Follow @southasiaanalys

IRAQ: After Saddam, the Mullas & Imams


Paper No. 667                                 21.04.2003


by B. Raman

The secular Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein of Iraq stressed the national identity of the people as Iraqis and not their religious or sectarian or ethnic identity.  In pursuit of this policy, census reports and other official documents did not generally give the religious or sectarian or ethnic  composition of the population.  They also refrained from identifying prominent personalities by their religion or sect or ethnicity.

2. Consequently, there are no authentic Iraqi official figures of the religious or ethnic composition of the population.  The figures, which circulate, are estimates largely from non-Iraqi sources, mainly Western sources, who often over-estimate or under-estimate the composition of different sectarian groups depending on the propaganda needs of the moment.

3. While everybody, including Iraqi officials, are agreed that the Shias constitute the majority of the population, there is little agreement on what percentage of the population they constitute.  As a result, one finds wildly fluctuating figures of the Shia component of the population ranging between 51  and 70 per cent.

4. The psychological apparatus of the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used to project the Shias as constituting about 51 per cent during the 1980s, when anti-Teheran Iraq was seen with a benevolent eye by  the US and Donald Rumsfeld, present Defence Secretary, and other officials of the Reagan Administration were rubbing shoulders with Saddam Hussein, hailing him as a benign dictator with a secular outlook who enjoyed the support and loyalty of the Shias in Iraq's war against Iran.

5. After the first Gulf war of 1991, the same apparatus  started inflating the total number of Shias in the country and projecting him as a malignant tyrant, who suppressed the Shias. Initially, the Shias were said to have constituted about 60 per cent of the population and  this figure further increased to 70 per cent before the outbreak of the recent US-UK invasion.  They calculated that stories of how a tiny Sunni  minority of 26 per cent suppressed a vast Shia majority of 70 per cent would create a more negative image of the Saddam regime in the eyes of the international community than the previous figures of  46 per cent Sunnis and 51 per cent Shias.

6. The positive projection of the Saddam Hussein regime and its policies towards the Shias, which was the prevailing policy of Washington in the 1980s, was also reflected in a Congressional study of May,1988, which said:

"Until the 1980s, the dominant view of contemporary political analysts held that Iraq was badly split along sectarian lines.  The claim was that the Sunnis--although a minority--ran Iraq and subjected the majority Shias to systematic discrimination. According to the prevailing belief, the Shias would drive the Sunnis from power, if once afforded an opportunity to do so.

"There was some basis to this notion.  For many years Iraq was ruled by-and-large by Arab Sunnis who tended to come from a restricted area around Baghdad, Mosul, and Ar Rutbah--the so called Golden Triangle.  In the 1980s, not only was President Saddam Hussein a Sunni, but he was the vice chairman of the ruling Baath Party (Arab Socialist Resurrection). One of the two deputy prime ministers and the defense minister were also Sunnis.  In addition, the top posts in the security services have usually been held by Sunnis, and most of the army's corps commanders have been Sunnis.  It is also true that the most depressed region of the country is the south, where the bulk of the Shias reside.

"None the less, the theory of sectarian strife was undercut by the behavior of Iraq's Shia community during Iran's 1982 invasion and the fighting thereafter.  Although about three-quarters of the lower ranks of the army were Shias, as of early 1988, no general insurrection of Iraqi Shias had occurred.  My comment: Please note that the Americans who today blame Saddam for the war with Iran, accused Iran of being the aggressor in their propaganda of the 1980s)

"Even in periods of major setback for the Iraqi army--such as the Al Faw debacle in 1986--the Shias have continued staunchly to defend their nation and the Baath regime. They have done so despite intense propaganda barrages mounted by the Iranians, calling on them to join the Islamic revolution.

"It appears, then, that, however important sectarian affiliation may have been in the past, in the latter 1980s nationalism was the basic determiner of loyalty.  In the case of Iraq's Shias, it should be noted that they are Arabs, not Persians, and that they have been the traditional enemies of the Persians for centuries.  The Iraqi government has skillfully exploited this age-old enmity in its propaganda, publicizing the war as part of the ancient struggle between the Arab and Persian empires.  For example, Baathist publicists regularly call the war a modern day "Qadisiyah." Qadisiyah was the battle in A.D.637 in which the Arabs defeated the pagan hosts of Persia, enabling Islam to spread to the East.

"The real tension in Iraq in the latter 1980s was between the majority of the population, Sunnis as well as Shias, for whom religious belief and practice were significant values, and the secular Baathists, rather than between Sunnis and Shias.  Although the Shias had been underrepresented in government posts in the period of the monarchy, they made substantial progress in the educational, business, and legal fields. Their advancement in other areas, such as the opposition parties, was such that in the years from 1952 to 1963, before the Baath Party came to power, Shias held the majority of party leadership posts. Observers believed that in the late 1980s Shias were represented at all levels of the party roughly in proportion to government estimates of their numbers in the population. For example, of the eight top Iraqi leaders who in early 1988 sat with Hussein on the Revolutionary Command Council--Iraq's highest governing body-- three were Arab Shias (of whom one had served as Minister of Interior), three were Arab Sunnis, one was an Arab Christian, and one a Kurd.  On the Regional Command Council--the ruling body of the party--Shias actually predominated . During the war, a number of highly competent Shia officers have been promoted to corps commanders.  The general who turned back the initial Iranian invasion of Iraq in 1982 was a Shia.

"The Shias continued to make good progress in the economic field as well during the 1980s. Although the government does not publish statistics that give breakdowns by religious affiliation, qualified observers noted that many Shias migrated from rural areas, particularly in the south, to the cities, so that not only Basra but other cities including Baghdad acquired a Shia majority.  Many of these Shias prospered in business and the professions as well as in industry and the service sector. Even those living in the poorer areas of the cities were generally better off than they had been in the countryside. In the rural areas as well, the educational level of Shias came to approximate that of their Sunni counterparts.

"In summary, prior to the war the Baath had taken steps toward integrating the Shias.  The war placed inordinate demands on the regime for manpower, demands that could only be met by levying the Shia community--and this strengthened the regime's resolve to further the integration process.  In early 1988, it seemed likely that when the war ends, the Shias would emerge as full citizens-- assuming that the Baath survives the conflict. " Citation ends.

7. In the 1990s, after Saddam had fallen foul of the US and after the objective of a regime change in Baghdad became the driving force of US policy, the pre-1990 sympathetic projection of Saddam by the USA's psy-warriors changed to a vicious projection of him as the source of all evils in the Iraqi society and as the head of a Sunni cabal, in a tiny minority, ruthlessly suppressing the vast Shia majority.  Demographic estimates were changed almost overnight to suit the USA's propaganda needs.

8. Ever since Saddam came to power, the Baath Party and the Iraqi Army ruthlessly suppressed all fundamentalist elements in society, whether Sunnis or Shias, and vigorously enforced their secular ideology. They banned madrasas and the use of loudspeakers in mosques, made it a crime for mosques to receive money from foreign organisations, prohibited sermons of a political nature by the mullas and Imams, banned girl students from covering their heads in schools and the public demonstration of religious faith such as the chest-beating mohurrem processions of the Shias and the Ramadan processions of the Sunnis.  Religious elements violating these provisions were arrested and prosecuted without mercy.

9. Though these actions were taken against the Sunnis as well as the Shias, the CIA's psy-war apparatus, in an attempt to drive a wedge between the Shias and the Sunnis and to cause a Shia uprising against Saddam, projected these measures as directed only against the Shias.  The fact that these bans applied to the Sunnis too was never mentioned.

10. The real facts about the seriousness of the so-called Shia uprising in Basra in 1991 are not known.  Till now, one has had only largely Western accounts, much varnished with their objectivity much in question. Independent non-Western accounts are difficult to come by. However, it would seem that the CIA and the MI-6, the British external intelligence agency, did succeed in driving a wedge between the Shias and the Sunnis in Basra and instigating a section of the Shias of that city to rise in revolt against Saddam.  Reports of the revolt and prospects of Shia fundamentalists replacing the secular Baath regime set alarm bells ringing in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrein.  The US and the UK, therefore, withdrew their support to the revolt, enabling Saddam to crush it without difficulty.

11. This did not, however, prevent the US and the UK from reviving their psy-war efforts to radicalise the Shia community in Iraq after the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act by the US Congress in 1998. Just as the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies injected fundamentalist ideas and elements into socialist and secular Afghanistan in the 1980s in order to whip up a jihad against the Soviet and Afghan troops, they tried to inject a similar poison into the Iraqi society to drive a wedge not only between the Shias and the Sunnis, but also between the religious and the secular elements in Iraqi society.  In their efforts to undermine the Saddam regime, they did not hesitate to use the religious card, forgetting the lessons of the diastrous consequences of their using a similar modus operandi in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

12. For this purpose, they operated at two levels.  They used the Saudi intelligence and the mullas controlled by it to subvert the loyalty of the Sunnis of Iraq.  Since they could not have  made a similar use  of the Iranian intelligence to subvert the Shias, they started establishing direct contacts with the religious leaders of the Shia community in Iraq. These subversive attempts could not make much headway as one saw by the lack of any Shia uprising during the beginning of the recent US-UK invasion.

13. In their desperate efforts to get the support of the Shias, the CIA focussed on two Shia leaders--one Iraq-based and the other London-based.  The Iraq -based leader was Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, based at Najaf.  As the only Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, he was considered the senior most leader of the Shia community of Iraq.  Last September, Sistani had issued a fatwa urging Muslims to stand united "and do their best to defend dear Iraq and protect it from the schemes of covetous aggressors."

14. After the Americans had surrounded Najaf and when they found the local population fierecely resisting American capture of the town, the commanding officer of one of the two brigades of the 101st Airborne Division met Sistani and managed to persuade/pressurise  him to issue another fatwa cancelling his earlier directive to oppose the invaders.  On April 3, Sistani succumbed to the US pressure and issued another fatwa appealing to his followers not to obstruct the advance of the US forces.  The next day, the US troops captured Najaf.

15. The issue of two contradictory fatwas by Sistani  came in for criticism from large sections of the Shia community. The Americans tried to meet this criticism by circulating reports that the Ayatollah's fatwa of September last was not issued by him at all and that it had been issued by the Saddam regime by forging his signature.  This did not carry conviction since Sistani had not denied till April 3 his authorship of the September fatwa.

16. The same day, the CIA had  Abdul Majid al-Khoei, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei, who was Ayatollah Sistani's teacher, flown to Najaf from London, where he had been  living in exile for 12 years, in order to rally the local Shia population in support of the Americans.  Before leaving London, he had, at American instance, issued a statement praising the American troops for taking care not to damage the Shia holy shrines at Najaf.  On April 10, the day after the fall of Baghdad, he and an aide  were brutally stabbed to death in an incident at the Grand Imam Ali Mosque of Najaf, the circumstances of which are still not clear.

17. While the Americans projected the murder as due to internal rivalries amongst the leading Shia clergy of Najaf, the local population believed that al-Khoei was murdered because he was seen as an American stooge.  In a statement, Mohammad Baqer Musawi al-Muhri, a pro-US Shia cleric based in Kuwait, blamed an organisation called the Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani for the murder.  This organisation is headed by Moqtada Sadr, the 22-year-old son of Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, a Shia leader killed along with his two other sons in 1999, allegedly by the Iraqi intelligence agency.

18. After this incident, Moqtada formed the Jimmat and started an underground movement against the Saddam regime and developed a large following amongst the poor Shias.  Apart from the two Kurdish organisations, his was the only organisation, which fought against the Saddam regime from inside the country without any foreign help instead of from exile.

19. In an attempt to take over the leadership of the Shia community,he projected  Sistani, who is Iranian born and hence viewed by many Shias as a Persian and not an Arab, Sheikh Is'hak Fayyad, an Afghan-born Shia scholar  based at Najaf,  Sayyed Mohammad Said al-Hakim, another Shia cleric based at Najaf, and his Teheran-based uncle Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, who heads the
Iran and US backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), as stooges of Iran promoting Persian and not Arab interests.  Followers of his group surrounded the residence of Sistani and ordered him to leave Iraq and go to Iran within 48 hours.  Thereupon, American special forces quietly whisked Sistani away from there and took him under their protection.

20.The SAIRI  issued a statement in Teheran condemning these incidents and urged Iraqis  to "refrain from taking revenge against each other. " The mushrooming of contending centres of religious influence and power not only at Najaf, but also in Baghdad after the US-UK invasion has posed a dilemma for the Iranian leaders.  They are anxious to exert their influence over the Shias of Iraq, which is still very limited because of the ethnic rivalry (Arabs vs Persians), and prevent them from undermining each other, lest thereby they play into the hands of the Americans.  At the same time, they are worried that too overt and activist a role by Teheran might aggravate US concerns and make Iranian nuclear establishments the next target of the US.  They do not presently apprehend an invasion of Iran by the US, but do fear a pre-emptive  attack on their nuclear establishments either by the US directly or indirectly by encouraging Israel to do so.

21. There have been contradictory signals from Teheran. While the reformist advisers of President Mohammed Khatami have kept their rhetoric restrained and have been urging restraint on SAIRI and the Badr Brigade, its militant wing, which is estimated to have about 10,000 armed cadres at its disposal, not all of them Iraqis, and others, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai has been issuing strongly anti-US statements.

22. Addressing a Friday congregation at Teheran on April 11, the Ayatollah said that a US  military rule in Iraq, even if only temporary, would amount to  an "aggression against Islam".  He called upon the Iraqi opposition groups not to commit a "historic disgrace" by collaborating with the Anglo-American invaders.  He said: "Our position is the same as that of the Iraqi nation. The Iraqi nation is happy about Saddam Hussein's departure and we are happy about Saddam Hussein's departure.  Happiness about Saddam's departure has nothing to do with the arrival of the occupier. We consider this to be an aggression against Islam. The Iraqi people have not escaped from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein only to come under the yoke of the bigger dictatorship of an American."

23.Outside the Republican Guards and the so-called Special Republican Guards, which had mostly Sunnis at all levels, other Iraqi Army units had a majority of Shias at the lower and middle levels.  It is a mystery as to what happened to them.  Some sources say that the Hizbollah and the Iranian intelligence sent them secret instructions not to confront the Americans which could be suicidal, but to discard their uniforms, merge with the population and wait for a suitable opportunity to start a jihad against the invaders.

24. As in the case of the Shias, in the case of the Sunnis too the destruction of the Baath regime with its secular ideology and the power vacuum have given rise to the religious clerics trying to assume the leadership role in Baghdad and other places.  The extent of the influence already wielded by them and their street power were seen in the impressive anti-US demonstrations in Baghdad after the Friday prayers on April 18. During the sermons in the mosques, the clerics projected the US as the common enemy of both the Shias and the Sunnis and called upon the two communities to fight jointly against the invaders.

25. The letting loose of the religious fundamentalist genie by the US in its obsessive urge to destroy the Saddam regime could come to haunt the US and the rest of the world in the months to come.  Of all the West Asian countries, Iraq, thanks to the progressive ideology of the Baath Party and its investment in education, had the most secular-minded intellectual class.  Since all of them belonged to the Baath Party, the over-demonisation of the  Party and its ideology by the invading forces and their Iraqi cohorts had driven these intellectuals underground leaving the field open for fundamentalists of various hues.  The plans of Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress for what he describes as the de-baathification of Iraq could pave the way for the Talibanisation of Iraq one day.

26. If the US were intelligent, it would befriend these intellectuals, encourage and help them to re-assert their leadership in the Iraqi society and make it clear to them that its campaign was against the dictatorship of Saddam and not against the Baath ideology. If the US does not do a mid-course correction, an Islamic revolution in Iraq is quite on the cards. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: )