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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 socalled Golden Triangle. In the 1980s, not only was President
Saddam Husayn 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.
Nonetheless, 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 Iraq; Shias had occurred.
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 Husayn 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
(see The Baath Party
4). During the war, a number of highly competent Shia officers
have been promoted to corps commanders. The general who turned
back the initial Iranian invasions 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.
Data as of May 1988