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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dangerous Myth of a Disintegrating Iraq

Back in March 1991, when much of Iraq had risen in revolt against Saddam Hussein, posters of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini began appearing in southern Iraqi towns, where the population is overwhelmingly Shiite. Nothing could have been more calculated to give heart palpitations to the Bush administration of the day, since the posters signaled that the Shiite rebels were mere cat's-paws of the ruling Shiite mullahs in Tehran.

Fearful that the Iranians might be poised to help themselves to a large, oil producing chunk of a disintegrating Iraq, Washington withheld even moral support for the uprising, and Hussein survived to fight another day. So conveniently did the posters fit in with U.S. preconceptions about sectarian loyalties and divisions in Iraq that knowledgeable Iraqis insist they were produced and displayed by Hussein's own agents to stoke paranoia in Washington -- and achieved precisely their desired effect.

Twelve years on, inhibitions about displacing Hussein have obviously evaporated, but misconceptions regarding Iraq as a fragile entity, riven with sectarian divisions and prone to disintegration, persist. What might be called the American version of "Iraq 101" depicts an artificial state created 80 years ago by order of the British out of three distinct vilayets, or provinces, of the Ottoman Empire, in which the minority Sunni Arab population, most forcefully represented by Hussein, has always dominated the resentful Shiite majority, and the ethnically distinct (Sunni) Kurds in the north, not to mention the Turkomen and Assyrians and other small minorities. Hence it is conventional wisdom that Iraq could well fall apart if the Shiites -- "an underclass through Iraq's modern history," according to Iraq pundit Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations -- were ever given the opportunity to secede.

But while non-Iraqi experts may have little problem with the idea of an Iraq with the fractured nationhood of Northern Ireland or Lebanon, Iraqis themselves tend to vociferously disagree, often reciting their personal ties to other communities for good measure. "My mother is Sunni, my father Shia," said Fareed Yassin, who left Baghdad in the mid-1970s and now lives in Boston. "One-third of the Muslims in my high school graduating class were from mixed Sunni-Shia marriages, and that was typical of Baghdad -- and remember that everyone in Iraq is at most two relatives away from Baghdad."

Nor does he think much of the idea that Iraq is too young to be a real country: "So what if Iraq only formally became a nation 80 years ago. De Tocqueville had no trouble discovering an American identity, and the U.S. had only been going 50 years when he visited."

Indeed, Iraqi nationalism could be said to have manifested itself as early as 1920, when most of the territory that had been captured by the British from the Turks rose in bloody revolt against the new colonial masters. "The mistake we made in not adopting repressive methods earlier," wrote the British military commander afterward, "threw ... the Sunni townsmen and the Shiah [sic] countryfolk together."

Hussein Shahristani, a leading Iraqi nuclear scientist and a revered figure in the Shiite community, who suffered years of torture and solitary confinement for telling Hussein to his face that he would not work on a bomb, hotly decries the notion that Kurds, Sunni and Shiites cannot work together in a democracy. Although there have been a handful of instances of inter-communal strife, such as Kurdish-Turkomen riots in Kirkuk in 1959, Shahristani notes that they are rare and politically inspired. "In Iraq there has never been a civil war," he points out, citing not only the long centuries of tolerance between different sects but also different religions and races in what was once called Mesopotamia. "Iraq is a very old nation -- multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-sectarian for many millennia."

Violence against particular communities, he insists, has always been the work of a dictatorial government rather than popular movements. Even government campaigns against the ethnically distinct Kurds to quell their perennial efforts to achieve independence, argues Shahristani, never had popular endorsement.

My friend Anwar Diab, a Shiite who can claim a Sunni wife and a half-Kurdish son-in-law in his immediate family, points out that while the Sunni population has tended to hold most of the political power, the Shiites have hardly been confined to the underclass as a group. While the vast slum of Baghdad's Saddam City attests to the poverty of Shiite immigrants from the countryside, the Shiite community spans all social classes.

"Under the Ottomans and the British the Sunni went to school and became bureaucrats and army officers," he explains. "But the Shia had the economic power, either as big landowners in the south or in business."

Ahmed Chalabi, for example, leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, is not only a Shiite, but a scion of what was one of the richest banking families in Baghdad. Nor, indeed, have the Shiites always been totally excluded from political influence. A few rose to senior positions in the days of the monarchy. More recently, many have been members in good standing of Hussein's Baath Party, an unfortunate number of whom were torn to pieces along with their Sunni colleagues by angry rebel crowds in March 1991.

Iraqis often point to Hussein as the source and instigator of whatever inter-communal tension may exist. The core of his regime has always been exclusively Sunni, but that sectarian affiliation is far less important than the fact that he has ruled through his family, clan, tribe and associated tribes from around his home base of Tikrit.

Around the country these tribal networks, some of which encompass both Sunni and Shiite members, form a potent network of allegiance and power.

Hence, with Sunni tribesmen holding political power in Baghdad, they tended to hand out jobs and patronage to fellow family members and tribesmen. But "the Shia tribes do the same thing whenever they get the chance," observes Diab.

Hussein, no mere thug but a crafty political manipulator, has always been deft at turning tribal politics and rivalries to his own advantage. He has also, especially lately, shown a keen interest in pumping up otherwise quiescent sectarian rivalries, the better to reinforce his own position as the ultimate umpire of Iraqi politics. For example, in Basra, the staunchly Shiite principal city of the south, there is an enclave of Sunnis, who had traditionally enjoyed harmonious relations with their fellow Basrans. "After the 1991 uprising had been defeated," explains Laith Kubba, a veteran opposition activist, Hussein "used the Sunnis to punish or execute Shia prisoners. The idea was to make them terrified of their neighbors and therefore readier to fight for Hussein in any future uprising just to survive."

Given Iraq's history of relative sectarian harmony, Kubba is worried by reports circulating among the opposition that the United States plans to govern Iraq in the immediate postwar period with the help of a "Group of 10" Iraqis, each selected to represent a particular sect or ethnic group. "If Saddam planted the seeds of sectarianism in Iraq," he laments, "this will nurture them." Kubba cites the ominous precedent of Lebanon, the political system of which was organized by the French on a similar sectarian basis.

"Despite a strong, well-educated middle class," he points out, "the Lebanese have never been able to shake off this legacy." He fears that a misplaced belief that Iraq is merely a collection of distinct communities may lead his country to the same fate.

On the other hand, the coming months may show that Iraqi nationhood is greater than the sum of its parts -- even the Kurds are now seeking a more powerful role in central government, rather than independence, as a means of guaranteeing their liberties. If that is the case, then anyone who attempts to rule over Iraqis should recall the rebel hymn chanted by the Sunnis and Shiites who came together to fight the British in 1920: "O you people of Iraq, you are not prisoners/To submit your shoulders to the chains."

Andrew Cockburn is co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.