadrines are anti-­ Iran. Regarding representation of the general public, if Iraq is to develop more pluralist, secular politics the country needs to move from a proportional-representational list system to a constituency-based system in which people vote for individuals. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not support such a change because it appears too complex, nor do the Syrians or Iranians. As for militias, they present a threat to the rule of law. If the governors of provincial councils are unable to implement their policies through legal methods they may decide to use their militias to implement them.

The militias are not well-organized military groups but they are well armed. They have demonstrated that they have the power to take over substantial areas of the country. Essentially the coalition lost control of two out of the four provinces in southern Iraq over a period of about six months. Neither the alternative of absorbing these militias into a national army or confronting them is considered practical.

While the militias are important politically, from the standpoint of public welfare the Dawa Party plays a more important role than the Sadr or Badr Brigades. In Karbala, for example, the Dawa run a variety of social programs, including teaching computer skills and the English language.


A “no slack” soldier from the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division takes up an over-watch position in Samarra, Iraq, Dec. 10, 2007. The “no slack” battalion is responsible for the security of the restive city. Photo By U.S Army spc. Richard Rzepka

US Marine Corps

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Joshua DeBoer mans a machine gun in the back of a MV-22B Osprey aircraft while flying over Iraq on Oct. 18, 2007. DeBoer is a crew chief with Marine Medium Tilt rotor Squadron 263. Photo by Cpl. Michael L. Haas, U.S. Marine Corps.

Since the U.S. invasion, power has shifted from institutions to individual religious leadership, especially to the Shiite malja (the religious leadership within Shiism). Since the fall of Hussein, at every crucial point the malja has intervened to shape events. It was the malja who said that any election held had to be one person/one vote. It was the malja who realized that if all the major Shiite parties ran as a single list they could have a majority in parliament. It was disappointing that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the malja generally did not include more Sunni Arabs in their list. Here was an opportunity for the malja to act as a pan-Iraqi institution, a role to which it aspires.

Among the Shiites in southern Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani dominates. He is able to issue a fatwa (a ruling in Islamic law), which reassures the people and persuades them to follow his broad policies. Once he is gone, who will replace him? In Karbala and Najaf there is no one his equal.

In Shiism when the Grand Ayatollah dies, another leader emerges. In addition to Sistani there are four other important senior clerics. There will be a period of consolidation of power, but there will be a suc­cessor. Whoever steps in will need to project the malja as a focal point for the Shiite community. The two most likely successors to the Grand Ayatollah Sistani will be Muhammad Fayad, an Afghan who came to Iraq with his family when he was a child, and Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani. Fayad is more pro-American than Sistani and is opposed to the clerical theocracy in Iran. He believes that clerics should intervene to uphold the social order but should not meddle in politics. Najafi, on the other hand, has expressed bitterness towards the United States for allowing the 1991 uprising to be crushed. Also the difficult relationship between Shiites and Sunnis in Pakistan might influence how he acts in Iraq. Whether Fayad or Najafi succeeds Sistani will have important policy implications for Iraq because of the centrality of the institution of the marya. Given what is happening on the ground in Iraq today, it is criti­cal that the U.S. not look at the political situation in conventional, sec­ular terms but respect the marya as a necessary and powerful institu­tion. Even after Sistani the marya as a tradition will continue its central role.

Washington in the short term is working with SCIRI and Dawa to promote democracy and elections. However, if a more liberal leader­ship were to emerge with an Iraqi identity distinct from the Iranian model centered at Najaf (the holiest of Shiite cities), a different demo­cratic model might emerge that would recognize commonalities with other communities such as the Kurds and the Sunnis.


Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Burchell, an infantryman with 1st platoon, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, patrols past construction workers cleaning a rooftop in a new neighborhood being built in northern Haditha. Photo by Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich.


A Soldier interacts with an Iraqi child during a patrol in Arab Jabour. Photo by Spc. Angelica Golindano.

How should we think about Iraq now? What are the primary goals of the United States? The U.S. obviously wants to prevent a civil war. Is the goal now to create a sufficiently stable situation in order to withdraw but at the expense of democracy and civil rights? Does the U.S. want to prevent the creation of a sectarian religious government contrary to a pluralistic democratic system?

We must avoid thinking about nationalism and Iraq in simplistic, dichotomous terms such as religious or secular. In Iraq, as in the case of Palestine and Israel, the secular and religious cannot be neatly separated. At the rhetorical level, Iraq seems to have become an Islamic cause and is conflated with Palestine.

At the core of the problem in thinking about Iraq is the extent of our collective ignorance about the situation, in particular at the local level. The coalition approach to Iraq has been full of hubris. The intervention was not thought through, and the results are unpredictable. We see a continually shifting range of justifications and explanations about the goals of the intervention as the coalition attempts to adjust to the impossibility of the notion of foreigners creating a useful society, without sufficient knowledge. The coalition began by talking about a liberated democratic, state that would live peacefully with its neighbors. Policy makers began the invasion of Iraq with a clear set of views on how the politics, economics, and security of the country should be transformed. They wanted to move from a centralized to a more decentralized government; they wanted to avoid a theocratic state. Many were worried about not giving too much of a role to minorities or tribes. The aim was to go from a centrally planned market to a free market, and on the security side from a Saddam-style police state to a gentler, human rights respecting infrastructure based on civil society. Almost all of these aspirations have now fallen away. In the context of chaos and insurgency, people are happy if they have a modicum of stability. Therefore, there is now a greater tolerance for the possibility of theocracy, for a police state-style administration, for central planning economics.


U.S. Army Sgt. Tom Bowers, assigned to the 56th Military Police Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, prepares to search a vehicle at a checkpoint in Samrah, Iraq, Dec. 15, 2007.  Photo By U.S. Army Spc. Jordan Huettl.

In the light of the current situation, U.S. policy seems very reactive. While American policy may be more realistic today than two years ago, there appears to be no grand strategy. There also seems to be no clear-cut policy debates within the U.S. administration. Some neo-conservatives may still harbor the hope of establishing military bases in Iraq after the U.S. pulls out. The situation on the ground is extraordinarily difficult: the military is stretched very thin. Building a national army and creating an acceptable level of security is going slowly at best. How can the diverse constituents of Iraq be brought together without returning to a Sunnized Baathist situation? Can a sufficiently stable situation be created within the next two years to expedite an influx of resources to be used to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure and develop the economy? The escalating insurgency has enhanced separation within Iraq. The center-Baghdad and the Sunni areas is cut off and unsafe. The Kurds, for obvious reasons, are staying in the North, and the same is largely true of the Shiites in the South. So, instead of normal exchanges through trade, education, and tourism that would bring people together and start to overcome differences, the insurgency perpetuates separation. The insurgency and increasing American casualties are also having a marked impact on American public opinion. It would appear, however, that for the next five years the U.S. will be deeply engaged in Iraq.

For many, the intervention into Iraq was going to solve the Arab­- Israeli conflict; create a beacon of light in the Middle East; establish a new order and a spring board for overthrowing Syria and Iran; secularize the Middle East; and introduce the delights of consumer capitalism. These ideas and ideals have disintegrated in the face of realities in Iraq. The bulk of the success there since the invasion should be attributed to the actions and ideas of Iraqi people.

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