'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Thursday, June 19, 2014
Juan Cole - Who are Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and What did we Do to them? // Absolutely Nothing: A Veteran’s Savage Indictment of the Iraq War
The two great branches of Islam coexist in Iraq across
linguistic and ethnic groups. There are Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, Sunni
Kurds and (a tiny minority of) Shiite Kurds. Arabs are a linguistic group,
speaking a Semitic language. Kurds speak and Indo-European language related to
Sunnism and Shiism as we know them have evolved over nearly
a millennium and a half. But the difference between them begins after the death
of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD (CE) in in western Arabia.
Muhammad, the son of Abdallah, had derived from the noble Quraysh clan. Those
who became the Shiites insisted he should be succeeded by Ali, his cousin and
son-in-law (and the next best thing to a living son). This dynastic principle
was rejected by the group that became the Sunnis. They turned for leadership to
prominent notables of the Quraysh, whom they saw as caliphs or vicars of the
Prophet. The first three caliphs were his in-laws, but Sunni principles said
that they needn’t have been– any prominent, pious male of the Quraysh would
There is a vague analogy to the split between Catholicism
and Protestantism, on the difference between seeing Peter as the foundation of
the Church and of seeing Paul as that. Iraq was part of the medieval
caliphates– the Orthodox Caliphs, then the Umayyad Arab kingdom, and then the
Abbasids. In 1258 the invading Mongols (themselves Buddhists and animists)
and executed the last caliph. It is said that they were warned that it was very
bad luck to shed the blood of a caliph, so they rolled him up in a Persian rug
and beat him to death with hammers.
Parts of what is now Iraq were ruled by the Mongol Il
Khanid state (which gradually became Muslim), and then by fragmented small
principalities until the rise of the two great Middle Eastern empires of the
early modern period, the Safavid and the Ottoman. The Safavids, based in Iran, were Shiites and ruled Baghdad 1508-1534. Then the Ottomans, Sunnis
based in what is now Turkey, took Iraq in 1534 and ruled it, with the exception
of a couple of decades of Iranian reassertion, until World War I.
The elite of Iraq
was Sunni since the medieval period, though there were always significant
Shiite movements. In the course of the late 18th and the nineteenth centuries,
under Ottoman rule, the tribes of the south of Iraq gradually converted to Shiite
Islam. This may have been a form of protest against Ottoman oppression. It was
in part influence from wealthy Shiite states in India
after the fall of the Mughal Empire in the 1700s and before the imposition of
British direct rule over all of North India
from 1856. The Indian Shiite potentates or Nawabs gave money for the building
of water canals out to the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala
which suffered from lack of water. Once the canals were built, tribes irrigated
off them and settled near the holy cities, the residents of which proselytized
them into Shiism.
The elites of Mosul and Baghdad, however, tied to
patronage from the Ottoman Sultan, resisted this conversion movement and
remained Sunnis, recognizing the four Orthodox Caliphs. From about 1880,
Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II started claiming to be a caliph, on the medieval
model. This claim wasn’t universally accepted but it was popular among Muslims
in colonized British India in particular. The
British, French and Russians defeated the Ottomans in World War I, after which
the empire collapsed. In 1924 the new secular Republic of Turkey
under Mustafa Kemal Attaturk abolished the caliphate. Sunnis became like
Protestants, organized by country and lacking a central node of authority. Some
fundamentalist Sunnis refused to accept this situation and dreamed of
reconstituting the caliphate as a center of authority that could unite 1.5
billion Muslims and deliver them from their divided estate and consequent
weakness in the face of the West.
When the British took Iraq
during World War I, after the Ottomans unwisely allied with Germany and Austria,
they mainly turned to the Sunni elites as partners in building a new “Mandate”
or colony recognized by the League of Nations.
When the Iraqis revolted in 1920 against the prospect of British colonialism,
desiring independent statehood instead, the British brought in Faisal as king.
He was the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, and a Sunni, who had allied with the
British (think Lawrence of Arabia) to revolt against the Ottomans during the
Faisal lacked roots in Iraq,
and turned, in order to rule the country, to the Sunni mercantile and
bureaucratic elites of Baghdad and Mosul. He also picked up
the remnants of the Ottoman-trained officer corps to constitute his new
military, almost all of them Sunnis (the Sunni Ottomans were skittish about
12er Shiite officers).
Although the Shiites were a majority in Iraq, Sunnis predominated in
positions of power and wealth throughout the twentieth century. When the Baath
Party, a secular, socialist and nationalist movement, came to power in 1968, it
was dominated by Sunnis from the area north of Baghdad. The Baathists created a one-party
state and repressed religious Shiites (and also religious Sunnis who mixed in
politics). The high generals, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and politicians were
Sunni. There were Shiites in the Baath Party, but they had less status than the
Sunnis. After the Gulf War of 1990-91 when the US and allies pushed Iraq back out of Kuwait,
the Shiites of south Iraq
rose up. The US
had urged them to do so, but stood by while the Baath massacred the Shiites.
The Shiite religious parties interpreted this spring 1991 repression as
sectarian genocide. Belonging to the main Shiite religious party, the Da’wa
(Call or Mission)
Party, was made a capital crime by the Baath already in 1980 and members were
often killed and put in mass graves.
In the 1990s when Iraq
was under severe US and UN sanctions, some lived on smuggling oil and other
goods out to Jordan. .. read more:
All we fought for in Iraq is on the cusp of vanishing.
That’s what Mitt Romney says.
We fought for. We fought for. We.
Oh, so it’s we now, is it, Mitt?
I must have missed you over there, but it was a busy place.
We. The guy who helped set up “pro-draft” rallies and yet somehow managed to
avoid service in Vietnam
is upset about losing what “we” fought for? We.
Yeah, fuck you, Mitt.
And you’re all welcome to quote me on that...
From the day of my arrival (and before that really) to the
day the war started, and for months after, I was a Navy intelligence officer
working in support of the invasion force. There’s not much I don’t know
about the events leading up to war and the aftermath of the invasion.