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The Civil War in Iraq

Updated on August 19, 2010

The Ethnic Civil War in Iraq

Stable relations between ethnic groups are based on a contract between the groups. The contracts can be either written or unwritten, and determine the groups’ socioeconomic and political positions. The contracts are kept in equilibrium by the political system. When the political system changes the contract can be undermined and credible commitment dilemmas can be created, leading to violence between the groups; “Ethnic contracts can be undermined and problems of credible commitment created by changes in… the ethnic balance of power”. (Lake). The Sunni insurgency against the American presence in Iraq and the new Iraqi government, and the resulting backlash by the U.S. and the Shi’a, is a result of the break down of the ethnic contract between the Sunni and Shi’a and the inability of any participant in the conflict to create a new ethnic contract. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was an ethnic contract between the Sunni and Shi’a in which the Sunni had all the power, and in exchange guaranteed certain rights to the Shi’a, including basic human rights and the right to believe in their religion, free from governmental intervention, as long as the Shi’a didn’t revolt. The Sunni were a minority in Iraq, and would not have been able to dominate the state if previous occupiers, the Ottoman Empire and Britain, had not put them in a position of dominance; “The outside world had a considerable role in giving birth to the ascendancy of this community, in institutionalizing its domination, and ultimately in overthrowing it”. (Hashim, 61). When the U.S. invaded Iraq it overthrew the dominant Sunni community and replaced it with an elected government in which representation was based on groups’ percentage of the population. As a result the Sunnis went from being the most powerful ethnic group in Iraq to the least powerful. That destroyed the ethnic contract. The Shi’a and Kurds believed that the Sunnis had been oppressing them while they were in power, and wanted revenge, so they and their American supporters enacted policies that marginalized the Sunnis. As a result the Sunnis found their loss of power unacceptable, and they rebelled. There will never be peace in Iraq until a new ethnic contract is formed that is acceptable to all groups.

The first occupying government in Iraq to put the Sunnis in a position of dominance over the other ethnic groups was the Ottoman Empire. It took control over Mesopotamia in the sixteenth century, but did very little to govern it because it had very few resources to offer. Mesopotamia had drastically declined since the collapse of the Abbasid dynasty. It was lawless and inadequately developed, and populated by numerous antagonistic tribal groups. The Ottomans didn’t bother to subjugate the Kurds because they lived in the mountains, and saw the Shi’a as an agent of Iran, so they put the Sunni, who they shared a common religion with, in power. “The Ottomans looked with considerable suspicion upon the Shi’a of southern Mesopotamia, whom they viewed as a fifth column for Shi’a Iran. The Shi’a, in turn, elected to have nothing to do with the Sunni Ottomans… Shi’a suspicion of the Ottoman government never ceased… the government of the Ottoman Sultan that led Sunni Islam – was, in its essence, an usurpation”. (Hashim, 62). The Shi’a and Kurds had nothing to do with the Ottoman rule over Mesopotamia, which was corrupt and inefficient until the late nineteenth century. In 1869 the governor of Mesopotamia, Midhat Pasha, created an efficient and wide-reaching government. He relied on local officials, who were Sunni, to carry out his policies. The Ottoman army also began promoting Sunnis to officer ranks. When the dictatorial Sultan Abd al-Hamid took power in 1878 the Empire started to decline, and he stopped supporting the policies that were creating a modern government in Mesopotamia. The fall of the Ottoman Empire created a nationalist movement in Turkey. The Arabs who had traveled to Europe and received their educations at European universities or military schools began to compare Mesopotamia to Europe, and especially to Turkey. Those factors combined with a rise in literacy created a nationalist movement in Mesopotamia, especially among the Sunnis, and in other Arab provinces.

During World War 1 the British were fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and they took Mesopotamia from the Ottomans. The British occupied the country, but they couldn’t decide if they wanted to control it directly or allow it to self-govern under their direction. The Mesopotamians were enraged by the occupation and started to suspect that they would be under the direct rule of the British. “The prevarications of the British ultimately irritated and alarmed many of the regions inhabitants, who increasingly resented the ‘infidel’ presence and grew suspicious of the occupiers’ designs. The awarding of Iraq to Britain as a mandate further inflamed the passions of the populace”. (Hashim, 65). Those factors, along with the efficient collection of taxes, which the Mesopotamians weren’t accustomed to, incited them to revolt. The conflict began in the summer of 1920 when a British patrol was ambushed in a small town named Tal Afar. The British reacted by sending their soldiers to destroy the town and chase its occupants into the desert. The majority of the insurgency took place in the South, where the Sunni and Shi’a united against the British. The British were eventually able to crush the insurgency, but it was very expensive and cost a lot of lives. In order to resolve the conflict the British decided to stay in control of Iraq by co-opting local elites, which meant empowering the Sunnis. By 1921 the dominance of the Sunnis had been institutionalized, and the British appointed a foreign Sunni prince as king. He was dependent on the British and his regime was a puppet government for them. The Sunnis promoted Arab nationalism and had close relations with other Arab governments. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958, but the Sunnis were able to stay in power. Iraq was ruled by unstable nationalist and often religious military regimes until 1968, when Saddam Hussein took power. In order to perpetuate his rule, Saddam relied on external support for the Iran-Iraq War, profits from oil, which funded the government, and patronage to obtain support for his rule. Saddams’ regime created a large middle class that mostly consisted of Sunnis, who were mostly employed by the government. Saddam relied on the Sunnis to maintain his power, and their livelihoods were dependent on his government.

When politics is closely related to ethnicity, ethnic conflict can erupt. When the balance of ethnic power changes and the previously dominant ethnic group is no longer in power problems of credible commitment can occur. “As the influence of one side declines, previously enforceable ethnic contracts become unenforceable. The checks and balances that safeguard the agreement today become insufficient tomorrow… Recognizing this, the declining side may choose to fight today rather than accede to an ethnic contract that will become increasingly unenforceable as time progresses”. (Lake).

The ethnic group that is rising to power may take revenge on the one in decline. Even if they say they won’t, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so, unless the declining ethnic group fights to keep its power. The collective fear of the declining ethnic group that the newly dominant ethnic group will institute discriminatory and oppressive policies will cause them to rebel, triggering retaliation by the other side. That is especially likely when the government no longer has the ability to stop them from doing so; ethnic groups become even more fearful for their survival. In order to protect themselves they prepare for violence, making conflict more likely. Even when a government or an occupying power exists that has the physical capability to stop an ethnic civil war, if that government is widely perceived as illegitimate it will not be able to arbitrate between the ethnic groups, and find a solution to the problem. When there is a stable government it can arbitrate between groups and make them feel secure, as well as provide a way for them to try to take power peacefully. That is the most important function of government, and when the government fails to do that it looses legitimacy. The governments’ reliance on force instead of legitimate authority will actually make it seem weaker to the groups involved, because it is engaging in military operations so that it wont totally lose power. That will persuade the groups that they won’t be able to rely on it in the future, thereby increasing the collective fears of the groups, making conflict more likely.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq it overthrew the Sunni dominated government and destroyed the ethnic contract. The Sunnis were infuriated that the U.S. had invaded their country in order to remove them from a position of dominance, which they had held for over eighty years. “For the Sunni Arabs the downfall of the regime in April 2003 was not only or even primarily the collapse of power and privileges – indeed, many of them had little power and few, if any, privileges – but of the entire nationalist edifice that has been in existence for more than eight decades and that had identified Iraq with them”. (Hashim, 68). The Sunnis started to fear for their future because they lost their positions in the government, and could not see themselves as a part of Iraqi society in any way other than as the dominant ethnic group. The Sunnis are also afraid of what the Shi’a will do with their new power. The Sunnis believe that the Shi’a can’t govern in the interest of all Iraqis because the Shi’a never believed in the secular and nationalist ideology that was popular among the Sunnis, because they didn’t have any power over the government, so they didn’t have a reason to incorporate support for it into their belief system. The Shi’a instead relied on their religion as their guiding ideology. The Sunnis fear that the Shi’a, and especially the returning exiles from Iran, will implement an Iranian style theocracy in Iraq, forcing their own brand of Islam on the Sunnis, and make Iraq a puppet government of Iran. Their fears are intensified by the overt sectarianism of the new government. Many Sunnis believe that they are not a minority because they were in power for so long.

Politics is very important for ethnic groups because the government not only has the ability keep peace between ethnic groups, but also distributes resources to groups, including employment, and groups embody their material interests into political ideologies. In order to prevent civil war between groups, the government must be able to provide them with a peaceful means of setting their differences. That can mean that groups are either represented in the government through the electoral process, or that they share positions in the bureaucracy, or both. The ability of the groups to play a role in the government is largely determined by their ability to organize support, and the more powerful groups, the groups with a stronger political organization, have more power over the terms of ethnic contracts. Unless the interests of ethnic minorities are represented in the government, they won’t have any influence over the new ethnic contract. Even when minority groups are represented in the government, they may not have any power over the decisions the government makes. The less powerful groups will ultimately determine the viability of the ethnic contract by their choice to rebel against the government or not. “It is the minority, fearful of future exploitation and violence, that ultimately determines the viability of any existing ethnic contract. When the balance of ethnic power remains stable-and is expected to remain stable-well-crafted contracts enable ethnic groups to avoid conflict despite their differing policy preferences”. (Lake). Unless the majority addresses their needs the new ethnic contract will be impracticable.


The Sunnis do not have political parties that are as strong as the political parties of the other ethnicities because Saddam prohibited Sunni parties other than the Ba’th party. He was able to prohibit other Sunni parties more effectively than Shi’a and Kurd parties because he kept a very close watch on the Sunnis, because they had the ability to overthrow him. The Shi’a and Kurds have well developed and widely supported political parties because they were able to create those parties during Saddam’s rule. The Shi’a had support from Iran, which helped them build their parties, and the Kurds were independent from Saddams’ rule while they were protected by the U.S. between the first Gulf War and the current invasion. As a result of not having a strong political party, most of the Sunnis believe they are not represented in the current government. “What unites the Iraqis in the Sunni areas is their frustration and sense of being wronged because there is no one who represents them, speaks on their behalf, or expresses their aspirations. They were politically unprepared for the post-Saddam period, compared to the Shiites and the Kurds”. (Hashim, 73). There is no Sunni political organization or leader that is supported by the majority of Sunnis, and none of them have been able to bring the Sunni insurgents into the political process. As a result the only way Sunnis can have an effect on politics is through the insurgency. The difficulty that the Sunnis have of working legally in the political system is exacerbated by their belief that because they were in power for so long they are an important part of a legitimate Iraqi system of government. The Sunnis believe that because most of the elected officials in the new Iraqi government were elected on a sectarian basis, the government is illegitimate, and their rule was more legitimate because they weren’t using their power to only benefit their own ethnic group at the expense of others, or to force their own religion on others, which they believe the Shi’a want to do. In reaction to the sectarian nature of the new government and the growing conflict between Sunnis and Shi’a, Sunnis have become more religious. Leaders in the Sunni community knew that they had to be more involved with the political process in order to get the needs of their community addressed, so in December 2003 they set up the Majlis Shura al-Sunna, a political party that promotes the interests of Sunnis. The party has not received very much support because it has negotiated with the U.S., which has tried to win its support, so many Sunnis a participant in the occupation. As a result of the inability of any Sunni political organization to obtain widespread support among their community, the Sunnis believed that there would not be any chance that they would be able to have the new government address any of their interests, and they were shut out of the political process. Many of them blamed the U.S. and the new government for their political situation, and they believed that there could not be legitimate elections while Iraq was occupied, so they boycotted the elections in January 2005. When they realized that the Shi’a and Kurds had won by landslides in the election they became aware of the necessity of participating in the electoral process. If the Sunni political organizations are going to build any support in the Sunni community they will have to win the support of the insurgents, but they have been unable to do that. A major factor in the Sunni political organizations’ inability to win support from the insurgents is both the political organizations and the insurgent groups have diverse policy preferences and ideologies. The Sunnis were also unable to have an effective influence over the apportionment of the ministries. Part of the reason for that was that the Sunni organizations were unable to agree on who they wanted appointed; during the negotiations over the Defense Ministry they all submitted separate lists of candidates. The inability of the Sunnis to acquire an equitable number of assignments to the ministries was perceived by Sunnis as a result of discrimination by the Shi’a.

In order for ethnic minorities to have an incentive to cooperate with the government and not try to overthrow it or secede from it, their interests must be represented in the government, so that they have a stake in the government. In order to adequately represent their interests, and to tie them in personally with the government, they must have positions in that government, both in its political leadership and in the bureaucracy. Te majority can not set policy unilaterally, and minorities must have economic incentives to support the government, so they need to have some control over economic assets. All of these things must be done to ensure that no ethnic group can be exploited by another ethnic group. When ethnic groups believe they are being exploited by other ethnic groups that undermines stable relations between the groups. One of the most important factors in an ethnic contract is the distribution of resources. Those resources include employment with the government and governmental funding for the development of infrastructure. If the government doesn’t distribute resources to the ethnic groups equitably, the groups that receive less may start to believe that the only way they can improve their standard of living is at the expense of other groups. The only way for ethnic groups to cooperate is each group believes the other have justifiable concerns. “Unless each side views its opponent as honorable and having legitimate interests, relations are likely to be marred by a history of intended or unintended affronts that widen the social distance between groups and exacerbate fears among ethnic minorities that their children will be relegated indefinitely to second-class status”. (Lake). Failure to cooperate will result in competition between the groups, and when one group dominates the other, it will result in civil war.

In the beginning of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a policy central to the occupation was de-Ba’thification. The U.S. invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, and they didn’t want another Saddam to take his place, and removing the Ba’th party from power was seen as an important way of preventing other Ba’th dictators from coming to power. These policies were apathetic to Sunnis and ultimately resulted in their insurgency. “Coalition policies such as the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the Ba’th Party and indifferent treatment of the Sunnis seemed deliberately designed to ensure their marginalization”. (Hashim, 79). The Sunnis saw the removal of the Ba’th party from positions of power, such as when the Coalition Authority disbanded the military in order to remove officers appointed by Saddam and replace it with a new army, as an American attempt to marginalize the Sunni community. The Sunnis could accept the fact that they could no longer have all the power over the Iraqi government, but they could not accept what they perceived as the America’s attempt to remove all Sunnis from any position of power. These policies made them feel humiliated and dishonored, and that was totally unacceptable to them, because it denied them their right to have an equitable chance of having their policy preferences implemented through the political process. When external powers invade countries, in order to prevent an ethnic conflict from erupting, or to bring peace to one that already exists, they must implement policies that benefit all sides, or they will fail. The U.S. did not do that in Iraq; instead it discriminated against the Sunnis in the name of de-Ba’thification. The U.S. believed that it could ignore Sunni needs because they are a minority, they were wrong; the Sunnis revolted. “Bringing democracy to Iraq… cannot be achieved by the blatantly politicized notion that as long as we have the majority of the population on ‘our’ side (the 76 percent that is Kurd and Shi’a, and that says it is with us), we can safely ignore the grievances, aspirations, identity issues and material needs of that 22 percent (Sunni Arab and Sunni Turkmen) that has proved to be ‘obstreperous’”. (Hashim, 81). The U.S. denied the Sunnis any economic assistance, because they thought the Sunnis didn’t deserve it. In the summer of 2003 a U.S. officer asked the CPA for some electricity generators for the city his unit was stationed in, and the CPA refused because they didn’t want to seem like they were rewarding the Sunnis for supporting the insurgency. Instead of giving in to the Americans biased policies that discriminate against Sunnis, the Sunnis have chosen to fight, and in response the U.S. has retaliated against them, but it has slowly come to see that getting the Sunnis involved in the political process is an important factor in ending the insurgency.

The Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation and the new Iraqi government, and the resulting retaliation by the Shi’a, is a result of the destruction of the ethnic contract between the Sunnis and Shi’a. There will only be a stable peace in Iraq if a new ethnic contract is agreed to by all the ethnic groups in Iraq. That contract must address the allocation of positions in the government and of economic resources, and electoral rules and the distribution of seats in the parliament. It is likely that Sunnis will need a greater percentage of positions in the government than their percentage of the population in order to agree to the contract. That could be done by simply rehiring Sunnis who used to work for Saddam’s government, especially in the lower ranks of the military, and the majority would still have more power to make policy.

Works Cited

Lake, David, and Donald Rothchild. 1996. “Containing Fear: The Origins and

Management of Ethnic Conflict”. International Security. 21 (2): 41-75

Hashim, Ahmed. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq. (Cornell 2006).



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    • Corrbrias profile image

      Corrbrias 7 years ago

      This is obviously only about the ethnic issues that are going on there, and leaves out a lot of other important information.