Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Sectarianism Rears Its Head in Nasiriyya

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 June 2010 20:01

In his latest Friday prayer in Nasiriyya, Muhammad Mahdi al-Nasiri, a seat winner for State of Law (SLA) in the parliamentary election in Dhi Qar, gave some indication about troublesome tendencies of sectarianism inside a bloc that at times has attempted to portray itself as more national than the other Shiite-led coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).

In his talk, Nasiri warns against repeating the “British policy of appointing a premier from the biggest component (mukawwin) but giving real power to a different component.” He goes on to clarify that this biggest component is different from those of the other Arab countries, who maybe don’t like that it has power in Iraq because it would be difficult to dominate it, given its strong ties to its religious leadership. As examples of the continuation of the British policy, Nasiri enumerates two examples of what he calls “figurehead” Shiites who held premierships during the Saddam Hussein era, Hamza al-Zubaydi and Sadun Humadi! Nasiri now fears the United States is supporting a repeat of the alleged “British” policy. He also reiterates his previous demand for a census that would keep track of sectarian identities (it has been expected that the next census will not sub-classify the various Muslim and Christian denominations), though without necessarily applying this information to identity cards…

The speech is a clear attempt at delegitimizing a premiership by Ayad Allawi, who is Shiite but comes from a different party than Nasiri, the secular Iraqiyya. It is also deeply flawed in terms of its claims to historical knowledge. It is true that the British were reluctant about giving power to Shiite ministers in the 1920s, when in long periods only the education minister was Shiite. However, direct British influence had declined considerably when in the 1940s Shiite premiers began emerging, and it would be highly reductionist to see the appointment of men like Salih Jabr, Muhammad al-Sadr, Fadel al-Jamali and Abd al-Wahhab Mirjan as mere reflections of British diktats.

Even more of a far stretch is of course the suggestion about continuity from the British policy of the 1920s to that of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. But then again, it seems that both the law and history are cheerfully being ignored in today’s Iraq, and without any effective protest being heard.

35 Responses to “Sectarianism Rears Its Head in Nasiriyya”

  1. Ali W said

    Salih Jabr, Muhammad al-Sadr, Fadel al-Jamali and Abd al-Wahhab Mirjan as mere reflections of British diktats.

    Reidar, were did real power lie when those men hold office?

  2. What to do about sectarianism? Don’t deny it, control it.
    Nasiri is an imam, sectarianism is his profession, he wouldn’t rise if he wasn’t sectarian, but he shouldn’t get away with mis-interpreting history. Thank you Reidar for your calmer, fairer look at Iraq’s history.

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, the point is, power was dispersed. Of course some power was in the palace, some rested with Nuri al-Said who remained in the background much of the time, but you cannot deny a degree of real autonomy for these men.

  4. Ali W said

    Reidar, power was not representative. These men were shia politicians in a sunni system. The fact is power means the ability to influence foreign affairs, declare war, change big policies etc, these men did not hold the ultimate power what so ever. The power lies in the army were 80% of the officers were sunni, the crown, and his advisors. If they had a little power, its no consolation for the 70% of the population who deserved a lot more.

    I agree wuth what he says to be honest.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    I don’t think you can take away the individual role of people like Jamali and Mirjan on a number of key issues in the 1950s, including the Baghdad Pact.

    More fundamentally, to try to enforce a sectarian reading on the 1940s and the 1950s seems really artificial. Batatu has shown how the main cleavage back then was about living standards and the Shiites accounted both for the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.

  6. Jason said

    If anything, census takers should be banned from asking about race or sect. I wish we could do that even here in the U.S. It serves no constructive purpose whatsoever. It serves only sharpen divisions and facilitate arguments about who is not getting their fair share – based not on the merits of their productivity, but on what color or religion their parents happened to be.

    Ali, what is the difference between a “Shia system” and a “Sunni system?” That only makes a lick of sense if you contend that the proper role of govt is to control and allocate the nation’s wealth according to sect, which I would argue is not a proper role for govt at all. Don’t you think all Iraqis would benefit from putting away this tribalist/law of the jungle mentality, and adopting a more modern one where the role of govt is more limited to providing security and maintaining a level playing field, and let markets allocate wealth among individuals based on their smarts, skills, and industriousness in private industry and commerce?

  7. Jason,
    “census takers should be banned from asking about race or sect.”
    Asking for sect is a double edged sword; it could hurt the sectarian in the wrong place. I believe that any census when conducted fairly is a good one and of vital importance to democracy. However, the question of sect and race should accomodate all logical answers, such as of mixed blood (Arabic and Kurdish or neither), neither sunni nor shia (just muslim) and no answer (atheist/agnostic).
    The problem could be in the organization which runs the census, if it is made up of Nasiri’s friends then you can bet the results will be warped, that’s why I called for UNCEI in 2006.

  8. Ali W said

    What I meant with sunni system, is that the government was by law a suuni government back then. The monarchy was sunni, the army was suuni etc.

    Yes I want exactly what u said, however that at the moment is unrealistic because there are regional powers interfering, and the baath party is active trying to bring back the sunnis to power, and wahabi terrorists who are trying to wipe out the shia, who bomb our mosques and markets. Believe me Jason, if a small number of black people start targeting white people in the USA, bombing markets whi are predominately white, etc i believe their reaction would show the shia of Iraq an extremly tolerant and patient people.

    I have said this before, in my view, the government that your talking about will only form when the insurgency is eliminated and the sunnis stop demanding more than their population deserves.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, how was the whole “system” really “Sunni”, I mean “by law” as per your comment, other than that the monarch happened to come from a Sunni family? Which law defined the army as a “Sunni” army?

  10. Ali W said

    sorry Reidar, my mistake, what I meant, that the law in Iraq at that placed most of the power in the hands of the King, therefore the law only really allowed “real” power in the hands of those who will always be sunni, whilst the majority of the population was shia.

  11. Jason said
    The census creates divisiveness in America as well.

  12. Jason said

    Heh, Roggio links reports that 25 “wanted men” were rounded up today in Basra and Wasit. That should make for interesting conversation at the negotiating table between SLA and INA.

  13. observer said

    If SLA is so worried about “preserving” the “right” of She3a to hold the PM position, wouldn’t you think that they would have agreed to merge BEFORE the elections? Or even after the elections? The speech is about preserving power for SLA not She3a! I think there is a real danger that SLA is setting the stage for a constitutional coup where they can move the people to the streets if they do not get their wish (The PM position for an SLA candidate). With the firing of officers (some 600 since the elections) and replacing them with “friendly” officers and the attempted replacement of Saraj (Compensation Commission which reports to the Parliament) and a whole host of moves that took place in the last three months, I am of the opinion that the SLA is really fearing a regime change which could bring their people to account for the corruption of the last 4 years. I think SLA/Da3wa is fighting for its political viability – nothing short of that. In other words, this is an existential struggle for them and thus it is win or die/not win or be opposition. Politicians from other blocs should be sensitive to this threat and try to ameliorate the threat these people are feeling.

    As for the historical role of She3a (i.e. Salih Jabur, Jumaili, etc.) – Nobody wants to acknowledge the real reason for the small share of government positions. Please recall that it was the Marje3ia of the 20s that advised She3a not tow work with the government as it was an agent of the English. The whole reason for including Musil Wilaiat as part of Iraq in 1925 “referendum” was so that the demographical picture would be equally divided between sunis and she3a. The fact that she3a where religiously advised not to take part in government meant that they would leave well paying government jobs to become entrepreneurs which lead them to be the leading figures in the free market and thus by the 1950’s they more or less controlled the economy of Iraq.

    So which came first; The chicken or the egg? Is the control of the sunnis on government a result of a deliberate discrimination policy or is it the by product of the religions edicts of the Marje3ia? I think that this is a topic for reflection by neutral historians.

  14. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, I think that regardless of what one thinks about the influence of the British in “adding” the Mosul vilayet to the Basra-Baghdad core, it is udeniable that there were Iraqi nationalists among the Shiites who wrote in glowing terms about Mosul and its Iraqiness prior to 1925. Examples that come to mind include Kazim al-Dujayli and Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir.

    As for the marjaiyya, I wonder whether the policy of non-participation had become quite diluted by the early 1930s, when Faysal promoted Muhammad Hussein Kashif al-Ghita as an “Arab marja”, and when Nayini and Isfahani refrained from pressing for non-participation in a very aggressive fashion?

    With respect to Nasiri, it should be stressed that his ideas on a sectarian census predate his joining the SLA. I remember back in 2003 he sounded very liberal when it came to issues such as imposing Islamic dress code.

  15. observer said

    The motivation of Dujaili and other “nationalist arab she3a” may be a reflection of their own specific desire to make Iraq as big as possible. These people may or may not have been aware of the real motivation of the British in trying to reduce the threat the She3a Marji3ia had on the British “influence” on the politics of Iraq and thus the British desire to control the oil resources of Iraq.

    Without a doubt, there were She3 who did not pay attention to the desire of the Marji3ia and there were many that took jobs with the government, but not in conformance with their proportion of society. The end result is the same, regardless of the reasoning. The initial steps of “building capacity” of Iraqis resulted in the sunni-arabs being over represented in the civil service and the military services because of the She3a deference to their religious authority. That this deference became less and less with time does not affect the end result in that the majority of the senior civil service corps were more sunni than she3a. Since civil service salaries were much better than the market salaries in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, it resulted then that the children of the senior civil services became the “well educated” of the next generations. Having said that, I see no evidence of deliberate discrimination in provision of services and division of income to majority Sunni Liwaa (governorates of west/north) vs. She3a Liwaas (central euphrates and south).

    The point I am making is that there is a potential of the “unintended consequences” that Iraqis, in general, seem to be unable to account for in the formation of their own opinion about the history of modern Iraq. Ali’s attitude is not an aberration, rather it is the view of the majority of She3a Iraqis that I talk to/with. Thus, I see a need for studies by neutral researchers/historians that can help Iraqis understand their own history better. The problem, of course, is that we Iraqis of today take the point of view of our own parents (since we did not live in the 30’s through 60’s) and do not question the root events that lead to the situation being what it is today. And this, inevitably, leads to “bad blood”…..

    I will also ask a rhetorical question: Why is it that we hold the sunnis of todays responsible for their parent’s “mistakes”. Can there be no forgiveness?. There are times when I think that the biggest tragedy of post 2003 Iraq is the killing of Majeed al Khoie. He had the potential (and the credentials) to become Iraq’s Mandala and Bishop Tutu combined. His killer somehow now has the power to CHOOSE the next PM of Iraq – a farce if I have ever seen one.

  16. Observer,
    You think like an Iraqi, not all Iraqis do..
    Regarding the need for studies, I recall a sociological study of Iraqis in Montreal in 2004. It is a long story but the conclusion is: The Shia Iraqis in Montreal are a majority but most of them act like (or have the values of) a minority, while the Sunnis are a minority but most have the values of a majority. Aly’s attitude is like a minority under siege; he is placing conditions on his own satisfaction when he is among the majority, with such an attitude you cannot lead a mixed nation.
    The siege mentality of Maliki began before 3 months ago, I had a sense of it when I visited Baghdad last year, I agree with your observation but I think Maliki keeps shooting himself in the foot, it is hard to feel sympathy with his attitudes.

  17. Ali W said

    The baath party has an office in Damascus, Lebanon,Jordan, Libya and Yemen. They have money, and men on the grounds. They are bombing and killing. Last week, the leader of Al Qaeda pledged to make it a bloody month for the shia.

    And you excpect us not be scared??? We have enemies like Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Allies and Egypt, Jordan etc, + the sunnis in my country are not happy with numerous positions of influence in government, so why should not be scared??

    Why should Nasiri not be scared?

  18. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, Nasiri clearly spoke about Allawi. Your comment includes references to al-Qaeda, as if there was some kind of connection between the two topics. I just don’t see the connection.

  19. Ali W said

    I also mentioned Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc, and he has very good relations with those givernments that actively repress their own shia minorities. They are a bigger danger than Al qaeda.

    How can I as a shia be prepared to accept Allawi with open hands when he is in bed with my arch enemies?

  20. Reidar Visser said

    I read that as a confirmation that the Al-Qaeda reference was out of place.

  21. Ali W said

    No, i was replying to Faisal who stated that we shia are acting as a minority and that we are scared, how can we not be scared when we have so many enemies, one of which is al qaeda.

  22. Aly,
    We all have fear but you externalize and you don’t have accurate and full information. There is nothing wrong with trying to benefit the Shia but don’t try to smash Saudi Arabia, Egypt and all who you don’t like. Think of what will happen if you succeed!!

  23. Mohammed said

    Observer and Faisal:

    Your points about how Shia “act like a minority” when they are really a majority in Iraq has some truth. However, let us remember that within the overall arab world, shia ARE a minority. Furthermore, the sunni arab countries that surround Iraq are far more sectarian and oppresive of their shia minorities, than the level of sectarianism you accuse Iraq shiites of. No sunni arab country wants shia in iraq to be in the position of power.

    Are there examples of sunnis being discriminated against in Iraq today? Sure. Do I agree with it? Not at all. However, many sunnis in Iraq today do not believe shia should be in a position to rule the country. In my view, Allawi is merely a vehicle for the return of sunni domination. Iraqiya is by and large a sunni party. I do not favor a law that stipulates that a sunni party cannot govern Iraq. But, I believe in democracy. If State of Law and INA together can form a majority block, then they should have right to lead the government formation. It is rather silly for the sunni party (Iraqiya) to think that they should decide who is the PM or there will be civil war. Like I said, if you ask most sunni arabs in Iraq today if they would rather that Saddam was still ruling, the majority would say yes. If you ask most shiites, the majority would say that their future now is brighter than it was under Saddam. The Kurds also are glad Saddam is gone.

    Observer, you asked why should Shia punnish sunni Iraqis of today for the excesses of their forebears? However, I believe that question is completely the wrong question. We are only 7 years post-baath rule in Iraq. When the Baath ruled Iraq 7 years ago (as well as in the 80s and 90s), there is overwhelming evidence that shia were discriminated against. The primary schools taught islamic history from the sunni lens, the official holidays were based upon sunni interpretations, shia religious books were banned, shia celebrations during ashurah, 15th shaaban, etc were heavily supressed. Did Saddam supress sunnis too? Sure he did, but not to the same level. He decimated the marsh arabs and any other shia communities to a far greater extent. All the big mosques that were built were mainly managed by the sunni establishment. Very few shia mosques (husseiniyas) were allowed to operate. Many shia Iraqis who left Iraq and came to the USA in the 90s tell me that only in the USA, did they finally feel free to practice their religion. Iraq was suffocating for shia. Why are the sunnis so much against this Iraqi government and willing to fight? Why were they not fighting against Saddam and having demonstrations in the street against his corruption and tyranny like they do against Al-Maliki?

    So, when I see that Allawi + Hashemi + Nujaifi + Mutlag are trying jump to the top of power in Iraq, I sincerely hope that they do not succeed. They do not represent the views of the majority of Iraqis. Allawi may be a shiite in name, but his power does not come from shia support. He is seen as the ideal shiite who worked within the baath party and still maintains those connections. When Allawi shows that he is such great buddies with King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia (where shia are considered heretics by the wahabi establishment), that does not endear him in my eyes. I am similarly disgusted by Muqtada Sadr and Hakim when they show that they have no morals and cozy up to the mullah gangsters of Iran. Al-Maliki has tried his best to walk the middle ground (he sometimes has veered off). But I am not seeking perfection right now. I would rather take the good, instead of waiting for the best, or settling for much worse (Allawi or a Sadr-Hakim Puppet). Say what you will about al-Maliki, but Iraq is better off today than it was before Maliki, and that is the number one thing I look for in a PM.

  24. observer said

    A quick response, as I am really too busy to get into a detailed response..

    I, as a SHE3A Iraqi, refuse to give my vote to the likes of Da3wa or SCIRI!!!! I am a secular, therefore, I am an Iraqi BEFORE any other hyphenation. Allawi and Iraqia to me, today, is the ONLY viable secular movement. Da3wa and SCIRI, with the help of “educated she3a Iraqis” have a solid claim to being the representative of She3a today (given that you and others refuse to recognize Iraqia as a secualr and insist on calling it a Sunni vehicle – repeating verbatim the claims of the same SECTARIAN vehicles you proclaim to be an enemy of. Bravo for Chalabi and comapny is all I can say for being so brilliant in fooling you all.

    Muhammad – I know my words are harsh and forgive me for I see Iraqi disintegrating before my very own eyes because people, like you, are forgetting about democratic principals and not thinking of the long term future of democracy in Iraq because they can not see the forest for trees. You want Maliki and SICIR to form the government ? Please review the results of the elections in England and just yesterday in Holland. The WINNING electrical bloc has the FIRST right in forming the government. IF they can’t then let Maliki have at it.

    All of you are living outside Iraq (I can see that from your writing). Let me tell you about us inside Iraq. We have electricity for a few hours a day. We cuss Maliki and Allawi and Hakim!!!!! I hate Saddam more than you will ever think possible, but I refuse to accuse my Sunni BROTHER of the crimes of Saddam. Stop this insanity for goodness sake. Learn something from the Christian societies you live in – FORGIVE and LOVE your enemy. Live in tomorrow NOT yesterday. For goodness sakes’ – you are the educated of Iraq. The ones that we want back here helping us re-build from the ashes of destruction, not make our problems and DIVISIONS deeper.

    Sorry Reider, but it is becoming almost impossible to have hope in this place.

  25. Ali W said

    Observer, first of all relax lol.

    Second of all, pls dont talk about people like us as living outside Iraq. I think I know who you are, and you have lived in north london most of your life. My brother just moved back to Iraq last week, and I will be following once i’m chartered accountant, not to join politics but to open up businesses and help build the Iraqi economy, and I would like to think I know more about whats happening than most.

    You support Iraqia because you are secular…hmmmmmmm interesting. So is Hashemi secular? Because as far as I was aware he was an islamist not too long ago.

    And INM is not a secterian party, really, so Mutlaq is not secterian? OR Hashemi or the other leaders??? My god Observer, thank god there are not many like you, or else you would have delivered us to the jaws of the arabs.

    And let me tell you about British politics, which i am sure you know, labour and the Liberals could have formed a government together if they wished, even though the tories won the most seats, but the liberals decided to join the tories, I’m sure if you followed the news you would have known that, if you dont believe me, i can post you a few links. There is nothing undemocratic about an SLA and INA merger.

    And yes carry on loving your brother sunnis, we should all love our brothers. But can I ask you a question. when the saudi Sheik Mohammed Al Arifi publically and openly attacked ALL the shia, did your hero Allawi even dare defend his own self or the majority of his people, or was he concerned he might offend his masters the Saudi royals? Or any of our sunni BROTHERS come out speak out against him?

    Please answer the last question, and try not to get too emotional, because we could all get angry with each other’s responses not only you.

    Sorry Reidar, I know that Observer’s views might be closer to yours, but it does really scary me to think about sunni domination of Iraq. Like I said to you before, the experiences of my father and family makes me very wary.

  26. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, I’ll leave most of this for Observer, but please respect the right of everyone to remain anonymous if they wish. About Arifi, I am almost 100 per cent certain that the comments against Sistani were condemned by Iraqiyya; I’ll see if I can find a link – I think it was in January.

  27. Reidar Visser said

    Here is a reference to the condemnation I was talking about:

    واستنكرت القائمة العراقية الوطنية التي يقودها اياد علاوي في بيان وصلت ‘القدس العربي’ نسخة منه ما اسمته بـ’الخطاب التحريضي الذي اطلقه خطيب جامع البوادري في العاصمة الرياض وما تضمن من تطاول على الرموز والمراجع الكرام الدينية في العراق وبالاخص مقام آية الله السيد علي السيستاني (حفظه الله)’.

  28. Ali W said

    I apologize to Reidar and Observer, I was merely just mentioning that there is not much difference in our experiences in regards to Iraq. And nearly all British Shia Iraqis live in North London, so hopefully i have not given too much away.

    If there is a link about Arifi’s comment that would be great. I would also comment that he did not only insult Sistani but all the shia

  29. Reidar Visser said

    Here is the bayan straight off the Wifaq website:

  30. Ali W said

    Reidar, Observer, I’m wrong in regards to my last comment in regards to Ayad Allawi not speaking against that cleric. I’m quite embarrassed actually. It seems i have spoken with ignorance.

  31. Jason said

    Perhaps some of the concerns of the Iraqi people could be eased if Iraq passed some campaign finance laws requiring all financial backers to be disclosed? Or even go a further step by banning foreign money from election campaigns? It is anathema to successful democracy for a leader to be more beholden to foreign powers than to his or her electorate.

  32. observer said

    You have no idea who I am. Never lived in London and I hate that city. I have been in Iraq since 2003. I left Iraq in 1978. No more clues as I want to remain anonymous for now.

    As for the “allies” of Allawi… Let me turn over the question to you – are you happy with all the partners of SLA and INA? What do you think of the Sadrist movement? What about those who killed Ammar Saffar. Or how about Majeed Khoie? Or those who are responsible for the Zwiya Bank? Or the secrete prisons? The bottom line is that in politics, if you want to be “clean” then you are destined to be in the minority .

    Please read what I wrote carefully. I said “Allawi and Iraqia to me, today, is the ONLY viable secular movement”.

    I am not going to bother with further responses, as it is quite clear that you hold your She3a identity higher than your Iraqi identity. It is immaterial what I say as it is obvious you are not going to change your mind. I just want you to be aware of your attitude and how it influences your opinion and even interpretation os constitutional issues which should be above the fray of sectarian attitudes.

  33. Ali W said

    Observer, i too want change, and I too would love to build a stronger and more united Iraq. I would love for secterianism to end, however i need to be persuaded that we shia will not have our rights taken away, that the future massive mosques funded by the government will be going to the shia to make up for the lack of mosques that have been build or destroyed by Saddam. That we get an fair share of oil revenue, that those who committed crimes against the people are punished, and those who supported are banished from gvernment posts and civil service.

    What we want is the same thing, but until the fear goes, we cannot move away, and i fear for good reasons whuch i have mentioned in the comments replying to Faisal.

    II would have respected Allawi more if he spoke about Syrian/Saudi/Arab interference as well as Iranian. But he and his party only talk about Iranian, when there is obviously Arab interference as well, therefore his party is secterian and he has taken the role of being a shia face for the sunnis.

    I have the right to fear because of the past and present, it is for you and those shia of similar views to prove to your community why we should put our faith in INM.

  34. observer said

    jason, I fully agree. Further to that, I for one, would like to know how all the TV stations are being financed. It is not how the parties are finance, but all the “NGO’s” that support the parties. We have a need here for a 529 type regulation (I am referring to the US of course) and how the PAC’s are financed.

  35. Ali W said

    PS, I swear to God when I say this, but I would prefer Mithal Alusi to be the next PM, rather than anyone else. I know he is fair. An I know we would not differentiate between Sunni and Shia. I’m even prepared to forget his foreign policy mistakes because he would truly be good for Iraq.

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