The Shia and Sunni Conflict in Relation to the Iraq War

Throughout history in the Middle East, a battle has been playing out between Shia and Sunni communities.  This conflict and mistrust began after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.  The Shia and Sunni communities are the two major Islamic sects in the Islamic world.  Within the Sunni sect, they believe that the new Caliph (head of the Caliphate, ruler of Islamic Ummah) should not be from the Prophet Mohammed’s family, but instead believe that the Caliph should be elected and appointed by a Muslim Shura (governing body).  The Shia sect believes that the new leader should be direct relative of the Prophet Mohammed such as his cousin/son-in-law, Imam Ali.  The differences in each sect’s power and majority/minority status varies country to country.  For instance, there is a Shia minority in the countries of Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.  However, in the countries of Iraq and Iran the majority of their populations are Shia Muslims.  In Iran, the Islamic government has been ruled by the Shia majority since the fall of the Shah (King of Kings in Iran) in 1979.  In Iraq, the situation the Sunni minority ruled the country until the fall of Saddam Hussein.  Now with Saddam Hussein out of power the Shia within Iraq control the government.  The biggest reason for conflict between the Sunni and Shia is because that each side when in power, will often mistreat the other in terms of limiting opportunities related to employment, lifestyle, or social freedoms.

The following describes the relationship between Ali and the Prophet Muhammad:  “When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shias believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam.  He fought in all the battles the Prophet did except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of his favorite daughter, Fatima.  The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the ‘rightly guided caliphs’ to succeed the Prophet.  Shias revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hassan and Hussein, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth, who is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on Judgment Day.  Shias point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali.  The Shia believes that Imam Ali should be the first leader of Islam while the Sunni believe that first leader should be chosen among people” (Library of Congress country studies May 1988).  This is essentially the foundation for the separation in ideologies regarding each sect.  Events that occurred over 1400 years ago set the stage for modern-day Shia/Sunni conflict. 

The segregation and mistreatment of each sect toward the other is often encouraged by  religious clerics on each side that wish to focus on their limited differences instead of similarities. This has led to a separation of people and ideas within the region.  The following outlines the history of  persecution of the Shia: “Among Shias the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties ”(Library of Congress country studies May 1988).  Each side now views the other with mistrust and constant misunderstanding has become the norm and it will continue to be difficult for each side to overcome in Iraq and beyond.  The constant struggle taking place between the Shia and Sunni in Iraq is also the biggest reason that a civil war has been taking place in Iraq. 

When Saddam Hussein was in power he was able to maintain his Sunni dominated control of the country by the use of extensive violence as well as the threat of violence.  One example of his brutality was the gassing of the Kurds in 1988, towards the tail end of the Iraq-Iran War.  The Kurds that reside in the north part of Iraq known today as Kurdistan by those that live there have ties to their people in Turkey and Iran.  Much of the oil in the country of Iraq is in the Kurdish north (estimated to be the sixth largest oil reserve in the world) and Saddam Hussein was not going to allow this valuable resource to be possibly taken from his control.   In order to maintain his control he decided to gas the Kurds with deadly poisonous gas, which killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured another 7 ~ 10,000 people (mostly civilians) with a combination of VX, nerve gas, and mustard gas, which earned him international condemnation for his actions (Jim Karygiannis 16th March 2010).  This action was also intended to send a message that he would not tolerate any dissension towards his rule within the Iraqi population.  After the First Gulf War, Kurdistan was made into a safe haven.  It became autonomous and was ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.  Hussein used intimidation techniques throughout his rule against other political opponents, but the gassing of the Kurds was one of the most brutal and extensive uses of force during his tenure. 

The Shia and Sunni may have not completely trusted one another during Hussein’s rule of Iraq, but in order to not get the attention of the ruthless dictator, they often remained respectful towards one another in public.  Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the full scale war that was to be later termed as Operation Iraqi Freedom, many Iraqis were praying together and felt national unity regardless of their religious differences.  However, after the war began, Iraqis soon turned on one another. 

A varied perception of who has been the most violent and radical sect in Iraq since 2003 is still up for debate.  Many Westerners that had their countries face off against Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda in Iraq may want to target the Sunni in Iraq as troublemakers, but find themselves reluctant to make a completely clear claim due to the extensive violence that has been conducted by both sides towards the other.  One such example comes from Jeff Stein, a New York Times reporter.  He writes the following:  “It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia.  Or vice versa.  But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia… Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” he replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right”(Nytimes Oct. , 17,2008).  The truth is that the majority of the Shia and Sunni in Iraq have the ability to live in peace with one another, but there exists radical fringe groups in each camp that only wants to resolve their differences through violence.  The Occupational Forces further complicate the issue because each either side that cooperates with the “invaders”, is portrayed as being both anti-Muslim and anti-Iraqi by the other side. 

In Iraq, the Shia population became more dominated by religious ideologies. One reason for this was that they were experiencing the loss of their jobs and their identities.  Many Iraqi men that were unemployed and restless during the beginning of the conflict were recruited by Shia clerics to be part of their militias.  These men were not trained or skilled soldiers and many were illiterate.  These unskilled soldiers may have left a lot to be desired in terms of military expertise, but they were easy to control  by their leaders.  Many of them were brainwashed into fighting their former Sunni neighbors and into resisting any cooperation with the Occupational Forces.  However, some Iraqis were and are still able to be analytical about the conflict understanding the enormous complexity of the situation. 

One such thoughtful analysis of the situataion comes from Riverbend, an Iraqi that has kept a blog during the war.  Riverbend writes, “I don’t hate Americans, contrary to what many people seem to believe. Not because I love Americans, but simply because I don’t hate Americans, like I don’t hate the French, Canadians, Brits, Saudis, Jordanians, Micronesians, etc. It’s that simple. I was brought up, like millions of Iraqis, to have pride in my own culture and nationality. At the same time, like millions of Iraqis, I was also brought up to respect other cultures, nations and religions. Iraqi people are inquisitive, by nature, and accepting of different values- as long as you do not try to impose those values and beliefs upon them” (August 22,2003).  Riverbend has written extensively about the conditions in Iraq throughout the conflict and he paints a depressing as well as frightening picture of the security situation in Iraq at the beginning of the conflict.  His writing has been very thoughtful and has been well received by many people throughout the world.  His assessment of his country, the people, and the state of the country following the United States led invasion is objective and powerful.  Riverbend writes about how Iraqi attitudes were formed about their own situation between the years of 2004-2006.  In addition, his real life examples of how the simple act of going anywhere in Iraq had become complete chaos.  Riverbend has written about how the simple everyday task of visiting his aunt who lives 20 minutes away from him became a several hour ordeal because of the lack of security.  Reading Riverbend’s blog is a powerful reminder that conflict does not happen in the abstract.  It involves the reality of life and death and an immense amount of misery for certain people within each side’s camp.  

One of the worst outcomes of the invasion of Iraq is the fact that the country is moving in the wrong direction in terms of opportunities for women.  Riverbend writes: “ Before the war, around 50% of the college students were females, and over 50% of the working force was composed of women. Not so anymore. We are seeing an increase of fundamentalism in Iraq which is terrifying.” (August 23,2003).  For everything that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had going against it, the country had opportunity for women and the current situation will need to be addressed if the new Iraq wants to be accepted by the international political and business community.  Limiting opportunities for women in Iraq will only hurt the country’s ability to succeed in the long run.  There is no way that even the neo-conservatives that preemptively went to work in Iraq would be happy with this outcome.  The neo-cons wanted to make Iraq into an example that the rest of the Arab world would aspire to be.  It would be a great irony and tragedy that the rival of Iran would have much more opportunity than Iraq for women. 

The Iraq War has been very costly in terms of human life, but the monetary costs that have been experienced by all sides are astronomical.  The conditions for a breakdown of civility between the Shia and Sunni were created by this war and have been very costly to each sect in terms of human and financial resources despite outside assistance.  In addition, the American people have been and will still be paying for this war for many years to come.  According to Joseph Stiglitz of “The $3 Trillion War”, he estimates the cost of the Iraq war to being in the vicinity of three trillion dollars.  However,  United States government officials have continually downplayed costs using a much more modest 50 to 60 billion dollar estimate for the cost of the war.  The Iraq war is the second most expensive war in the U.S history. 

One reason for such a discrepancy in war cost calculations is that the U.S. Government only uses accounting methods based on a “cash” basis, which only take into consideration what the government spends on a per day basis until now, while ignoring the future costs of this war.  Stieglitz’s accounting method was based on the “accrual” method, which includes the daily spending in addition to the future financial obligations of the United States.  The future explicit costs include long-term costs like medical care and disability benefits.  The embedded costs of the Iraq war involve such things as an increased cost of living that include an increased cost of Iraqi domestic oil prices.  These costs can be classified in two different categories. The direct cost, which means the loss of productive capacity of young American who have been under physically disabled that prevents them from working or young Americans who were killed.  The indirect cost includes rapidly increasing oil prices that will  affect the United States in a negative way.  When the oil prices increase, the United States will spend less money on other goods, which has contributed to the current lower economic output being experienced today.  

Between 2004 and 2008 alone there have been over 200 people killed and 350 wounded in four

separate attacks that used coordinated bombings near the Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala which also

happens to be the mausoleum of Abbas ibn Ali.  Imam Hussein said that Karbala is the place of Kerbin-

wa-bala , which means the place of “pains and torture”.  The Shia sect believes that all the wars,

tragedy that has occurred in Iraq directly relates back to the death of Imam Hussein. Throughout

history, Imam Hussein mentioned that Iraq would suffer from torture in the future and this place will

not rest in peace.  Riverbend correctly assesses the situation when he writes: “Don’t blame it on Islam. Every religion has its extremists. In times of chaos and disorder, those extremists flourish.  Iraq is full of moderate Muslims who simply believe in ‘live and let live’.  We get along with each other- Sunnis and Shi’a, Muslims and Christians and Jews and Sabi’a.  We intermarry, we mix and mingle, we live. We build our churches and mosques in the same areas, our children go to the same schools… it was never an issue (08/23/03).  The future of Iraq will depend on how much of the country will be controlled by the moderates of each sect and if extremism can be minimized to a level that no longer terrorizes the Iraqi population.  Compromise and tolerance that follows a Coalition Force withdrawal are the only things that will keep Iraq from coming apart and back into a civil war.  Iraq can be a peaceful country and it will need to implement a strategy of power sharing in order for the country to rise out of the ashes of war.  If it does this, it will have a much brighter future, but it will have to limit outside influence from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Shias in Iran, and Coalition Forces to solve its own internal problems.  External forces will only prevent the reconciliation that needs to take place from occurring.  There is hope that Iraq can pull out of its current divided posture when each side realizes that it is going to be necessary to live together as Iraqi citizens instead of separated as Shia and Sunni people.